The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide

The Viral Underclass is a Leaf Non-Fiction book in social studies, exploring the relationship between viral outbreaks and marginalized groups. Steven Thrasher looks at this topic through the lens of COVID-19 and HIV epidemics. He argues that viruses expose are interconnections and interdependence. Inherent in these connections are the societal structures and inequalities. Thrasher draws a line between a plethora of societal ills (racism, capitalism, the law and the carceral state, abelism, speciesim) and enhanced susceptibility to viruses. With a virus, these marginalizing forces only exasperate the divide between an underclass and the privileged. This divide shows up in the “myth of white immunity” or the different response to the HIV and COVID pandemics. In the former, the powerful saw HIV as “only” affecting a fringe group (gays) whereas the COVID pandemic could affect anyone. What viruses reveal is that the barriers between groups are imaginary and we are all interconnected. In that spirit, Thrasher proposes that solution is a community-based response of care and responsibility for each other. One key point that he returns to is the shifting of responsibility onto individuals. Viruses require collective action, but society, particular American Society pushes the responsibility for action on. The American value placed on rugged individualism makes it very difficult for us to see

One topic I had not thought about was HIV transmission laws. Thrasher tells the story of Michael Johnson who was convicted for not telling his partner his H.I.V. status. One can understand the logic of a law against transmitting viruses. Giving someone a lifelong, fatal disease harms them and if someone does this intentionally, we would want to create a law against this harm in the same we would for the harm done by an assault. However, as this book painfully shows, this law will be unequally applied against marginalized groups. Further, it creates perverse incentives to not discover your H.I.V. status so that you can’t be prosecuted for knowingly transmitted it. Finally, H.I.V./AIDS is no longer a death sentence may not even reduce your life expectancy with modern drugs. Some would say it falls into the category of a manageable disease. So, why is it given separate prosecution status from other transmissible, but manageable, diseases such as HPV or herpes?

The stories and questions raised in this book are bogged down in the Thrasher’s style. The sourcing is not literature based and ranges from news stories to tweets. The most compelling material is the first hand reporting and less the sociological theories Thrasher construct atop it. He is very leftist and anti-capitalist. I have a hard time believing that this book would receive fair consideration by a centrist or right-of-center reader. The indulgent nature of the book harms its message. For example, Thrasher’s anti-capitalism chapter is a long (spoiler-ridden) summary of the movie Parasite. Most gratingly is the injection of the author’s banal stories and feelings. These issues are personal and one he feels passionately about. You would expect him to reflect his experiences and that come through in the work. Certainly this happens, however at points it crosses a line into sloppy indulgence bordering on narcissism. While telling the story of a trans activist seeking medical care, he felt it necessary to tell his story of having a bad experience with a medical receptionist. While quoting an idea about capitalism, he had to interject that the quote was from his ex-lover. Why? Unclear. Notably absent from Thrasher’s discussion is the global south or developing nations. He discusses immigration and refugees, but spends little to no time on unequal vaccine distribution between the North and South. Instead, his major foreign critique lies with Greece and the EU over austerity budgets because he had spent time there when a gay activist was killed.

Thrasher traces 12 Social vectors to the transmission:

  1. Racism
  2. Individualized Shame
  3. Capitalism
  4. The Law
  5. Austerity
  6. Borders
  7. The liberal carceral state
  8. Unequal prophylaxis
  9. Abelism
  10. Speciesism
  11. The myth of white immunity
  12. Collective punishment
    1. Viruses expose the cracks in our society where there is inequality
    1. Marginalization can increase viral susceptibility, but viruses also be used to justify increased marginalization
  • 13: 12 social vectors that enable RX between Viruses and marginalized
  • 22-23. Government budgets & policing outweighs housing and health expenditures
    1. People should not be vectors, vectors are the structures and system
    1. HIV laws are counter productive and incentivize not learning your status
    1. With the patient zero narrative, blame shifts the from society and structures to individuals
    1. COVID-19 spans the social hierarchy
    1. Viruses expose our inter connections and the frailty of barriers
    1. HIV laws are based on an immutable Characteristic
    1. Fundamental cause: lack of resources leads to differential outcomes. A greater impact to the lower social hierarchy.
    1. Austerity budgets shift risk to individuals
    1. Austerity primes populous to attack marginalized groups
    1. Austerity before and after in american cities
    • West Virginia mining towns
    1. Economic despair allows addiction to flourish
    1. Stigma -> shared addicts, homeless, refugees, marginalized
    1. Solution is community based response of care and responsibility
    1. Border policing defines an underclass, viruses serve as pretext to control flows
    1. Clinton crime acts & reinforcement of the carceral state
    1. Carcerality -> unemployment & homelessness
    1. Racial HIV rates comparison between pre/post ARV drugs
    1. “Homonormativity”: demobilized gay politics that supports existing structures


  • healthcare (181)
  • education and freedom (183)
    1. What if U.S. had mobilized against AIDS the way it did COVID?
    1. Economic precariousness and poverty mentality effects who gets vaccinated
    1. Serosorting, partner selection based on health status
    1. Changing focus on who is effected impacts response
    1. Vaccine hesitancy: willing to risk having child die from preventable disease rather than risk autism
    1. abelism: privileging the abled over the disabled
    1. We are interdependent
    1. COVID vaccines were not easily available to the disabled
    1. Speciesism: Idea that humans are superior to animals
  • 217 Speciesism crowds animals and can lead to zoonotic spillover
    1. Exposure to animals and crossover is is classed
    1. Myth of white immunity makes them needlessly susceptible
    1. Immunity comes from tactile and societal sources
    1. Stigma of incarceration
    1. Viruses, lead to levels of alienation
    1. Defunding of addiction treatment during the PandemIc
    1. Loss of leaders compounds the impact in viral pandemics
    1. Viral infection is part of being human
    1. “my body, my choice” -> Bodily autonomy does not mean you can disregard our interconnection
  • American independence goes too far

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