Viral Waste, or Covid Down the Toilet: Post-Colonic Pandemic Biopolitics

This article is part of the following series:

Within days of discovering SARS-CoV-2, laboratory scientists and epidemiologists were speculating on whether the virus might take fecal passage, and thereby spread through contamination with bodily waste. But the fecal-oral route of transmission quickly proved a dead end, an etiological cul-de-sac. The pressure to inquire into shit, however, is always difficult to resist. Before long, experts in wastewater epidemiology were scouring sewers for biomarkers of the virus causing Covid-19, filtering and processing the discharge for RNA fragments, looking for evidence of outbreaks in the catchment area. At the end of February 2020, Dutch researchers identified probably unviable SARS-CoV-2 in effluent from Schiphol Airport. During March in Massachusetts, scientists found copious virus in diluted and mashed up fecal specimens. Across six days in April, Australian investigators detected two positive “grab samples” in a local sewage treatment plant. In June, even lightly sewered India could report high “genetic loading” of fecal material, declaring the “bottom line” was that wastewater surveillance provided a reliable “early warning signal” for Covid-19—as if it were needed in that context. By the middle of 2020, there were pleas not to leave Africa, with its minimal sewerage infrastructure, invisible in the waste panopticon. No waste repository unsampled became the mantra, if not the practice.

During recent months, I’ve been struck by the dominance in media conferences of Australian politicians’ reports of results of wastewater testing for SARS-CoV-2—amounting to a political fetishizing of excrement—whether related to drainage from “quarantine hotels” in state capitals, where returning travelers spend fourteen days before release into the community, getting up to three PCR tests for SARS-CoV-2; or from community sewerage sample sites where detection may signal either persisting excretion of the virus by a recovered person, or an undiagnosed case. In all instances, the findings are inconsequential without additional public health intelligence. So, what explains this irrational and redundant obsession with registering and archiving specimens of human excrement, with boosting the scientific transmutation of waste? Many of us have been quick to ridicule public hoarding of toilet paper—and the cautious lowering of toilet seats before flushing to avoid dread “toilet plume”—while we continue to ignore such biopolitical shit storms.

Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic presents us with yet another example of the implacable return of shit to the biosecurity calculus. What explains this compulsive recursion to human excrement in prim and proper epidemiological analysis? What anxieties underlie our incapacity ever to leave behind the defecatory scene? That is, what is happening when we imagine samples of otherwise worthless, even dangerous, human waste as valuable and informative viral sentinels? What biomedical ritual makes such transformation possible? And what politics of life does shit generate when thus purified and objectified?

Excremental Intelligence and Waste Surveillance

Early in April 2020, Nature announced that: “Routine wastewater surveillance could be used as a non-invasive early-warning tool to alert communities to new Covid-19 infections.” The prospect of fecal detection of the virus excited considerable interest as the pandemic escalated often in advance of adequate individual testing procedures. In effectively revealing our “dirty secrets,” wastewater epidemiology appeared to offer a convenient alternative to failed contact tracing methods, Sampling compliant bodily discards could substitute for swabbing refractory bodies. A Dutch microbiologist noted: “Not everyone is getting tested, but everyone goes to the bathroom. It’s nice to have an objective tool that isn’t dependent on willingness to get tested.” All the initial reports bruited waste’s sensitivity as an anonymous “early warning tool.” After all, excrement possibly contained the “signature” of SARS-CoV-2. An Indian journalist observed: “Scientists around the world are peeping into poop and wastewater for the novel coronavirus to come up with surveillance techniques.” Wastewater sampling constitutes an appealing “non-invasive early-warning tool” since it obscures individuals and focuses instead on the sewer as a “mirror of the population.” Accordingly, any blame for harboring the virus might be deflected from particular persons onto whole communities and territories, or more commonly, onto supposedly errant and otherwise stigmatized groups within them. Those who would find delivering a fecal specimen shaming are comfortable and relaxed when their evacuations are distant and anonymous, rendered uniform, distributed unacknowledged.

For the past eighteen months, wastewater sampling has been part of the repertoire of Covid-19 surveillance in many wealthy countries with adequate sewage infrastructure and scientific expertise. Positive results may indicate the presence of the novel coronavirus in the catchment area (which could encompass the nation or be confined to a single building or ship) or a history of infection there or that someone was shedding the virus when passing through. They offer an enigmatic warning even as they provide no detailed information about current transmission patterns. Testing nasal and throat swabs and contact tracing, where feasible, give more reliable accounts of viral spread. It’s hard to infer anything useful from detection of SARS-CoV-2 in aggregated sewage, to distill any guidance for a targeted public health response. The relevance of detecting the novel coronavirus in sewage diminishes even further once most of the population is immunized against it. And yet, proposals to render shit epidemiologically legible continue to exert a symbolic compulsion out of proportion to their utility.

