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Field Notes

Vol 8 No 2: Medical Testing, Diagnosis and Value

Diagnostic Citizenship and the Biopolitical Uptake of COVID-19 Detection

July 12, 2020
June 18, 2021


This essay examines an oddity of SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic testingreferred to here as a ‘persistent positive’in which an individual can test positive for COVID-19 for weeks or even months after initial infection despite no longer being symptomatic or contagious. In Florida, where recent legislation requires healthcare workers affected by COVID-19 to have two negative test results before they can return to work, the issue of persistent positives poses a significant challenge for a small sub-group. I identify an important disconnect between the biological and the biopolitical where SARS-CoV-2 test results are mis-inscribed into biopolitics as bureaucratic state legal codes and employment requirements. Using ethnographic evidence, I show how their test results are less important than the state’s interpretation and enactment of these test results. I describe a techno-political phenomenon wherein the technical (in this case diagnostic testing) selectively offers up rights to those recovering from COVID-19. Those with persistent positives performatively engage in testing as a means of navigating the legal codes that deny them the right to work. Testing for them is an attempt to return to a normal life, not to find out whether they are living an abnormal one. A breed of biological citizenship, perhaps a diagnostic citizenship, is formed in which they need a certain result, no matter what that result means biologically, in order to exercise certain rights. These reflections encourage a rethink about the role of testing technology as an instrument of government and biomedical authority more broadly.