Do Microbes Have Politics?

A cholera outbreak in Zambia in 2017 undoes a progressive experiment with urban governance and reverses the ruling party’s comfortable hold on power. Urban humanities scholars Samuel Shearer and Waseem-Ahmed Bin-Kasim highlight the historical and contemporary politics of the urban microbiome.

Lusaka, Zambia: December 27, 2017 — The business district is a crime scene. A presidential decree orders the military to get involved. Soldiers and police set about closing markets, shops, bars and restaurants near the center of town. They turn stalls upside down and collect water and food samples — the forensics that might help catch a murderer who has been on a killing spree for over two months. After thriving in Lusaka’s leaky hydraulic network, the bacterium vibrio cholerae has now surfaced in malevolent form. More than 2000 cases of cholera and over 40 deaths are reported by New Year. Another 40 lives will be lost before the end of February.

Three days after the presidential decree, however, the government operation to find cholera turns away from the microbe and toward the people who are suspected of assisting its spread: street vendors and those who live on the city’s edges. Kanyama, one of the city’s largest so-called slums is declared ground zero of the outbreak and placed under curfew. By January 1, the street economy itself is charged with aiding and abetting cholera. Sectors that have nothing to do with spreading cholera such as clothing, electronics and hardware are banned from the central business district. In less than a week, police and soldiers demolish and burn more than 10,000 tuntembe, or small street stalls that have colonized Lusaka’s sidewalks. The city council reinstates a previously suspended ban on street vending.

It would be tempting to read these events as a classic example of a government using a public health catastrophe to justify removing the urban poor from the city center. After all, is there anything exceptional in city authorities attacking certain populations while making vague gestures toward “public health”? In most cities, probably not. But these events are exceptional for contemporary Lusaka. At least since 2011. 

That year, Zambia’s Patriotic Front (PF) made a promise to the nation’s mostly low-income urban vote base. Vote for us, they said, and police and security guards will stop harassing you on the streets; we will stop chasing vendors out of the central business district; and we will stop threatening to demolish illegal housing settlements. The strategy worked and the PF won. The result of this votes-for-the-right-to-the-city exchange was an experiment with what one might call tolerant urbanism — the antithesis to broken windows policing. Instead of enforcing law and order, Lusaka city authorities began tolerating minor infractions to zoning and business regulations in exchange for loyalty at the ballet box. Now, over six years later, that contract was being dismantled, the city was at a standstill, and a microbe had the PF committing political self-sabotage. 

By mid-January, street vendors and other former loyal PF supporters had returned to the streets. Not to sell, but to riot against the very government they put in power. To make matters worse, cholera slipped away in the kerfuffle only to turn up in foreign-owned fried chicken franchises and upscale grocery stores, far away from the “slums” and street stalls where PF leadership said the bacteria was hiding out. The minister of local government tried to explain this discrepancy in a tweet, suggesting that workers must have brought bacteria to these elite spaces from their homes. The comment backfired into online mockery. In a matter of weeks, cholera not only took the city hostage but appeared to have become an effective political actor, undoing a progressive experiment with urban governance and reversing the ruling party’s comfortable hold on power.

We draw attention to these events not to evaluate the Zambian government’s response to cholera but to raise a more general question about bacteria itself: Do microbes have politics? 

Of course, cholera has been a key player in urban politics, technological innovations and the humanities for some time. The most famous example is the 19th-century outbreaks in London and Paris, which created the conditions for the first geographic information systems (GIS), generated the figure of the serial killer in both public and social science imaginations, and inspired that game-changing pulp literary genre: detective fiction.

Microbe-politics have also been stamped onto urban landscapes of many postcolonial metropolises through long histories of disease and struggles over the city. Often in the name of public health, colonial authorities in Asia and Africa created the very conditions for bacteria to thrive. They segregated towns, demolished areas thought to be bacterial and built infrastructure where microbes would later return.

But the struggle over the city between microbes, colonial authorities and urban residents has never been straightforward. Consider how a cholera outbreak during the Mau Mau uprising (1952–64) in Nairobi, Kenya changed the city’s landscape. Cholera sparked fears in the imagination of colonial authorities that Mau Mau sympathizers could slip into whites-only areas of the city as African sanitation workers. These same colonial officials, however, also became suddenly aware of the potential for guerilla germ warfare. The worse-case scenario, they feared, was if Mau Mau–sympathizing sanitation workers went on strike in order to create the conditions for cholera to thrive in settler areas of the city. While the strike never happened, anxieties over its potential led to Nairobi’s unequally distributed central sewage system. This, and also more recent cholera outbreaks in cities as different as Accra (2014) and Lusaka (above), illustrate how state officials, political parties, municipalities, developers, residents and organizations latch onto microbes for conflicting interests. But there are other, more emergent ways that microbes appear to be political.

Recently, a group of pro-probiotic designers, engineers, artists and biologists have been taking a closer look at the urban microbiome. Just as our guts need their “friendly” bacteria, cities apparently do too. This collection of anti-disciplinary urbanists is beginning to ask how to build cities that are designed for, rather than against, our bacterial companions. Debates over microbial rights to the city promise to change the discussion about sustainable design and how designers understand urban metabolisms and ecologies. But these should also raise questions about the distribution of urban resources. Who (or what) is being serviced, and who will be excluded from the microbial metropolises of the future?

Microbes are also being recruited to assist with pollution cleanup. At Brooklyn’s infamously toxic Gowanas canal, for example, microbiologists are looking into training bacteria to gobble up the canal’s toxic sludge. But in Brooklyn, as elsewhere, pollutants are linked to more than the urban environment; they are also part of real estate projects, long histories of environmental racism and displacement. If successful (and it is not a very big “if”) the project will not just clean the canal but could insert bacteria into the production of rent gaps, displacement and accelerated processes of gentrification.

These are just a handful of examples that suggest that microbes have political properties. In drawing attention to both the historical and contemporary politics of the urban microbiome, we do not wish to simply add another actor to the network. Nor are we suggesting a bacterial determinist perspective for the humanities. Rather, in posing this question — do microbes have politics? — we want to suggest that the urban humanities might take a closer look at these invisible actors that work well beyond the areas of epidemiology that they are usually assigned to.