Criminology and the medical industry might not seem connected at first. TheBody, a well-known HIV/AIDS resource, proved otherwise in a webinar that took place on Wednesday, April 15. TheBody presented a webinar entitled “Policing Pandemics.” Four panelists discussed the dangers of criminalization during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moderated by senior editor Kenyon Farrow and associate editor Mathew Rodriguez, the panel featured Catherine Hanssens, founder and executive director of The Center for HIV Law and Policy; Andrea Ritchie, researcher-in-residence at the Barnard Center for Research on Women and founder of the Interrupting Criminalization Project; Trevor Hoppe, assistant professor of sociology at UNC Greensboro and author of “Punishing Disease: HIV and the Criminalization of Sickness” and Breanna Diaz, policy director at Positive Women’s Network.
Hoppe opened by reminding viewers of the deep-rooted history of criminalizing disease. Hoppe frames Trump’s intentionality and use of the phrase “Chinese Virus” by discussing a history of similar behavior during epidemics. In the face of fear and unease, it is easy to blame certain groups and communities. More often than not, the groups blamed are based on stigma around class, gender and race.
Hoppe cited a bubonic plague outbreak in San Francisco between 1900-04, where Chinatown was targeted and exclusively quarantined by the government. He also discussed Mary Mallon, better known as “Typhoid Mary,” who was quarantined for life. While a number of carriers were documented at the same time, a low-skilled woman is still largely blamed in history books for spreading typhoid. Even in our recent history, stigma drove the scapegoating of a sexually promiscuous gay flight attendant for spreading AIDS in 1987. Clearly, blame shaped by prejudice and fear is not new to America.
“It looks a lot like history,” Hoppe said.
The group then moved on to discuss policing of space. With the new laws regulating public space during the pandemic, many rulings contradict themselves. Diaz cited an example in Virginia, where it is illegal to cover a portion of your face in public, yet the COVID-19 grocery store regulations call for people to wear face masks. A black man was already arrested for following store policy but breaking state law. Another person was arrested on the grounds of “reckless conduct” for coughing in the direction of police officers.
These contradictions in regulations and law allow for discrimination and policing of specific groups. Ritchie added that arrests are often violent and allow more opportunity for the spread of disease. She also pointed out the practice of “broken window policing,” a theory that suggests that eliminating visible signs of crime will prevent more serious crime.
Criminalization of disease also leads to heightened surveillance culture among law enforcement. Diaz discussed multiple instances of heightened surveillance, including sharing addresses of infected COVID-19 patients with first responders. Also listed was Kentucky’s use of ankle monitors to track COVID-19 patients and those within the same household who have disobeyed quarantine orders. A participant in the webinar chat added that citizens living on Maui Island, Hawaii are being tracked via cell phone due to the pandemic.
These measures blatantly ignore that asymptomatic groups are known to be a key factor in continuing the spread of the disease and thus is a misuse of data sharing.
Ritchie added that while our first reaction is to police groups and spaces, we should be asking our leaders for other options. Hoppe jumped in, saying that disease and epidemics are social mechanisms. People act as community members and not individuals during times like these. He encouraged the group to ask more questions. Rather than blaming people who go out in public while sick, Hoppe suggested we instead question policies and access to resources.
The webinar was very informational thanks to its expert panelists. The chat was also impressive and acted as a second dialogue to the topics. One participant brought up the issue of domestic violence, saying their community’s Intimate Partner Violence Shelter was beyond capacity. Another participant discussed immigration and COVID-19, saying 50 percent of U.S. deportees to Guatemala are testing positive.
Resources were exchanged in the chat, which included a letter from the Positive Women’s Network urging congress to stop criminalizing COVID-19, a handout offering reasons to release people from prisons and jails without electronic monitoring, resources on COVID-19 Support, Advocacy, Gender and HIV from The Well Project and an analysis on HIPAA and public access to COVID-19 data.