Given the epistemic authority that we feel driven to invest in shit, it should come as no surprise that microbiologists have been fascinated by the stuff since the beginnings of germ theory. There was always a marked sense of urgency and strain in these labors. During the winter of 1902-03, C.-E.A. Winslow and D.M. Belcher from M.I.T. were on their knees collecting fecal samples through a “manhole” on the Dartmouth St. side of Copley Square, Boston. The future leaders of public health in the United States then cultured the diluted excrement on agar plates, discerning a wide variety of different organisms, which they classified in a Borgesian bestiary seemingly unrelated to our contemporary microbial taxonomies. They realized that sewage represents an especially rich nutritive medium for germs, though they discovered no evidence of “true sewage bacteria,” microbial flora unique to that environment. The scientists expressed relief in finding that white residents of the Back Bay appeared to defecate fewer bacteria than previously reported in the same amount of filthy London excrement, perhaps testament to New World virtue. Early issues of the Journal of Infectious Diseases are replete with similar inquiries into the bacterial composition of sewage and discussion of how best to handle and preserve it without exposing the investigator to grave danger.

Figure 1: Probably Winslow’s and Belcher’s manhole, Boston, November 2021. Photography courtesy Janet Browne

Although wastewater epidemiology (or sewage “information mining”) has become an established specialty, it rarely figures in histories of the broader field. It is, perhaps, the secret disgrace of epidemiology. At the beginning of the twentieth century, measurement of microbial flora in treated sewage became a routine index of the effectiveness of purification technologies, a sign of any potential danger. Later, epidemiologists took samples at the inlet prior to waste treatment in order to detect biomarkers or pathogens in effluent. Through calculating the concentration of offending substances or micro-organisms and the volume of waste in relation to the population of the catchment, they could arrive at a rough approximation of the prevalence of toxins or drugs or microbes in the area covered. In the 1960s, scientists at Yale determined concentrations of poliomyelitis virus in a Connecticut wastewater treatment plant before, during, and after an immunization campaign, showing that attenuated vaccine strains had persisted in the population for about three months. In 1977, infectious or “wild” polio virus was detected in Israeli sewage more than a week before any clinical evidence of the disease could be found. At the turn of the century, the WHO issued guidelines for wastewater surveillance to detect communities that still may harbor polio in spite of the international eradication campaign. During the past decade, numerous enteric microbes, including hepatitis A and norovirus, have turned up too in European waste collections. And now, SARS-CoV-2 can join the toilet roll of dishonor.

Surveillance of urinary effluent for drug biomarkers rapidly became the most prominent application of this epidemiological technology. In 2001, Christian C. Daughton, chief of environmental chemistry at the Environmental Protection Agency in Las Vegas, Nevada, proposed a program of “non-intrusive drug monitoring at sewage treatment facilities.” While he expressed concern that drugs and personal care products might damage vulnerable aquatic ecosystems, his main interest was assisting law enforcement officers to crack down on abuser communities. Within a few years, a team of researchers was able to identify large quantities of cocaine in the River Po and a range of urban wastewater plants in northern Italy. Since then, surveillance for drugs and their metabolites—especially for cocaine, methamphetamine, and opiates—has proliferated around the world. The widespread monitoring of urinary excretion has advantages of being non-invasive and anonymous, as well as cheaper, more reliable, and quicker than conventional surveys of drug usage. All the same, critical sociologists argue that “wastewater analysis constitutes drug use as measurable, countable and comparable and, in doing so, enacts a homogeneous drug using population in a bounded geographical space.” It stigmatizes groups of users as untrustworthy, uncooperative, and criminal; it directs attention to suppressing drug use rather than harm reduction. However, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Daughton recently has been roused to demand “a national strategic plan [in the U.S.] for wastewater-based epidemiology,” in the hope that “this tool become a workhorse in [virus] investigation.” Science studies scholars Kari Lancaster and Tim Rhodes caution that while “wastewater analysis can provide a snapshot of drug concentration overall, the method is blind to the complex social dynamics that shape drug harms and the transmission of viruses.” It might provide early warning of Covid-19, but “it cannot account for dynamic population patterns or the specific social and behavioural practices that give rise to outbreak events.”

