When it comes time to choose the weirdest and most novel expressions of 2020, there will be some fierce competition. I’m getting my vote in early: Shoe-Leather Tracer.

As so often happens in life, once you become aware of something, it suddenly appears everywhere. I first heard the term Shoe-Leather Tracer a few weeks ago, while doing some socially distanced socialising with my partner and a dear friend at the end of a hot May day. My beloved and I sat side-by-side on camping chairs on the pavement just after dusk, our canine companion bouncing between us, while our mate perched on their front doorstep a few metres away. We were all — minus the terrier — dressed in shorts and t-shirts, sipping cold white wine while we aired and shared our doubts about how we would get through the next stage of life in the age of Coronavirus: contact tracing. I put my bets on the much-touted track-and-trace app — which is supposed to lead us out of lockdown and win us back our freedom — failing spectacularly, because not a soul trusts the UK government to safeguard our data while ostensibly ensuring our physical safety. In response, my friend, a specialist in public health, introduced me to the mythic figure of the Shoe-Leather Tracer.

The term is not, in fact, new. Shoe-Leather Epidemiology has its origins about 170 years ago and some six miles from where I enjoyed my late-night glass of Sauvignon on the pavement outside my friend’s house. In the summer of 1854 Dr John Snow, a physician in London’s Soho district, identified a water pump in Broad Street as the origin of a cholera outbreak which had killed 500 people in the area. In the process he proved the waterborne theory of cholera transmission. According to one group of medical geographers, the Snow story has all the elements of a classic myth: “short, dramatic, and heroic … it recounts events that may or may not be true: it is a way for us to make sense of something that is not truly knowable or understandable.” Because his method of disease control involved conducting house-to-house surveys in infected neighbourhoods, Snow has been dubbed “ the father of shoe-leather epidemiology “.

By the time Dr Snow was stomping around the streets of industrialised London in the name of science and public health, leather shoes were being made in factories. The mass production of footwear had begun some fifty years before, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, to help strap up British soldiers fighting in the Napoleonic wars. The leather used to make footwear came from cows slaughtered to accommodate growing demands for meat. Dr Snow’s iconic (if imagined) shoes — perhaps made from the leather bought at Leadenhall Market in East London — are woven with history: military history, labour history, food history, fashion history, Victorian history, economic history, class history, medical history. Even the history of walking.

Shoe-Leather “ raises the image of an on-the-ground investigation racing to find a solution to a deadly epidemic. The term has also been applied to journalism, used to mean “ basic, direct or old-fashioned methods “ of reporting, i.e. the kind that involve hitting the streets in search of a good story and eye witnesses, rather than sitting at a desk or scrolling through social media. There is something romantic and authentic implied by the modifier “Shoe-Leather”.

But today’s “army” of John Snows will not be pounding the pavement like the good doctor did in South London and Soho in the mid-nineteenth century. The contemporary contact tracers mobilised in the “war” against Covid-19 will be part of a “virtual front line”. Like millions of others they will be working from the comfort or discomfort of their own homes, earning the minimum wage, using modern digital technology to identify and locate people who may have come into contact with the virus, and advising them on their next moves (i.e. not moving at all). The ideal workers will be caring, patient, flexible, determined, compassionate, friendly and data-savvy, ideally with experience in retail, care and/or customer services. Call them “heroes” all you like: behind the quaint image of the Shoe-Leather tracer lies a much less romantic reality. This is low-paid work, woman’s work, work for those who have lost their other low-paid work thanks to the virus.

But it wasn’t the romanticism that struck me first about the “Shoe-Leather Tracer”. It was the leather. That fetish of a fabric, covered in blood. Another reminder that tightly laced into our history of disease and disease control, into the histories of epidemiology and public health, care and lack of care, low-paid labour and armies, real and metaphorical, is a history of animals and our relationship to them as human beings. I can’t help but think that in a perverse twist of fate this next stage in our collective relationship to Coronavirus brings us back to the first: back to the long violent history of the human traffic in animals.

In the age of Covid, it is much more than our own movements and contacts with other people that are being tracked and traced. It is our histories. All our contacts, past and present. From each one of us to our loved ones to total strangers. From Soho to Wuhan and back. From shoes to smartphones. From leather markets to meat markets. From doctors to carers. From butchers to slaughterhouse workers. From cows to bats and back. From people to animals. And back.

Originally published at https://veganismsexandpolitics.com on May 30, 2020.

Author, editor, independent scholar, animal lover, passionate vegan, queer fem/inist www.veganismsexandpolitics.com

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