The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed anew that health care is always a public concern, regardless of efforts to privatize it. From one perspective, each virus has its own agency, opportunistically travelling from person to person by way of droplets, touch, or blood. But viral paths of travel are necessarily shaped by infrastructure, narrative, and political organization. Responses to Covid-19 in particular have been structured by federal and state jurisdictions and constrained by borders, bringing into relief how the health of individuals is inexorably collective, even if access to health care is unequal and unjust.
The human devastation wrought by the coronavirus has forced even the United States, a country sharply divided by pre-pandemic debates about the balance of private and public health care, to take action in ways that resonate with the goals of universal, state-funded health care. The US government has now paid billions of public dollars (with help from “pandemic saviors” like Dolly Parton) to universities and pharmaceutical companies for vaccine research. The federal government has legislated that the vaccine should be free. The risk of collective contagion and an overwhelmed hospital system has unleashed resources for health care in a way that seemingly endemic diseases such as diabetes or cancer have not.
With a dramaturgical structure shaped by intensity of speed and scale, an epidemic, in the words of Charles Rosenberg (who was writing about HIV/AIDS) “takes on a quality of a pageant—mobilizing communities to act out propitiatory rituals that incorporate and reaffirm fundamental social values and modes of understanding.” Responses to HIV/AIDS and to Covid-19, however, also reveal how the propitiatory rituals of a pandemic may be just as focused on disrupting and challenging social values—whether acting up or unmasking instead of affirming unitary values.
When The Immanent Frame editors invited me to reflect on a TIF essay I wrote to introduce my 2011 book Spirits of Protestantism, I quickly realized that when writing that book I was not thinking with the lived experience of a pandemic. I did begin the book with questions about the “mysteries of transmission,” asking: “How does a virus pass into or over one person and not another; how does healing come to this patient and not that one? How can a mother cradle her feverish child all night and escape the flu . . .?” The flu epidemic of 1918-19, however, did not even rate a mention in the chapter focused on the early twentieth century, where I discussed the rise of medical missionaries and the irate critiques that liberal Protestants heaped on Christian Science and Pentecostal faith healing. And while I was trying to reveal the connections between Protestant “anthropologies of the spiritual body” and the inequity and racism of health-care systems in North America, I was not doing so at the scale or depth that the Covid-19 pandemic, combined with movements for racial justice and Indigenous sovereignty, has provoked among scholars of religion and Indigenous studies today.
It is not as if there were not pandemics to think with, including HIV/AIDS and SARS. One of my most vivid memories of research for that book was working in the Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity, attached to the Mother Church of Christian Science in Boston. I was noticeably pregnant, with a terrible and noisy cold, and it was in the middle of the 2003 SARS pandemic. My hometown, Toronto, was the subject of a travel alert. As I worked in the archives, I felt acutely the theologically attuned discomfort of coughing and blowing my nose in the sacred space of a denomination that believes that matter is error and that the “divine Mind” is the true source of healing.
Nevertheless, the archivists were remarkably generous in helping me and my research assistants access the voluminous files of newspaper clippings that the Christian Science “Community on Publication” had gathered to keep track of their critics. We read through an archive of vitriol in which white liberal Protestants joined forces with medical doctors to castigate non-biomedical approaches to healing. On the way home, I worried that I would not be allowed to board the plane and feared ending up in a US hospital. I managed to get through customs without coughing, was spared from quarantine, and found out shortly afterward that my shortness of breath was due not to my growing baby, but a bad case of pneumonia. I did not wear a mask.
Were I writing Spirits of Protestantism today, I am certain that I would have read those newspaper clippings at the Mary Baker Eddy Library quite differently. I would have had a heightened awareness of how the flu pandemic of 1918-19, which killed more than 50 million people across the world, shaped how North American Christians fought over the relative efficacy of spiritual and biomedical healing in the 1920s. Many of the people I wrote about likely would have had memories of family or friends who had died from the flu. They would each have had their own pandemic narrative that made sense of the mysteries of transmission—of the providence or capriciousness of contagion.