Shit Sentinels and Ritual Frames

There remains a sense in which fecal matter may act as a sentinel, in that it “presents a vigilant watchfulness that can aid in preparation for an uncertain, but potentially catastrophic future.” Anthropologists Frédéric Keck and Andrew Lakoff have described how non-human animals—such as chickens, ducks, and geese—and environmental detection devices might set off alarms, indicating emergence or spread of disease to which humans are vulnerable. Similarly, it appears that shit has been made to function, with practical import and metaphoric aptness, as a sign “of an ominous and rapidly encroaching future.” Keck has noted the colonial military models implicit in employment of disease sentinels, which put the spotlight on mapping a territory and striving for border protection. This, surely, is what wastewater epidemiology seeks to do. But how, we must ask, did excrement acquire such premonitory eloquence? The question, then, is how did we make shit speak so politely and promptly, as a sentinel should?

We tend to feel that human waste is dangerously mute, up to its own destructive devices, not ours. Mute, but not without nasty odor. In Histoire de la merde, Dominque Laporte claims that early-modern “apprenticeship in smelling was directed entirely toward excrement,” adding impetus to its privatization and inhumation and removal, eventually managed by the ramifying apparatus of the state. The quality of “civilization” could be gauged by our distance from waste, our propensity to eliminate feces, the intensity of our feelings of shame and repugnance at the smell and proximity of such noxious matter. Unsurprisingly, William James in 1902 idealized “deliverance from all contact with this diseased, inferior, and excrementitious stuff.” Contamination with feces implies risk of pollution and disorder, danger to the imperforate social order, attack on form and structure. Body refuse is a potent symbol of hazard and insecurity, suggesting dangerous margins, perilous entrances and exits, and vulnerable orifices and boundaries. It is, in Julia Kristeva’s terms, the abject, “something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object.” Since shit, as matter out of place, disturbs identity, system, and order we attempt obsessively if forlornly to evade it or repress it, thrusting it aside and concealing it in desperate efforts to preserve modern life.

The symbolism of the body’s boundaries expresses anxious assertion about political demarcations and social hierarchies. Making visible supposed polluting behavior, the source of special danger to presumed innocents, can be another means of branding those deemed politically deficient or delinquent. Thus, under American colonial regimes in the Philippines, the Pacific, and the Caribbean, subject bodies were mired in abjection, transformed into generous producers of contaminating matter, potentially transgressing the safe havens of pure and retentive white Americans. Imagined as “promiscuous defecators,” Filipinos were remorselessly colon-ized by colonial public health officers, most of them white men from the northeastern United States Thus colon-ized, subject populations were expected to perform their abjection and then be disinfected and sanitized, in the hope that they might approach hygienic citizenship—and therefore become, in effect, de-colon-ized, the realization of which was always to be deferred. Accordingly, the U.S. colonial state was delineated on racialized bodies (white or brown), intimately reduced to orifices (closed or open), and dejecta (invisible and safe or visible and dangerous). Human excrement constituted a potent colonial ordering principle: and so, other parts of the world would become, in the words of a U.S. president, “shithole countries.” “Waste was the order of the day and the ordering principle of the universe,” Toni Morrison writes of Americans in the neo-colonial Caribbean in Tar Baby, “That was the sole lesson of their world: how to make waste….”

Today, those least sewered still are the ones most thoroughly colon-ized. As V.S. Naipaul wrote in disgust: “Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks. They defecate on the streets; they never look for cover. Indians defecate everywhere.” Promiscuous defecators, one might say, in the vituperative language of colonial public health. Much of humanity thus lacks the privilege of the sewered—historically largely a white privilege—to defecate in secret and sequester and dispose of their shit, to repudiate and deny it, to render it invisible or at least harmless. The poor and marginalized are without the resources to flush and forget or to turn their abject into an object. And yet, some activists and critics have discerned residual political possibilities in this colonial ordering principle, opportunities to overturn an oppressive “scata-logic” and to write a different sociality and militancy onto abjection. They seek to “sidestep” the symbolic load of human ordure and “to disinter a realm of political praxis,” a site of “excremental citizenship.”

Cultural anthropologists have been eager to recover or reveal the liveliness of the excremental public realm, especially in South Asia and Africa, challenging conventional debasement and abjection of the toilet-less and unsewered, their reduction to vectors of pollution and transgression. In her landmark studies of AIDS in southern Africa—a disease called, before Covid-19, “the signal pandemic of the global here and now”—Jean Comaroff describes how western authorities imagined Africans yet again as primal other, as dangerous and untamed, the origin of global disorder and insecurity. Refusing representation of the African AIDS sufferer as thus condemned to exclusion, denied social value, dying in a zone of abandonment or state of exception, Comaroff instead regarded the pandemic as generating new political subjectivities and sources of mobilization, a “counterbiopolitics” of bare life. Of course, finding such subjugated agency is crucial to reframing the situation with greater symmetry and honesty. But the similarly redemptive vision of an “excremental public” can serve also to gloss over, or deflect attention from, the inequities structuring that public’s conditions of life, and enable the sewered world, in which Naipaul was comfortably ensconced, to fear and to scorn and to injure such defecatory subjects.

