Tracing the spatio-legality of wastewater surveillance: infrastructure, disease, and biopower in Singapore

Medical Humanities_2022-09-01
01 Sep 2022 02.00 PM - 03.30 PM Alumni, Current Students, Industry/Academic Partners, Prospective Students, Public
Organised by:
Michelle Chiang

Amidst the plethora of public health surveillance techniques and technologies that have emerged from the COVID-19 crisis (Couch et al., 2020), wastewater surveillance – the process of testing wastewater in a catchment area to detect certain biomarkers – has come to be considered as an effective and non-intrusive means of regulating disease (Thompson et al., 2020). Although many countries have implemented wastewater surveillance networks, questions have also emerged about how these might be used after the pandemic recedes. Given that wastewater surveillance has also been used to detect markers for numerous diseases and health conditions as well as illicit drugs, there are concerns as to how the ‘dataification of wastewater’ (Scassa et al., 2021) might further infrastructural inequalities, heighten surveillance regimes targeting vulnerable communities, or enable harsher law enforcement strategies (Joh, 2021). 

Using the work of Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (2014), Foucault (2007), and Larkin (2013) to inform a critical legal geography approach, I look at how wastewater surveillance has been deployed in Singapore during the COVID-19 pandemic as a means of investigating both current and future possibilities and contestations about the evolving spatio-legality of public health surveillance. As a form of ‘epidemiological lawscaping’, wastewater surveillance in Singapore affects and implicates three interconnected strands of spatio-legal materiality and normativity: a) bodies, in shaping the spatial practices of both citizens and migrant workers; b) borders, in extending the ‘biopolitical benevolence’ (Beebeejaun, 2021) of colonial infrastructure and the postcolonial securitisation of water (Usher, 2018); and c) objects, where its discrete materiality fits into an ever-expanding set of techno-legal, data-oriented, non-human agents that further state-led public health initiatives. 

Dr. Dhiraj Nainani, Research Fellow at the Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE), Nanyang Technological University (NTU)