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Letters to Al #2: communion
some thoughts from "On Immunity", by Eula Biss
Hello! Welcome to Footnotes from the Void. This letter to my friend Al, who writes the After Tutup newsletter, as part of an experiment in sustaining friendship through correspondence and response. To read Al’s previous letter, go to this link then subscribe to receive future updates.
The Footnotes from the Void newsletter is written by me, Samantha, from Kuala Lumpur. For more essays on Malaysian life, and grumblings about fiction, please go ahead and subscribe. It’s free of the oppressive demands of capitalism!
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Don’t you ever wish we lived in far less interesting times?
I feel like everyday a new, terrible thing happens and what follows on is a scramble to make sense of it, to find a way to patch a wound and snuff out infection before it sets in. I am thinking a lot about infection and pain and vaccination (more on that later), and in these panorama-dingdong times, the questions and aimless thoughts are peaking to the point of being nearly overwhelming.
You asked me in your last letter what I had to face, and it’s taken me a while to come up with a good answer to it. I think today, in particular, I am facing the lack of care we have in our community. Everyday a new wound; each week, more unrequited love. More intentional and intended hurt. It’s sobering, but I suppose your Camus would say this is what makes “love of life”.
You turned 30 the other day, and we had a virtual birthday party.
It was so much fun to sit together and hear each other’s voices, and I was thrown back to that same day one year before. Do you remember? I was falling in love with someone terrible then, and we had a party in that swanky hotel suite; we stood elbow-to-elbow slicing cheese, and it was so hot outside, and then there was V’s muddy, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cake. I was wearing a bronze skirt, and everyone sat higgledy-piggledy all about the room, talking about nothing. The air felt electric and soothing, you could fall asleep knowing you were safe and well-loved.
Which is all to say, happy birthday. I love you. We’re here still.
You’ve probably seen the many Instagram Stories I’ve posted about Eula Biss’s “On Immunity”. It’s such a weirdly prescient book to read now, despite it having been written back in 2014. At the time, Biss was responding to the H1N1 influenza that was spreading quickly throughout the USA, and her son was still a young toddler. Throughout the book, Biss grapples with the implications of vaccinating her child, of the meaning of vaccines and inoculation in our collective cultural and social consciousness. There is so much within the text that speaks to our current moment, but the central question Biss continually asks is: what do we owe to each other?
If we imagine the action of a vaccine not just in terms of how it affects a single body, but also in terms of how it affects the collective body of a community, it is fair to think of vaccination as a kind of banking of immunity. Contributions to this bank are donations to those who cannot or will not be protected by their own immunity. This is the principle of herd immunity, and it is through herd immunity that mass vaccination becomes far more effective than individual vaccination.
The words “immunity” and “community” do not share a root origin, but it’s impossible not to sense the connection between the two. Without the collective, individual vaccinations have little to no effect. “Herd immunity”, despite what Boris Johnson’s wayward policy might suggest, is not something that can simply take place without the active participation of the citizenry, and I don’t mean that word in relation to things like the state, or passports. I mean “citizen” in the ancient Greek sense: ownership and responsibility and in relation to one another.
In Shakespeare’s Roman plays, there are the main characters and then there are the collectives. The main characters—generals, kings, mutineers—are always conscious of that living breathing mass. The many are more important than the one, Shakespeare seems to imply, and each character is constantly worrying over how to address the many. In Julius Caesar, Brutus and Mark Antony are not trying to speak to each other, to convince the other of their innocence—the subtext of the former’s guilt is plain to see—it’s the crowd on the edge of rioting who matter. When the Titus ignores the citizens’ desire to crown him in Titus Andronicus, he sets off a bloody chain of events.
This week, the first shipment of vaccines arrived in Malaysia. Over 30,000 vials of the Pfizer/Biotech vaccines landed at KLIA and were given an armed escort to the Ministry of Health, at which point the first jabs will enter the arm of the Prime Minister, the Health DG and then front-liners, expanding out in an ever growing net of immunity. It’s important to see these individuals getting this vaccine, but never doubt that they are simply proxies for the bigger battle ahead.
Surveying the conversations I’ve had around me regarding the vaccines, I’ve been struck by how individual these conversations have been: about choice (private, public; Russian, Chinese, American, British); about timing; about location. To vaccine or not to vaccine, that’s the question. It also hasn’t escaped my notice that most of these conversations have taken place among people who are accustomed to having a choice, to the determination of self-hood and trajectory. It’s people with money, with freedom, with the brain capacity to consider all the loopholes they can take to avoid getting vaccinated. People who can afford to pay for a private hospital and pull strings in the event of infection.
Biss tells us in “On Immunity” that we can trace the use of vaccines to ancient China and India, to cow farmers in Europe, milkmaids who were inoculated against smallpox because they got small amounts of the cattle’s blood in their system. Vaccines were forced onto poor people, Black people, immigrants and the powerless so the powerful could remain safe. Biss says, “Immunity is a public space. And it can be occupied by those who choose not to carry immunity.” Money and privilege allows the rich to remain safe without having to participate in the public space of immunity. Benefit without participation is the true reward of wealth. It’s what keeps us separate, keeps us from remaining in communion/community with one another. Biss continues by then connecting the refusal to vaccine to forms of civil disobedience, a comparison that shadows the class resentments that fuelled the Occupy Wall Street movement:
“a privileged 1 percent are sheltered from risk while they draw resources from the other 99 percent.”
I know at the moment you are, like me, working your way through David Graeber’s excellent Debt: The First 5,000 Years. The late Graeber was one of the central voices of the Occupy movement, and with other leaders, created the Debt Collective. The Debt Collective pools money in order to buy student and medical debt—then they abolish it. Destroy it with a singular decision to place the other, the collective, before themselves. To me, their gift to students and patients is a kind of inoculation against debt bondage, against a capitalist economy determined to keep us sequestered from one another, under the heels of the powerful. A vaccine against poverty and desperation. A public bank to sustain everyone.
Or, as Biss writes: “However we choose to think of the social body, we are each other’s environment. Immunity is a shared space—a garden we tend together.”
I’m exhausted, to be frank, of offering scientific explanations, of plucking out the latest research papers to read, to offer explanation, to argue in favour of why any vaccine is a good vaccine, why your 90-year-old grandma should absolutely get vaccinated, why it’s important to sign up at all. I’m exhausted to knowing parts of my world, my city, my family and circle of friends, are oblivious to their extractive behaviour. Their refusal to vaccinate themselves—their insistence of perpetuating vaccine skepticism, whether they’ll cop to it or not—that is a refusal to protect me and others around them.
And if we are meant to be in community with one another, if we are meant to belong to each other and, in citizenship, be responsible for each other—what does it mean that a significant portion of this community claims the benefits of community without the labour it necessitates? Sometimes, this despair fells me. It makes me want to run away to Singapore, or some other country where I will have no citizenship. No responsibility for the price of a voice.
Other times, it makes me cling closer to the community I do have.
Today, the Federal Court declared the Selangor Shariah’s Court decision on “unnatural sex” as unconstitutional. It’s not the beginning of a queer love revolution in Malaysia, but it’s something—more importantly, it’s something good. Queer people have always been acutely aware of the importance of community, how it can strengthen individuals in the face of oppression, inoculate us from the poverty of love in this system that can only regard itself. I am joyful for us, even if I am also tired for all of us. Grateful for all of us.
So Al, what are you grateful for today?
With love and power, from the Void,