Pre-Travel Testing Flowchart from Hawai’i Tourism Authority

Pictured is a flowchart explaining the pre-travel testing program to be implemented October 15th when Hawai’i reopens its borders for the first time since its lockdown in March. This reopening comes with the ongoing pressure from the tourism industry, a major part of the state’s economy, to reintroduce recreational travel. Allowing increased travel from the mainland United States and the rest of the world has faced opposition from those worried about the limited medical capacity of the islands and the probability of visitors spreading coronavirus through tight-knit local communities. This debate builds off the tensions between the Indigenous Hawaiians who have been historically dispossessed of land and resources by the tourism industry since the illegal annexation of the islands in the late 19th century and a settler-colonial state government. The reopening system charted here requires visitors acquiesce to a high degree of surveillance by the state government. All test results must be shared with local authorities and any quarantine must occur in a hotel room. While this system certainly seems to reduce potential contact between infected visitors and the island population, the infrastructure of implementation maintains risk—consider the step “minimize interactions/monitor” which follows path 1 and 2. Likely intentioned to reduce transmission in case of false negatives or falsified test results, these pathways still require individual responsibility to account for some degree of protection. The power dynamics between tourists and local communities, as it is exacerbated by COVID-19, is simplified into the iconic shaka and the phrase “no restrictions.”


UC Training Video

In preparation for the limited return to campuses, the University of California system is requiring an online training be completed by all personnel who may be spending time on campus. In this training, the Coronavirus: Prevention and Protection, a variety of strategies for reducing COVID-19 transmission. Throughout the video, an ominous string score accompanies the images. The sound creates a sense of tension which is intended to convey the gravity of the pandemic. The viewers should interpret the tone as an imperative for them to follow the guidelines in the video. Building upon the unsettling score, the video opens with two visual imaginaries for the global spread of the virus to actuate the individual responsibility of the viewer to protect themselves against it. In the first, a growing counter of COVID-19 cases is centered over an image of a masked Asian man on public transportation (0:09). Bold font indicates the counter begins in China. As the case counter continues increasing, the background changes to various stock images of people in masks as the country designation moves from Italy to Spain to Germany. The United States is curiously removed from this global narrative. Instead, the United States is introduced into this pandemic imaginary through not an epidemiological figuration but a map of the country at night (0:46). The light clusters, representing the light pollution from metropolitan areas, acts as a stand in for the disease clusters in those same cities—reiterating COVID-19 as an “urban” problem rather than a national problem. Even as the voice-over emphasizes the ever shifting situation of a pandemic, the static representation of the United States as removed from the global and paused in the internal spread of disease does not adequately prepare workers for the still contagious reality of the university in the pandemic.  

The John Hopkins Heat Map

One of the most striking images to occupy our screens in the last few months is this global heat map of the COVID-19 pandemic made by researchers at John Hopkins. A heat map, says Wikipedia, is “a data visualization technique that shows the magnitude of a phenomenon as color in two dimensions. The variation in color may be by hue or intensity, giving obvious visual cues to the reader about how the phenomenon is clustered or varies over space.” This heat map has become popular and widely shared as a representation of the spatial spread and concentration of the pandemic: red marks out hotspots and black marks those zones that have escaped the worst depredations of the virus. It underlines the pandemic as a truly global event. Beside the map, a host of panels and numbers – on death, recovery and total cases – intimate the intensity of the pandemic. In modern western thought, numbers carry the authority of objectivity; they lay direct claims to truth. What grabs our attention most is a panel which lists total cases by country (and then by states and counties), indicating the distribution concentration of the virus. Despite its global spread, the country and region wise break up reminds us of our national, local specificities – fuels our immediate perception of risk. Such images and panels despite help mobilize nationalist affect despite its global nature. Countries were quickest to impose nation-specific travel bans, often with explicit racial undertones (such as the US travel ban on China). They made crossing national borders an even more surveilled and stringent exercise instead of shoring up healthcare facilities. The John Hopkins map repeats this as epistemic violence: it glosses over how community transmission happens, how national care infrastructures are to be mapped out, and how risks are unevenly distributed even within a nation/region due to historical inequities. 

Airborne Risk

One weekend during the expanse of quarantine, I found myself driving across the state during unprecedented wildfires. The twofold danger of the fires exists not only in the physical path of destruction from the blaze but the smoke which would blanket the American west coast. The highways I drove on were obscured by masses of orange-grey smoke and the towns I moved through on the border of Washington and Oregon, albeit briefly, boasted the worst air qualities in the world. Six months after becoming accustomed to wearing a mask to prevent COVID-19 transmission, I found myself doubly reliant on the protection to reduce the toxic air I inhaled each time I stepped outside. The wildfire smoke exemplifies the risks of atmospheric dispersal—a discourse of risk which has been driving many of the conversations of SARS-CoV-2 as the virus is increasingly understood to spread through airborne transmission. These dual disasters ask us to rethink the neutrality of air in the discourses of disease and environment.   

