Un/Doing human-microbiological coexistence in time of Covid-19

Luká Senft, Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences; Tereza Stockelova, Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences; katerina kolarova, Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences

Posted: August 5, 2020

The public and private management of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic produce a number of side effects that range from economic disruptions to ecological and social reconfigurations of the planetary collectives. For instance, de Wilde, Koopman and Mol (2020) observe: We are left with the concern that the vigor invested in cleaning away the coronavirus comes with a lot of toxic, pollution-type uncleanliness. In this workshop we are interested in how the pandemic management impacts the human coexistence with varied forms of microbial life. On the one hand, the massive sanitary measures designed to kill the coronavirus (notably the use of surface disinfectants and hand sanitizers) impact heavily microbial multispecies communities in the public, work and domestic spaces. On the other hand, some of the lockdown folks report to have had more time to cook, ferment and care for their microbial companion species.
This workshop grows out of our ongoing multispecies ethnography-based project Microbiological citizenship between antibiotic and probiotic regimes concerned with the coexistence of human and microbial life. Amidst the current pandemic, we propose to examine various regimes of hygiene, care and practices of the human-microbial coexistence, and the negotiations of more-than-human space in the times of Covid-19.

Due to the need for physical distancing, we propose a discussion in a virtual space. We invite the participants to share with one another their experiences and practices of making clean/safe households and robust/immune bodies. We are interested in the sanitary, culinary and health practices the participants invent and employ to make their households shareable with and co-habitable for microbial life. We ask the participants to prepare a short 5 minutes presentations speaking to the questions this workshop process. As a part of this presentation, we invite the participants to include photographs or other visual materials (drawings, graphs etc.) or videos that document the practices of doing and undoing of micro-human coexistence. The presentations will inform the subsequent open debate.

By focusing on the doing and undoing of the human-microbiological coexistence in time of Covid-19, we want to foreground the inseparability and overlaps between the practices of cleansing, expulsion (of the foreign bodies) and the co-habitation and incorporation thereof. What actually changes when human-microbial entanglements are transformed by the new modes of hygiene and household procurement? How locating and timing matters in these reconfigurations?

de Wilde, M.; Koopman, W.; Mol, A. (2020). Clean in Times of Covid-19: on Hygiene and Pollution. Somatosphere, May 8. http://somatosphere.net/2020/clean-in-times-of-covid-19.html.

Thinking about the un/doing human-microbiological coexistence against the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, we would like to focus our collective reflection around the following three larger thematic clusters:

1. How did you negotiate, modulate and shift your cohabitation with non-human and microbiological agents? What forms did your everyday negotiation with microbiological agents take during the Covid-19 pandemic?

2. How does the experience of the pandemic impact your approach to and your practices of research ethics? How does it impact your thinking about the mutual relationality between you and your research partners, the research field, and human as well as non-human agents?

3. Did the Covid-19 pandemic change your relationship to the natural sciences? Did it impact where and how you see tensions, conflicts or possible synergies between the humanities, social, and natural sciences? How have you utilised and navigated the epidemiological knowledge in learning how to live with the new viral agent?

To start the discussion about the ways in which we are contributing and (co)habiting in the corona multispecies world we offer few quotes from our joint field diary that we have kept since the middle of March 2020, the start of the lockdown:

We order some Thai. 30 minutes later, the delivery awaits outside. We use an elevator to get to the ground floor. The house has a special entrance space. There is a small extra hallway right behind the entrance door. You have to dial a code to open another set of doors – only then you can enter the house. This small hallway finds a new purpose now. The tenants use it as an impromptu safe-space for picking up their orders. This is the procedure: the delivery person is standing outside, the customer is waiting inside. They both wear masks to cover their faces. The hallway between them, they see each other through the glass of the two subsequent doors. The delivery person enters the small space in between the two sets of doors, leaves the delivery on the floor and departs from the space. When the door is closed, the customer enters to pick up the delivery and then leaves the room too. They nod at each other. The handover is finished. The room between the doors is a liminal space for a negotiation of a contact; space where inside and outside can cooperate in a limited way. This handover of the food is a result of our imagination of creating a safe-space. I´m not sure if it really works. However, our liminal room helps us to ritualize our safety, to perform our safe-space. (March 25)

Bringing the shopping inside, I create a system of home quarantine for the groceries. Stuff that needs to be refrigerated is washed off in soapy water, I let it sit with the soap leather, rinse only after a period of time to destroy the lipid surface of the virus. I organize the rest in boxes to stay in the hallway. However, I do not have any precise information about how long the groceries could be contaminated with the virus for. So, again, a version of a laicized expertise – also reinforced through the debates and sharing of our everyday practices (that may slowly become ritualized) in our small research team. I do know that the efficacy of all of these procedures is dubious, yet all of it feels like a fun play too, so I carry it through even though I know very well that I will not be holding it up for too long. As I wash the groceries, I take a picture of the juxtaposition of items on the counter that I recognize as items representing different relationships and different modes of cohabitation with microbes: the organic waste for worm composting, a sauerkraut-in-progress (not visible in the image) and a jar with fresh sourdough starter that I am trying to set up for the first time. Since the beginning of the quarantine, I have been experimenting more with fermentation. This juxtaposition makes me think about how we differentiate between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ microbes; between the ones that we fear, ones that we cherish and multiply, ones that we wear masks to prevent from entering our bodies, and the ones we welcome to enter us and our bodies to inhabit our intestines and help us fight the unwanted, ‘dangerous’ microbes, such as the SARS-CoV-2. (April 2) 

I had a work meeting at the Ministry of Culture. I did not take public transport and walked across the river to get there. I have come to realize that I can walk most of the places in Prague within an hour. And as the weather is nice and there are much less people in the streets than in the pre-pandemic times, walking is my preferred (well, actually an exclusive) means of transport. I walked there with my colleague, we did not wear face-masks but put them on upon entering the building. The Ministry was rather ridiculous with regards to their epidemiological measures. We were asked to provide ID cards at the reception and fill in a questionnaire asking a few questions regarding COVID-19, such as whether we visited a risk territory within the last 14 days, or whether we were in contact with someone infected or quarantined. Yet, we were supposed to use a shared pen to fill in the questionnaire So many vectors of contagion! The porter walked us to the office of the vice-minister we were supposed to meet. The two guys in the office did not wear face-masks. We did not shake hand. There was a short conversation if it is OK for us to take the facemasks off, actually we concluded that the two guys represent more risk to us than we do to them: they meet many people daily, they were in the Parliament recently, while A. and myself are still mostly at home. I tried to keep distance from others when finding my place at the table and also avoided touching communal stuff in the office. I am approaching and acting upon the coronavirus much more consequential than the Ministry, I come to think. (June 1)