Fluid Lives

Malaria, dengue and health in contemporary South Asia

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Clouds of uncertainty

It was the recent post ‘Spray‘ by Vanessa Agard-Jones on Somatosphere‘s new ‘Commonplaces‘ section that got me thinking about life with insect repellents again, in particular how they appear and are negotiated in people’s everyday lives to ward off illness bearing – and frankly just annoying insects, particularly mosquitoes. Describing her fieldwork in Martinique, Agard-Jones traces the negotiation of toxicity, the porosity of the body and a postcolonial island suffused by crop-dusted insecticides sustaining a globalised planation economoy based on bananas.


Adéline chided me for going all the way to town to buy a “natural” mosquito spray that — while hardly effective — I continued to slather on my body everytime we jogged the wooded paths of the Forêt Vatable in Martinique. She had gotten usedto my declining to borrow her Pyramid brand “Repel 100,” a 100% deet formulation that she swore by, and that worked.[1]   Gesturing to my scar-covered legs, indelibly marked by insect bites badly healed, she lined her calf up next to mine. Her skin was smooth, clear—bite-less. “It’s not that [spray] that you need to worry about, Vanessa,” she said, pointing from my (“SANS DEET”)  bottle of “natural” spray to the sky. “It’s the one that comes from up there.”

Agard-Jones concludes that:

In the end, though, it is both this spray and that one, both the dispersion of chemical molecules close to the skin and the dusting of them far away from it, that forges our bodies’ material entanglements with chemical commodity chains. As solids become liquids, then liquids become mists in the bottles and barrels of sprayers, inert chemicals change form—they are readied for incorporation. …In the end, it is both this spray and that one, this mosquito repellent and that crop duster, that remind us that at every scale in our social and biological worlds, contingent forms of non-life and life are being entwined, as synthetic chemicals embed, accrete, and leave their residue in our bodies.

In Delhi, living with mosquitoes presents a different but not disimilar set of negotiations when it comes to chemicals. Mosquitoes have no respect for household boundaries and the semantically significant ‘insides’ and ‘outside’ spaces of houses. Indeed, little more respect than they do for the bodily boundaries of humans, when in pursuit of a blood meal. Rather, they are free to come and go through open doors, poorly screen covered windows and unscreened extractor fans, particularly where warm, tasty and attractively CO2 emitting humans may be found. Indeed many mosquitoes, in the case of the dengue fever vector Ades aegypti, are often household residents themselves.

Friends joke and worry about the mosquito related chemicals they ingest in the course of everyday life. Is it the plug-in repellent vaporizer (‘All Out!’ or ‘Good Knight’) that’s giving me a headache? And what happens when the power goes out? As the ceiling fan slows to a halt and the thick damp heat of the monsoon power cut settles stickily, in the dark the sound of a single mosquito can be heard (or is it only one?). One friend prefers permethrin coils, burned on a saucer at the foot of the bed, as they are more ‘natural’, but leaving something smouldering while you sleep also seems risky. Truth be told, she really prefers climatic control: to freeze mosquitoes out with the air conditioning. Since the unit is set into their bedroom window, she and her family retreat behind glased window and closed door for the summer and monsoon evenings, staying cool and less bitten. Meantime, I find that lettering on my computer keyboard is wearing off at an alarming rate as the DEET residues on my fingertips disolve them away.

Municipal ‘fogging’ truck

Sitting squeezed in the back of an elderly taxi, one member NGO team I’m trailing round with has a persistently itchy bite on the top of her foot, and keeps reaching awkwardly down to scratch it.

‘What contraception do mosquitoes use?’ another team member jokes ”Odomos‘ of course!’  citing the popular brand of insect repellent advertised in tones of cloying domesticity between popular family drama ‘saas-bahuu’ soaps on evening TV.

Yet, as mosquito numbers rise with the onset of the monsoon, so do cases of mosquito-borne diseases in the city. Now anxieties fuel angry claims that the municipality has ‘not done enough’ to control the ‘mosquito menace’ appear in the newspapers. On one level, people are seeking to choose to manage mosquitoes in the spaces of the home with individual strategies of chemicals, electric zappers, screens and only very rarely nets. But now they struggle to define the boundaries of the house as the municipality applies fogged insecticide to the public spaces of the neighbourhood for the good of the population. Yet, given the permeability of homes and often semi-domestic spaces of neighbourhood streets, residents complain both that the municipality fogs the area too fast, so that the clouds of  insecticide don’t enter people’s houses, and also of the ingress of the fog itself, an unbidden, un-negotiated risk to household health. Where the boundaries lies between home and the street, public rights and personal choice, population and individual, human and mosquito (and virus or plasmodium too), uncertainty hangs in the air, much like the clouds of insecticide.