6 July 2020
On a crisp autumn day in Melbourne, my phone has several missed calls from an Indonesian friend. I call back to see what might be wrong with a heavy heart. As has been the case over the past several weeks, since the beginning of social distancing and travel restrictions that stem from the COVID-19 pandemic, he has grown increasingly restless and confused. Usually frequent posting on social media, his feed has slowed as days and weeks are spent at home, alone, with next to no support from the state. He is lonely, afraid, cut adrift.
As borders closed — first national and then state borders — and police were deployed to patrol public space in cities around Australia, many queer migrant friends found themselves in a delicate position. One, who had surgery planned in another country, struggled to find a way to be allowed back into the country after she had departed. The livelihood of many others, relying on short-term labour in the gig economy and some on sex work, was obliterated overnight. As networks and forms of sociality extended between different houses, the simple slogan “stay at home” made little sense. Already subject to extensive surveillance on basis of gender presentation and race, these new restrictions backed up with extraordinary police powers, required additional vigilance. One friend told me how previously ordinary visits to her kin of choice required studied attention to dress and comportment before departing home. Every street crossing presented a possible danger of interrogation and detention before reaching the safe haven imagined in her distributed definition of home.
For her and others, the one size fits all restrictions of the “lockdown” — with its stress on an absolute value of life set apart from domains of society and economy, as Didier Fassin recently highlights — paralleled existing policies linking health and biosecurity. This was so for HIV positive queer migrant friends in particular, who live at the intersection of two pandemics. Anxieties about leaving home at risk of being surveilled and punished led to missed appointments for life-saving testing and treatment. Such experiences highlight the need to consider the meanings of restrictions within existing racialised politics of heath globally. This includes histories of managing HIV in Australia. Framed consistently as an external threat to Australia’s way of life, policies concerned with the containment of HIV did not disappear, but took on new form even as easy movement across borders became taken for granted as a component of economic growth (Brotherton 2016).
Migrating to Australia, and then accessing HIV medication in Australia, is a task fraught with difficulty for non-citizens. Australia’s immigration policy restricts entry on basis of HIV status. And as activists outlined in an interview last year, access to HIV medication and treatment once in Australia is not easy to achieve: it relies on know-how of doctors, good grace of pharmaceutical companies through a time-consuming scheme known as “compassionate access.” Coupled with policies that criminalise “deliberate transmission” (which bring with it maximum of 25 years imprisonment in the state of Victoria), the containment of disease is never only about saving lives but is always already morally and politically constituted. Moreover, it is less a question of life that comes after COVID-19, but more a question of how and in what ways existing concepts of securitisation in the guise of health, may further entrench forms of social inequality.
In a powerful essay, HIV/AIDS activist and scholar Allan Brotherton incisively drew out twin racialisation and individual responsibility at the core of Australia’s management of health in the population. His prescient description of Australian HIV policy as a form of “psychic containment” (Brotherton 2016, 52) linked to histories of colonial dispossession are worth bearing in mind at this important political juncture. Referring to the rise of policies that limit migration on the basis of HIV status, he described how “notions of sexual predation … and immigration of people with HIV were powerfully conflated … the gay community an imagined site of disease prevalence at once safely contained within the nation, yet constituted as a place apart” (p. 49). The imposition of previously unthinkable forms of spatial containment, first of state borders, and then calls to extend them to particular suburbs in the name of an ultimate goal of preservation of life suggests how easily this “place apart” can be drawn and redrawn.
It is for this reason that I have turned to queer migrants’ past, present and future interactions with Australia’s governance of health as a call to imagine other possibilities. It is a vital moment to demonstrate solidarity with them. Indeed, it is possible that one day we may too find ourselves in a place apart. In the meantime, living through two pandemics, it is my queer migrant friends who suffer disproportionately from such a limited political imagining.
Brotherton, Alan. 2016. ‘“The Circumstances in Which They Come”: Refiguring the Boundaries of HIV in Australia’. Australian Humanities Review 60 (November).
Benjamin Hegarty is McKenzie Fellow, School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of Melbourne and an IPCS member.