Realizing my pandemic amnesia is yet another confirmation of the interpretive power of positionality and the never-ending work of learning about the limits of one’s own knowledge as a scholar. The act of reflecting on how one’s life experience, social positioning, embodiment, and expertise shapes what one sees and what one ignores is the responsibility of all scholarly writers. For me, as a white Canadian woman committed to public health care, one of my goals in writing Spirits of Protestantism was to provide a narrative alternative to much of the “religion and healing” literature. I wanted to show that in addition to North American religious movements that challenged the authority of biomedicine, the spiritual politics of healing also had a long liberal genealogy very much enmeshed with medical expertise and the rise of state-funded health care.
When thinking with theoretical tools about religion and the body, we can think across the individual body, the social body, and the body politic, as Scheper-Hughes and Lock famously pointed out. But we are always doing this thinking from somewhere: our own web of stories, privilege, and privation; our own embodiment as racialized, gendered beings with divergent experiences of medicine as risk or resource. As SSRC President, and now US Deputy Director for Science and Society, Alondra Nelson’s research on the public health initiatives of the Black Panther Party has shown, struggles for access to effective health care in North America are profoundly racialized. Black women led efforts to gain access to free health care in the United States at the same time that they had to practice “medical self-defense” against unethical and racist medical experimentation and interventions, including forced sterilization.
In pointing to the significance of Christianity for the ways that access to health care came to be seen as a human right and a social obligation—not a commodity to be paid for—my own work has been rooted in a hope for truly public health care. The current pandemic has shown that this hope is far from realized. The element of luck and risk in Covid-19—why it passes some people by, leaving others with a mild flu or permanently disabling or killing others—is not simply explained by way of misfortune, spiritual prophylaxis, or scapegoating. Contagion is at once intimate, biological, infrastructural, and political.
In Canada, despite more complex infrastructures of public health care in place than in the United States, Covid-19 has also disproportionately affected Black and other racialized people, especially in South Asian communities. Personal support workers in long-term care homes, workers in meat-packing plants, and employees of large logistics warehouses processing the deluge of online shopping are all at greater risk of infection as a result of their workplace, not, as some critics have suggested, because of their participation in religious rituals.
By contrast, in the early part of the pandemic, Covid-19 rates among Indigenous nations were below the national rate in Canada, at least until the autumn of 2020. According to Anishinaabe doctor Lisa Richardson and her coauthor Allison Crawford, Indigenous-led public health plans “grounded in self-determination” can be credited for this early success. In an effort to keep the cases low, Indigenous leaders called on the federal government to ensure that Indigenous adults were a priority group for access to vaccines. They argued for this priority partly in recognition of Canada’s treaty obligations. But their urgency also stemmed from the devastating effects of centuries of broken treaty promises: many Indigenous reserves live under boil-water advisories and do not have clean water to drink or to wash their hands.
By the winter of 2021, rates of Covid-19 for Indigenous people living on-reserve had climbed to 74 percent higher than the rate in the general Canadian population, a number that did not even include Indigenous people living in cities. This rise has everything to do with jurisdictionally based injustice, in which the federal and provincial governments avoid responsibility for Indigenous health care by attributing it to each other. With the advent of vaccine distribution, Indigenous leaders and public health professionals have developed new protocols to encourage vaccine uptake among the many Indigenous people, especially Elders, who hold a strong distrust of the Canadian government. Maad’ookiing Mshkiki/Sharing Medicine, a virtual hub sponsored by a Toronto hospital and designed by Lisa Richardson and others, tackles the issue of vaccine hesitancy by acknowledging its relation to Indigenous experiences of colonialism. Framed by a storytelling approach, the hub broadens the very idea of what counts as medicine to include biomedical, traditional, and spiritual forms of authoritative knowledge.
Virus transmission and obstruction are not so mysterious after all, when infrastructure, injustice, and contagion narratives are taken into account. The death and mourning brought by Covid-19 are a collective weight born differentially. How we carry our responsibility for public health once we circulate in bodily proximity once again will have everything to do with the commitments that we espouse, enact, and live.