Figure 2: Sewage System. Courtesy Newcastle University

Meanwhile, many of us can safely evacuate ordure, keeping it at a distance, purifying it and turning it into a data set, an information sentinel. Evidently, making shit disappear will never be enough. Increasingly, we feel a sense of urgency to confer objective form on whatever might still threaten us with abjection, hence wastewater epidemiology. Residual anxieties about excrementitious stuff persist in haunting, driving us to attempt further to securitize or sublimate waste through rendering it safely molecular and data rich, even when practical benefits are few. Enduringly fascinated by defilement, we must put into discourse that which we are most concerned to repress. After all, as Roland Barthes told us, shit has no odor when written. The ritual frames of sewer technology and molecular biology thus allow us to accord to shit the epistemological clarity of any other laboratory specimen, transforming the waste economy into a scriptural economy, thereby over-writing our illusion of immunity to such otherwise offensive matter. “Within the ritual frame,” Mary Douglas reminds us, “the abomination is … handled as a source of tremendous power.” With every calculation and inscription of shit, the reckoning with abjection is deferred. Thanks to wastewater epidemiology, excrement can become, for a consoling moment, a sentinel with great authority, guarding as much against promiscuous defecation and pollution, against disorder, as against any novel virus.

Conclusion: The Excremental Archive/Anthropocene

It is a tribute to the symbolic power of the waste economy, or the colon-izing process, that it’s so taxing to imagine any move to decolonize it. The very thought can prompt expressions of horror. Or rather, as Georges Bataille observed, the conjuring of any decolonial informe evokes deep-seated inexpressible horror since there is no “it” to be reconstituted, no object to be recuperated, no script, just voidance. A sort of decolonial limit experience. And yet, one can still hope, within the bounds of propriety, that another politics of life or at least another excremental politics may be possible. Extending colonial sewage technologies or making abjection look more lively—no matter how valuable in themselves—will not be enough to up-end colon-ization. One might go further and imagine a redistribution and reevaluation of symbolic economies, a critical engagement with policing the nature-culture divide, a contestation of who gets to decide what’s abject and what’s distanced objectivity, who’s a promiscuous defecator and who’s framed as the hygienic subject of wastewater epidemiology.

But our compacted obsession with shit and its refinement shows no sign of loosening. Indeed, scientists recently proposed leveraging frozen sewage collections to inscribe ‘biological diaries of built environments,” which might “synergistically deepen understanding of the dynamic and evolving Anthropocene.” David S. Thaler and Thomas P. Sakmar urge the “regular archiving of nucleic-acid-stabilized serial samples of untreated wastewater and sewage … allowing future insights into the biological fluids of built environments, including evidence of viruses such as SARS-CoV-2.” Since “real-time” assay of wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 is already proliferating, why not extend its temporal span too? “Retroactive analysis of wastewater samples,” they write, “has the potential to inform epidemiology, kinetics in closed and semi-closed systems, and the understanding of microbial evolution in built environments.” Thaler and Sakmar regard their waste archive as extending the reach of molecular epidemiology and “precision public health,” but surely it is a biopolitical archive too, attempting yet again to sublimate and securitize that which cannot be repressed or denied. According to Gabrielle Hecht, “the Anthropocene is the apotheosis of waste.” It seems therefore appropriate that a frozen archive of human shit might now serve to mark that “dynamic and evolving” era—our past, present, and future indexed in excrement. But odorless, inscribed, and innocuous, of course.

Acknowledgements: Sophie Chao, Emma Kowal, and Mark Veitch offered helpful comments on earlier versions of the essay. A request from Laura Meek prompted me to rethink human waste. And I’m especially grateful to Janet Browne for her manhole sleuthing. 

Warwick Anderson, MD, PhD, is Janet Dora Hine Professor of Politics, Governance and Ethics in the Department of History and Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney. He is also an honorary professor in the School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne. His studies of excremental colonialism and postcolonial waste have appeared in Critical Inquiry and Postcolonial Studies. A critical history of epidemic modeling was published recently in Social Studies of Science.