Air is a vital part of the environment and, as such, it tends to elide notice until something is amiss. Timothy Choy (2012), in his investigation of differential environments in Hong Kong, poses air as “a heuristic with which to encompass many atmospheric experiences” (127). Air may be inescapable but its quality, content, smell, feel, and experience are spatially variable. Importantly, air is also in constant motion—a property that “might offer some means of thinking about relations and movements—between places, people, things, scales—means that obviate the usual traps of particularity and universality” (Choy 2012, 125). As Choy tracks through his investigation of air quality discourse, air embodies different values which, unlike more solid forms, are reliant on the measurements of that which is substantiating them. To return to the example of the wildfires, a common discourse was one of frustration that, during the already existing quarantine of the COVID-19 pandemic, outdoor activities had become unsafe. Such rhetoric is predicated on having a safe place in which to quarantine and residing in no immediate danger from the blaze. Smoke is substantiated as an inconvenience rather than a grave danger to the self and surrounding environments. Elsewhere, the smoke would surely serve to substantiate more precarious realities.

Smoke signifies air which asks for interpretation while other particular components of air draw less attention to themselves. Awareness of the unconscious act of breathing comes with sensory input—that is, smells often serve to alert us to a change in the air. If breathing acts as the conduit between the air and the body, olfaction is one of the few systems which allow our conscious tracking of the atmospheres which permeate the body. Olfaction, as theorized by Hsuan L. Hsu (2018), “illuminates the biopolitical and affective dimensions of breathing—an involuntary activity that incorporates unevenly distributed material atmospheres into differentiated bodies and populations.” Smelling is then the sensory substantiation described by Choy which denaturalizes air into a measure of material difference. Smoke announces itself through an immediately distinct scent. This smell indicates a causal event. Just as smoke might substantiate varied risk realities over spatial and class divides, more persistent forms of air pollution beget different levels of awareness from those accustomed and unaccustomed to the environment. Similarly, the byproducts of quotidian consumption diffuse into our lives generate more subtle changes than the dramatic natural catastrophe of a wildfire. Time, place, and individual limits coalesce into these atmospheric interpretations. Airborne disease, however, poses the anxiety of the undetectable. Even the common cold, one of COVID’s fellow airborne viruses, leaves no sensory trace as it transmits to a new host.

Although disease is now understood to spread through particles imperceptible to human senses, past theorizations of transmission posited disease to be related to smell. Through the 19th century, “the miasma theory of disease emergence attributed diseases such as cholera to invisible atmospheric vapors emitted by decomposing organic matter” (Hsu 2018). While there is a definite correlation to justify this theory (consumption of spoiled food resulting in sickness), identifying miasma as the cause of disease was a flawed attempt to connect illness to human sensory understanding. Increasing COVID-19 denialism illustrates how airborne disease continues to challenge cultural perceptions of disease transmission. Consider the transmission of HIV as a foil. HIV is spread through direct contact with blood, semen, or vaginal fluid containing the virus; or, as we might say, it is a disease spread through touch. This was amplified into the fear and stigma which developed to accompany an HIV diagnosis. Recall the number of patients refused treatment due to their HIV diagnosis at a time when health practitioners were terrified of transmission from casual contact. Conversely, COVID-19 is a disease which seeps through the lowered barriers of casual contact. It stretches our sensory understanding as it is transmitted despite reduced physical contact in the aerosol particles which come from speaking, sneezing, and breathing. How do you substantiate the risk of COVID-19 when there is no sensory signal of risk?


Source: USA Today

Visualizations of COVID-19 which try to substantiate airborne risk have proliferated as a response. The diagram from USA Today shows in bright blue the potentially infected droplets which infuse the air surrounding the person. The heightened visibility of disease is meant to confer the dangerous reality of casual contact. A bolded “within 6 feet” echoes the six feet apart which has become emblematic of imaging this coronavirus. This image can be read as a means of avoiding transmission from others or, perhaps, more importantly, resisting spreading the disease yourself. As COVID-19 travels unevenly across racial and class lines, the concept of the self as that which can negatively impact the environment becomes increasingly important. Fear is often individualizing to the opposite effect. Returning to the concept of air as a heuristic, the transmission of COVID-19 has substantiated, in the absence of sensory ties, to xenophobia and disbelief. Disease does not exist in the air but in the bodies of the scapegoated Other or it simply does not exist at all.

Existing with the smoke made me painfully aware of breathing with each excursion outside residing in my lungs long after returning to the safety of indoors. The irony of this heightened awareness during a respiratory infection pandemic was not lost on me. Realistically, my breathing had been at risk since the first cases in January. Even the pandemic offers a more coherent sense of risk than the impact of long-term environmental pollution which is transforming metropolitan and industrial atmospheres. This is not to rank the potential calamities diffused through air but to highlight how air not only moves between sensing and non-sensing, but habitual entanglement and crisis awareness. A reliance on sensory understanding, as with the smell of smoke, allows for an unconscious disengagement from what might be transmitted beyond the reach of human senses or what might become normalized beyond conscious sensing. Rather than seeing air as an emptied backdrop to life, continuing to refigure air as that which moves between bodies, objects, spaces, and scales excavates a more complete methodology for understanding differential environments of risk.    


Choy, Timothy. 2012. “Air’s Substantiations.” In Lively Capital: Biotechnologies, Ethnics, and Governance in Global Markets, edited by Kaushik Sunder Rajan, 121-152. Durham: Duke University Press. 

 Hsu, Hsuan L. 2018. “Smelling Setting.” Modernism/modernity 3 (March).