We share the planet with over 380 trillion viruses right now. Some of these powerful pathogens can kill us and even bring the world to a halt — as the novel coronavirus did in 2020.
Viruses teach us how “undeniably connected we are and how important it is to care for one another,” according to Steven Thrasher, a journalist and academic.
That lesson seemed to have been lost, he said, when President Joe Biden recently declared the pandemic “over” while appearing on 60 Minutes.
“It’s indefensible,” Thrasher said. “It’s extremely insensitive, given that thousands of people are dying every week.”
In his new book, “The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll when Inequality and Disease Collide,” Thrasher writes that COVID-19 made “millions, if not billions, of humans consider for the first time how living with a common virus can make a person feel like a pariah.” Thrasher’s masterful storytelling and meticulous reporting provide an important framework to help us understand why viruses can have disparate outcomes in communities of color.
Thrasher, who earned his Ph.D. from New York University and has spent decades writing about the HIV and AIDS epidemic, writes about 12 social vectors, including racism, ableism, the law and austerity, that help create the viral underclass.
*This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When covering the pandemic in Chicago, I wrote about the same dynamics outlined in your book and it’s an important framework. What is the viral underclass?
I first heard it from activist Sean Strub, who was using it to talk about how people living with HIV live under a different set of laws. I started to think [how to] use it as a framework, when the COVID-19 pandemic happened, and use it as an analytic [tool] to understand why certain kinds of people keep ending up in the pathway of viruses, and why they have disparate impacts on their health, particularly disparate impacts with their deaths. I started to think of it this way, because I could see in the early COVID-19 pandemic, that the same kinds of people who were affected by HIV and AIDS were initially being affected by COVID-19, even at a geographic level that first super deadly wave.
Before the moment of infection, incarceration, and poverty, racism, homophobia, ableism, all affect people’s bodies in ways that they’re going to have disparate impacts with viruses if they encounter them.
You describe in your book prophylaxis as the “practices and physical objects that can prevent the transmission of communicable diseases.” How did it play out during this pandemic?
Prophylaxis can be something that’s very physical. A condom can stop the transmission of HIV, Ebola, Zika and a number of other pathogens. It can also be something like a mask or face shield.
Everyone is not at equal risk. They’re having very different levels of risk, depending on what kind of work they have, the conditions of their work, the decisions of their employers and the decisions of the state.
There’s educational levels of prophylaxis, there’s economic levels of prophylaxis —people who have access to a home are much safer than people who are unhoused either on the street or in shelters with lots of other people. Economics plays a big role as well.
What is the myth of white immunity? Do you think this myth was reinforced during the pandemic after we saw that COVID-19 was killing Black and brown Americans disproportionately?
There is an immunity that comes with whiteness — to a degree, on average, white people have better health outcomes, they economically do better. But like all forms of immunity, it is not complete, it is not everlasting, doesn’t apply to all white people. They have less risk but sometimes they’ll think they have no risk, which is not true. Social science has shown that when more white people understood that COVID deaths were happening mostly to non-white people, the less that they cared. But that’s also at their own peril, because hundreds of thousands of white people have also died of COVID-19. White immunity will make white people act in ways that are not in their own self-interests.
Let’s talk about Michael Johnson’s case. A Black gay man sentenced to more than 30 years in prison for alledgedly not disclosing his HIV status to his sexual partners. Johnson was released in part because of your reporting. What can we learn from the ways in which the government has criminalized people living with HIV?
The case was extremely chilling. I sat through the entire trial. What I learned from that was that society has an easier time blaming an individual scapegoat than dealing with the very messy, difficult, complicated and economically challenging things that must be addressed with pandemics.
Michael had one of the worst prison sentences ever given for someone with HIV, as if somehow this pandemic were his fault. At a time when between 35 and 40 million people were living with that virus, it’s completely out of scale. It is not realistic or humane in any way to think of locking up 35-40 million people with HIV, because they all got HIV from someone, and you couldn’t lock them all up. That wouldn’t solve anything and that wouldn’t be humane or ethical. But what really frightened me in the COVID-19 pandemic was seeing a similar dynamic happen. There were a lot of very violent arrests in the first few months for not socially distancing, or not wearing a mask, or being out after curfew. Almost everybody that the NYPD arrested, cited, beat up or threw to the ground, were all Black because there’s this misperception that the viruses are Black or racialized.
The chapter entitled “parasite” was an indictment of capitalism. Why did you include this chapter?
Capitalism is a major reason why we have pandemics in the world. We see examples of this over and over again. There’s a phrase I’ve heard from AIDS activists who have used it since the mid-90s: “Science won the battle, but capitalism won the war.”
What they mean by that was from the early 1980s, there was terror and sadness about all the death happening around AIDS. It took 15 years, but eventually, medications became available. It’s a real kind of miracle of science. Science won that battle. But then capitalism won the war because tens of millions of people don’t get the pills, a million people a year still die of AIDS. That’s because of capitalism. It’s because of intellectual copyright and trademark that corporations did not want to share with other countries. They wanted to make a profit. That’s outrageous because the drug development for the HIV medication, as with COVID-19, was at some level funded by the state. Massive state resources go into the development of these drugs and treatments. But private corporations find a way to capture that and stop it from being shared.
The same thing happened with the COVID-19 vaccines — Pfizer, Moderna.
Capitalism itself economically structures the society and relationships such that there’s an underclass or viral underclass. It produces unequal health outcomes and it rations out treatments or withholds them to make a profit. The system itself breeds illness.
Help support this work
Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.