The developing coronavirus pandemic has been hogging attention for weeks now. Many simple observers are incredulous that governments, like Italy’s, will willfully paralyze their economies in order to stem the transmission of a pathogen that is far from the deadliest in the long history of human pathogens. That being said, it is very hard for anyone that is not a public health specialist or an epidemiologist to evaluate the necessity and/or effectiveness of the current measures. Leaving that aside then, I find it incredibly fascinating to plot some questions and fissures that the virus has nonetheless so brilliantly exposed. There are three main things I have in mind: human relations to microscopic life, our radically outdated concept of nature, and the value of human life itself. I’ll say something about each in turn.
The first remarkable thing, at least in the sense that its often unremarked nature is exposed, is the relation between social organization and microscopic life. Modern life has inured many to thinking that societies are fundamentally separate from their microscopic milieu. The appearance of a new virus gives the lie to this assumption. We have never stopped being human animals, part of the mammalian family, and there is – from a virus’ point of view – no distinction between a colony of bats and a human city. In its flight away from our animal natures, modernity has in fact made human societies infinitely more inviting places for viral life. We have never lived with more domestic animals, nor have we ever killed and consumed this many wild animals: these kinds of relations are perfect expansions in the natural laboratory of microscopic life. Increasing travel and trade add substantially to the benefits of being a virus.
This is to say that westernized societies (most societies everywhere, at this point in history) have imagined themselves as further and further removed from the messy life of a dynamic earth while simultaneously multiplying their ties to this terrestrial soup. Every expansion of global capital, every invention of a new product, every package shipped however many times around the earth, is always already a new connection between previously separated forms of life. As we continue to exterminate vast swaths of macroscopic life through this cutting of new connections, we are also creating new conditions for microscopic life to thrive.
This is nothing new. What is fascinating in the current moment is to notice the sincere panic in front of something that any lucid observer long expected. The disbelief, both at the government and the citizen level, is symptomatic of another fissure that the virus is shining a light on: the difference between the dominant western concept of nature and the empirical manifestations of nature in various forms. Though ecologists have revised equilibrium theories of nature and ecosystem thinking decades ago, the idea that nature is somehow balanced, formed like a system with parts that can be plotted and accurately measured, and therefore controllable as an outside to society, is as strong as ever. The virus is revealing the inadequacy of this picture.
Our ignorance vis-à-vis the natural world is vast, and what we do know is easily fitted into psychologically soothing patterns of order and equilibrium. But what we call the natural world is the very prototype of dynamism and change. Over evolutionary history, the rule has been extinction and the creation of new forms of life. Saying this does not in the least dent our responsibility towards current forms of life that we are endangering. It does, however, call into question the idea that the ‘natural system’, though of course dynamic in some sense, is in some form of equilibrium that is beneficial to human life. It also calls into question the idea that nature is passive, just matter.
The appearance of a new virus is shocking because it reveals the many ways in which nature is always active, hyperactive we may even say! We feel a similar kind of panic when we find out that glaciers, oceans, the atmosphere, all of the things that we thought were just inert matter, are acting. Modern societies are built on the expectation that the foundation will not move. The paradox of the current moment is that the increasing dominance of humans (of the capitalist kind) on this planet is leading to an increased activity of the very nature that we are supposed to dominate. The Anthropocene is not the human epoch, but the epoch in which humans wake up to a more violent and active nature; the time when humans become fearful animals. It is also the epoch when our own hyperactivity is only ever interrupted by variations of collapse (financial crises and pandemics being so far the only events able to dent, for example, our carbon emissions).
The psychology of thinking nature as a balanced passive system is what the coronavirus problematizes. There are thousands of pathogens that we already know that affect human lives every year. The seasonal flu, for example, is always changing and evolving, which is why the vaccine that is administered to people every year is an educated guess. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, because there are years when another kind of flu shows up. From this perspective, the most salient characteristic of the coronavirus is that it is new. In other words, it changes what we were counting on to already be in the natural system. The most likely end point of the current crisis is that, through habituation, the virus becomes part of what we count on to be in nature, and therefore becomes to some extent accepted. And this brings us to the final point.
As the media obsessively counts coronavirus deaths –an exercise full of uncertainty, as the majority of fatalities come from people with pre-existing conditions – the general attitude is that every life is important. This is commendable. The virus tends to disproportionately affect the elderly and those with chronic conditions, but inasmuch as every life counts exactly the same, every measure is allowed in order to save any life. This taps into beloved ideas of human dignity and inherent worth that are part and parcel of western intellectual history. The trouble is that the virus is also showing, as if we needed more showing, that the inherently worthy human is not synonymous with a member of the species homo sapiens, but rather with a national citizen. The irruption of a new life form into the polis shows how much our ideas of political community are forms of policing human life and death.
The elderly that count are national ones. At the same time as Italy has shut itself down in order to safeguard the lives of its elderly people, thousands of Syrian children are dying on the borders of Europe. But they are migrants, they have been constructed as the kind of life that is not our responsibility. So instead of patting ourselves on the back for saving geriatric patients, the coronavirus is showing how our very definition of who counts as having a human life is dependent on arbitrary notions such as national belonging. The idea of a nation makes no sense without the corollary ideas of a national (in the sense of an individual) and a migrant (as the outsider). And these ideas also activate the virus in different ways, depending on who might be affected and how they already count.
Suppose the refugees living in squalid conditions on the borders of Europe become infected with the coronavirus. The response from European governments will surely be to tighten borders even more, as the migrants are now threatening our very physical health. The idea of the migrant as someone that spreads disease is as old as xenophobia, after all. But the more likely outcome is that the virus would spread through these vulnerable populations without anyone caring to record each death, or to implement extraordinary measures to save every possible life. The viral politics of our times denies the mammalian belonging of some (nationals shall not be touched by anything), while imposing a demeaning notion of animality on others (migrants can ‘live like animals’). Perhaps we would be better equipped to deal with varieties of microbial life if we were already better at conducting political life as political animals on a lively planet.