By Maria Ibari Ortega, Australian National University
Amid global panic and local fears of contagion, acts of violence and aggression have multiplied at the time of accelerated transmission of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Waves of news articles diversify into apocalyptic themes narrating the ongoing events as lived in different localities across continents.
As social distancing became globally enforced as a preventive measure, a repetitive theme struck my attention: the act of spitting on people. The first article I ran into online was published by a Mexican local news media from Yucatán state about an American foreigner, a middle-aged man arrested by the municipal police in Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, for coughing and spitting on a person (De Peso Yucatán, March 31 2020). The man was described as a “gringo tourist” who had spat on the face of a gas station attendant. He was taken into custody only for the violent act of spitting on somebody’s face and disturbing the public order, but because he was threatening the health of citizens. “We are in a sanitary situation and we must be prudent at all times, and above all, abide by the recommendations of the health authorities”, explained the local Chief of Police. The aggressor was immediately taken by the arresting officers to be tested for coronavirus, and apparently, was not charged with any criminal offence.
After conducting a further internet search, I became fascinated by the severity of the penal punishments assigned to the act of spitting in different countries during the COVID-19 crisis. I typed “spitting” and “coronavirus” in English as keywords into Google and obtained 8,720,000 results on March 31. These articles presented the act of spitting upon someone mainly as a life-threatening attack—an aberrant behaviour almost monstrous in its nature. As a violent assault, it evokes the abject and abjection associated with corporeal fluids and the horror of the pandemic crisis.
In The Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva elaborates the abject as what disrupts the “I.” The abject is the horror in response to the threatened dissolution of any border delimitating the interior and the exterior of the body: between purity and defilement, subject and object, or self and other. She locates the abject in crimes, corpses, and bodily fluids that are conceived as transgressions. In Kristeva’s definition, what causes abjection is not “lack of cleanliness or health”, but a disruption of identity, system or order by “[t]he in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (1982: 4).
The news articles also conjured the figure of the monster incarnated in the bodies of perpetrators who use their potentially deadly fluids—mostly saliva and blood in one case—to attack humans. Their ontological implications and varied social realities made monsters relevant for anthropological analysis.
Yasmine Musharbash and Geir Henning Presterudstuen have put the monsters populating diverse field sites at the centre of their ethnographic analysis (2014; 2020). They have contextualized monsters within multiple temporalities of social change and traced their social trajectories. Because anthropologists’ monsters “deeply affect the lives of those they haunt,” their local manifestations should be studied in detail to reveal how people relate and respond to them (Musharbash 2014: 2). To understand their contextual positions, we must recognize that—more than mere constructs—monster realities are indeterminate. As Musharbash explains, anthropological contributions of “locally comparative understandings of monsters show the global diversity of contemporary understandings of power relations, crises, inequalities, anxieties, and traumas” (2014: 2).
In the initial three dozen news headlines my internet search brought up, which illustrated the global distribution of cases, I identified tree main tendencies. The first tendency, which I call “Spitting monsters,” refers to offenders who were allegedly claimed to have the virus and who weaponized their bodily fluids against police officers and citizens. A couple of articles from the BBC (28 March and 30 March 2020) followed the case of a man in the United Kingdom who was sentenced to jail for 12 months, days after deliberately discharging his saliva onto two officers and having stated that he was infected. The Guardian (28 March 2020) covered several such incidents in the UK, including one where a man was taken into custody after having spat blood on the faces of police officers. Chief Superintendent David Duncan said, “this is extremely upsetting to victims and causes fear and increased anxiety at an already stressful time” (The Guardian, 28 March 2020).
A similar case was reported by Radio New Zealand, about three police officers put in isolation after being spat at by a man they had arrested and who tested positive for COVID-19. According to the news report, the offender faced two charges: assault with intent to injure and resisting police. Nonetheless, if the officers became infected, he could potentially be sentenced to prison with the charge of “infecting with disease” (RNZ, 31 March 2020). In these stories, perpetrators intentionally put lives at risk by projecting their corporeal fluids potentially spreading the coronavirus among people.
The United States has responded to such threats with extreme measures, as reported by Politico (March 24, 2020) in an article that includes a link to a memo from Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, US Department of Justice. The official document informs that under federal terrorism laws, those who intentionally spread coronavirus could face criminal charges. Because coronavirus appears to meet the statutory definition of a “biological agent” under 18 US Code § 178, offences considered pandemic-related crimes, like the “purposeful exposure and infection of others” with COVID-19, “potentially could implicate the Nation’s terrorism-related status.”
