Mine is an A4 sheet of paper. Green and gray tab across the top, watermarks visible when held up to the light. It has all the makings of a fetish, as passenger after passenger clutches theirs in inspection queues at airports. Yet, it is not the markings or the biographical data that lend weight to this document. It is one word, preceded by two:
> SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) Negative
Negative. Negative meant I could board my flight back to Chicago.
It was 6pm. We were parked on Fife Avenue, right outside the lab. Suitcases in the trunk, passport in hand, rain lashing the window. My flight was leaving at midnight but Zimbabwe’s covid curfew was sliding closer. The phone rang. It was the lab. They needed to re-run my sample. It would be another hour.
The PCR test interrogates the body about its interactions, seeking traces of viral engagement. Vital to public health, the test seeks to stem the flow of the virus. This, I understood. Yet, as I waited for my results, I could feel myself separating the covid document I needed to board a plane and return to work, from the people I had hugged, talked to, and eaten with, the surfaces I had touched, and the air I had breathed.
PCR certificates have entered the lifeworld of logistics – for airports, health departments, and individual travelers. A new form of documentary attestation, they are imbued with the anxiety that accrues as one waits for results, and the relief when the test says ‘negative.’
Kathryn Takabvirwa is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago.