The pandemic brought America’s health inequities into stark relief, but The Viral Underclass illustrates that the problem isn’t new, and that it is embedded more deeply than many of us realize ... Thrasher, a gay Black man, brings figures from the viral underclass to life in this engaging, enraging read. It’s no spoiler to say that most of their stories end badly; what’s infuriating is that each outcome would have been shockingly simple to prevent on its own. With access to health care, educational opportunities, a living wage, safe housing, or social support, none of these lives would have begun the downward spiral toward tragedy.
... important ... Thrasher structures most chapters around a theme — the disastrous implications when White people believe they are immune from disease, for example, or unequal access to protection — accompanied by an anecdote or personal story. At times, the book feels like it’s suspended between memoir and public health tome. Nevertheless, the sometimes sprawling nature of the storytelling, and Thrasher’s liberal acknowledgment and incorporation of many of his friends and colleagues (as well as his past journalism and relationships), ultimately work in the service of one of his main points: that we are all more interconnected and reliant on one another than we always realize ... Yet I still wanted more depth in some places, and shorter detours in others to keep the focus on what is freshest and most revelatory. I could, for instance, have done without a lengthy recounting of the plot of the 2019 South Korean film Parasite, which takes up much of his chapter on capitalism ... Ultimately, this book is at its most searing when Thrasher shows, by the numbers and by the people, how various public health crises have compounded in America to create the viral underclass — and then, too often, to blame them for their own suffering. To that end, Thrasher’s recounting of Johnson’s and Borjas’s stories is particularly powerful. So are his examples of how various inequities and public health concerns have so often overlapped during covid — with devastating results.
... riveting ... Thrasher blends critical theory, engaging storytelling, and memoir to tell the stories of human beings whose lives and bodies are subject to a manufactured vulnerability sustained by classism, racism, and stigma. Through on-the-ground reporting from across the globe, the author deconstructs the entanglement among poverty, population density, policing, and viral illness, demonstrating that 'viruses interact with the power structures already at play in our society so that those who are already marginalized are left even more susceptible to danger, exacerbating existing social divides. But more important…it is social structures that are the drivers, while viruses merely amplify.' Thrasher is masterful in his ability to contrast vivid anecdotes with carefully crafted, meticulously researched prose to shine a light on a few of the many people subjected to this feedback loop as well as the heroes who devote their lives to defending their communities against structural inequality and police violence. The author’s own role is significant: Through his reporting and activism, he altered the discourse surrounding the criminalization of HIV and helped free a Black man from a 30-year prison sentence ... Throughout this insightful and unflinching book, Thrasher is unafraid to let his anger shine, but he also consistently deploys love and compassion. In a text marked by mistreatment and loss, the author encourages hope ... Powerful and revelatory, this is an essential, paradigm-shifting book.