Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Covid politics – Beware of the Ministry of Purity
Javier García-Martínez, Independent researcher
The acclaimed online role-playing game Guild Wars: Factions released during 2011 an addition to its former storyline through an episodic expansion called Winds of Change. This took part right after an epidemic on its own in the Guild Wars: Factions universe that desolated Cantha, a fantasy territory based upon a melting pot of different Asian cultures. A big part of the Canthan region was infected by a dangerous plague called the ‘affliction’ that turns its recipients into mutated humans. Following the story, an institution named as the ‘Ministry of Purity’ was formed in order to deal with this pandemic and get rid of the disease. Ironically, the Ministry of Purity is found to be corrupt itself, spreading lies and being a mere excuse for a racist and authoritative political agenda.
Outside of this digital fantasy, the notion of purity is a key concept in new emergent sociotechnical infrastructures and their political practices during and after the Covid-19 outbreak. During these times we have our own newly formed purity technologies and entanglements, our own Ministries of Purity.
Beware of the Ministry of Purity, because it will try to classify societies and cultures into a health/illness dichotomy.
I would have never thought that after coming to Beijing, on October 2019, being in China for the first time in my life, I would experience first-hand the beginning of a worldwide pandemic. One which took some time to cross borders, but once it did, it could not be stopped.
Since the first announcement of the Coronavirus outbreak, Beijing has seen a varied shift as to who should be classified as impure. Some Beijing businesses banned entrance to Wuhan residents when the news spread, established demarcations of free-of-virus spaces. Purity politics are not just about government policies, they also imply entanglements of ordinary practices and materialities.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Spanish citizens were unsure about eating in Chinese restaurants and buying in Chinese shops, while some verbally abused Asians throughout the country. Anything labeled as Asian is considered Chinese, and at the same time, infected. This is part of the purity politics, as it tries applying the pure health/illness category to a vast and varied group of people, homogenizing them. This purity practice adds this label to any person that could possibly be Chinese, even if wrongly so. Purity practices imply a homogenization that may open the door to different discriminations, such as racism, ageism and sexism. Comprehending the limitations and dangers that take place through these simplifications is needed in order to apply any form of care practices.
Since the outbreak, it is common practice in Beijing to be subject to temperature checks every day. Restaurants, bars, shops, commercial areas, compounds… a person at the entrance, usually a man, will be waiting for you to ensure your temperature is between the safety levels considered as ‘healthy’. Although very similar to each other, each of these areas stablished its own ‘healthy’ measurements. Perhaps 36-38 C is conceived as the normalised safe range, however some places go as low as 36.8 C as the maximum accepted temperature reading. The thermometer and its guardian are the keepers and dividers of the pure spaces.
Any temperature reading outside of that interval means to be banished to the only place an infected person should be, the fever clinics habilitated in the hospitals. As Lucifer cannot possibly exist without God (and hell without heaven), nor does the hospital exist without the health/illness dichotomy. Infected places are the pure spaces of those that fall into the infected category, the opposing pole to those labeled as healthy.
Thus, my proposition is that purity and its technologies rely on a fixed system of opposing dualities, as they coexist dependently on each other. Any concepts not classifiable on these terms must be forced to fit into one of these two categories, and once fit they are homogenized with their category partners.
As Douglas noted, pollution and danger are relative to the purity systems that divide the clean from the unclean . Purity is just one of the many vertices of modernity, while pollution is banished to the interstices and the margins of the closed concepts. Modernity itself implies stablishing hermetic dualities that do not allow room for hybrid spaces .
In this dichotomy, the in-betweens are places of uncertainty and danger. Asymptomatic and cured cases are looked at with a feeling of uneasiness. Some cured cases have reported a symptomatic comeback after being discharged, so reintroduction to the healthy/infected dichotomy is not always completely assured. Asymptomatic cases are differently labeled throughout the world, sometimes being counted as confirmed cases, while other times they are not.
Some claims have been made criticising the lack of appliance of the viral load concept into the epidemiological models. The viral load implies not everyone is at the same risk; a low viral load inside the body could be quite different to a high viral load in terms of rate of recovery, symptoms, transmission rate, etc. However, the Ministry of Purity does not work with the uncertainty of the space between its conceptual frontiers.
A practical simplicity is understandable under emergency contexts. However, it may pose a threat if we do not comprehend the limitations of the model itself. What is left behind by these categories? What is not? What is forced to fit into this dichotomy? What happens to the impure interstitial spaces? Is it a necessary evil? Is it not?
Beware of the Ministry of Purity, because it will try to stay in fixed positions even in the shifting sands.
Purity is essentialist, as it means the defence of immanent ideals considered universal and not subject to criticism. Purity politics find individual privacy as something that cannot be questioned, any arguments against it will be classified as negative, even if that means a public health concern. Freedom of movement is a democratic right even if public health is at risk. Freedom of speech is defended at all costs, even if that means fake news with dangerous consequences. Expert advice from any Chinese professional is not accepted, even if they have more experience on these matters, as their government is not democratic, and their research is not built upon Western values.
Purity politics are the fixed positions that do not want to readjust to the sociotechnical change we are going through, or any other change, justifying danger as inevitable for the sake of the ideal itself. That does not imply we should shift to the opposite pole of the spectrum, not every aspect of our sociotechnical cultures should just go through a radical change. It implies a reevaluation of the positions we take for granted as universal, both through time and space, readjusting and evaluating our options in every different context to find better care practices.
In the Guild Wars game fictional storyline, Ashu Yuudachi was a boy praised because of his miraculous immunity to the ‘affliction’, and who eventually became a symbolic icon of the Ministry of Purity. However, a mask covered his face, hiding the fact that he had the disease, the immunity was a lie, and he was impure himself. The purity conceived by the Ministry was just an excuse for its political agenda. As we and our sociotechnical relations are all inevitably impure, immanent pure ideals are merely a lie.
A lie that in certain contexts may or may not care for us.
Beware of the Ministry of Purity, its practices, materialities and infrastructures, because it is an important part of our present and it will be key to our near future.
Beware of the Ministry of Purity because we all are its ministers.
 Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. New York: Praeger.
 Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
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