The following is an excerpt from Epidemic Illusions: On the Coloniality of Global Public Health, physician and anthropologist Eugene T. Richardson’s upcoming book about the ways modern public health practices help perpetuate global inequality.
Richardson’s “flash fiction” story is a tongue-in-cheek tale that lampoons the use of progressive ideas and language to entrench the positions of those who already benefit from pre-existing power structures. The story’s heavily satirical use of academic terminology—in a book published by MIT Press—should not be taken as a criticism of academia, but rather as a critique of the politicians and pundits who use progressive lingo to forward not-so-progressive agendas.
We begin with a white upper-middle-class male settler-colonist privilege-exerciser called Quesalid, after the famous shaman of the Pacific Northwest (settler-colonists have no qualms naming people or places after human groups they’ve decimated). His childhood was typical—summers in Rangoon, luge lessons.
He attended a private boarding school, then some Ivy for college—a common path for mediocre children of rich families attempting to reproduce their elite position in society. It was there that he cemented his masculine identity by participating in the ritual alcohol-poisoning of an acquaintance named Vilmer.
After graduating—diploma in one hand and trust fund in the other—he set out to explore the world. During a two-week stint voluntouring in some godforsaken place his country helped underdevelop, Quesalid became known for his prowess at chucking bags of rice. Around that time, he was transformed by the sight of an aged man, then a sick man, then a corpse, then an ascetic.
At the expat lounge nearby, he decided to take some magic mushrooms to process these Four Passing Sights. While tripping, he met a man named Francis, who told him a scintillating tale:
Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a won- derful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each “eye” of the net, and since the net itself is infi- nite in dimensions, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring . . .
Quesalid came to the next day in a pineapple field and decided to use his trust fund to scour the world for similar revelations.
In Abya Yala, he discovered vincularidad, an “awareness of the integral relation and interdependence amongst all living organisms (in which humans are only a part) with territory or land and the cosmos.” In China, he came upon the Hua-yen tradition, which teaches the mutual interfusion and interconnectedness of all phenomena. In Africa, he took part in Ubuntu, that is, the universal bond that connects all humanity. Last and least in Europe, he experienced radical relationality, after which he underwent an identity crisis.
It suddenly dawned on Quesalid that as a white male citizen of the First World, his privilege derived from a racialized, patriarchal, hierarchical, asymmetrical, imperial, heteronormative, neoliberal, and Euro-American-centric order.
“You are a colonizer through and through,” he thought. “You can feel it your bones, which have never known stunting. It courses through your veins, through which malaria never has. Every fiber of your being has been nurtured by centuries of predatory accumulation.
“This might serve as a good start to a book,” he concluded.
Epidemic Illusions will be published by MIT Press on December 22, 2020. Drawing on postcolonial theory, medical anthropology, and critical science studies, Richardson demonstrates the ways in which the flagship discipline of epidemiology has been shaped by the colonial, racist, and patriarchal system that had its inception in 1492. For more information about the book, click through to its page on the MIT Press website or follow Richardson on Twitter @Real_Ironist.