A second tendency I call “Monster’s fears and the imagined other.” Here I include news stories where offenders also used their saliva to attack, but instead of targeting police officers, they used their bodily fluids against other specific subjects—nurses and individuals with Asian background. In associating the discriminated and racialized bodies of their victims with the virus, perpetrators identified these bodies as the targets of their hate, anxiety and fear.
According to The Independent (March 20 2020), England’s chief nurse and the director of policy of the Royal College of Nursing, both expressed their concerns for the country’s community nurses, who have been spat at and called “disease spreaders” by people while visiting patients in their homes wearing uniforms. Susan Masters (director of policy of the Royal College of Nursing) considered the abuse as “abhorrent behaviour.”
In another news storing, The Daily Mail (March 26 2020) reported the horrific abuse of a young nurse in New South Wales, Australia. The article included the video the nurse shared in her social media account about being spat on her face by a patient at a hospital. She explained how the attacker excused himself by saying she was “going to get sick anyway.” The patient/attacker was suspected of having coronavirus, although it was not confirmed in the article. According to a source cited, such violent attacks are believed to be triggered by “frightened people who think they are at risk of catching the virus from healthcare workers.”
Hate crimes like these have proliferated with racist attacks around the world. In New York a police officer reported an attack against an Asian man who was spat on the face by a younger attacker in Brooklyn (New York Post, March 25 2020). When asked for an explanation, the offender was quoted as addressing the victim with “You f–king Chinese spreading the coronavirus!” Two days later, a newspaper headline informed that “Asian-Americans report nearly 700 racist attacks in a week,” and being spat at was one among the offences (New York Daily News, March 27 2020).
According to India Today (March 23, 2020) citizens in the northeastern region of India are being subjected to heightened racism and discrimination during the coronavirus pandemic. The article included photographs of a young Manipuri woman who was spat on her face and called “corona” by a man in Delhi. Local policed filed a complaint against the man under Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code for “outraging modesty of a woman.” The article’s author explained how “people are letting the hysteria come out in shameful and disgusting ways” because of their “fear” over the virus.
In a third category of news stories, objects were identified as the receptacles of the offences and the mediators of potentially infected fluids. I refer to these object-centered attacks as “Monsters’ material mediations.” In the “Crime” section of the International Business Times (March 28, 2020), an article introduced the case of an expat working in Saudi Arabia infected with coronavirus, who faces the death penalty for spitting on shopping carts, coins and doors after being arrested in the Al-Baha region. A prosecutor stated that “the expat worker’s actions amount to first-degree murder.” Accordingly, in the Saudi context his conduct “is religiously and legally condemned.”
All these stories have been part of the ongoing “coronavirus horror.” These horror stories illuminate the ambiguity separating the virus—the non-living entity—from human bodies, and convey the affects motivating the “monstrous bodies” of offenders and the abject nature given to perpetrators’ biological fluids.
In this commentary, I have briefly explored the ways online news sources portray a real fear of indeterminate monsters: viruses, spitting aggressors, harmful bodily fluids, invisible enemies, contaminated organisms and unconventional weapons. The events narrated here made me reflect on the social and cultural implications of risk and security framing the links between trans-corporeal violence, the fluidity of hate, anxiety and fear, and abject corporealities.
I bring these themes to the conversation on the global crisis raised by the coronavirus pandemic to introduce the politics of abjection of self and others, the circulation of affects, and the reproduction of bodily weapons as seen through the critical lens of monster anthropology.
Kristeva, Julia (1982) Powers of horror: An essay on abjection. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia University Press, New York.
Musharbash Y. (2014) ‘Introduction: Monsters, Anthropology, and Monster Studies’ in Musharbash Y., Presterudstuen G.H. (eds) Monster Anthropology in Australasia and Beyond. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 1-24.
Musharbash Y., Presterudstuen G.H. (eds) (2014) Monster Anthropology in Australasia and Beyond. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
Musharbash Y., Presterudstuen G.H. (eds) (2020) Monster Anthropology: Ethnographic Explorations of Transforming Social Worlds Through Monsters, Bloomsbury, London and New York.