What is the significance of the viral outbreak? Arguing that is “too early to say” denies the experience of earlier generations that have stood at this junction before. Because, as you will know, this is not the first time the human species is confronted with a crisis that is not ideological but biological in origins. Records dating all the way back (if not earlier) to the Plagues of Ancient Athens (430 BC) serve as the unconsciously entrenched, but sadly forgotten, reminder of previous effects and consequences of corporal corruption.
Episodes of pestilence, as Dr Bernard Rieux discovered in Camus’ The Plague, are somewhere located between trauma and fiction as a “bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away… [They are] not made to man’s measure.” The scale of today’s challenge is no longer confined to a specific town, country or even region. Neither does it move as slowly as the older ones did. While it once took many years for plagues and diseases to travel from one continent to the next, today cross-continental transmission occurs within a day. Awareness of the reality of a contamination that infects and disrupts all spheres of human life, from an entire political-economic system to the microscopic experiencing of being in time and place, is what makes the significance of this crisis real and unpredictable, symbolic yet intuitively uncanny.
The very word ‘crisis’, we should be aware, has a politics and geography of its own. The estimated annual number of deaths caused by malaria, for instance, stood at 405,000 in 2018. Sub-Saharan African countries are disproportionately affected and, therefore, especially vulnerable for the additional stress that COVID-19 will cause on their already overburdened health infrastructures. This is not to downplay the fact that COVID-19 constitutes a global crisis but, instead, to argue for the need to contextualise the lives that it threatens most. Crises are experienced differently depending upon race, gender, class and other categories of human difference. However, the biological underpinnings of COVID-19 make this crisis also a discriminatory human-centric (if not ape-centric) disease, which, as a result of the unprecedented interdependency of social and ecological systems, transforms it into the first global biological challenge of this century.
One of the lessons that COVID-19 has taught us already is just how precariously interlinked biological and social infrastructures are. It will take years, it not decades, for us to draw a map of the economic and political consequences from the threat posed by a few strings of genes. One of the tasks ahead is to imagine COVID-19 as a two-fold anthropogenic crisis, as it is, on one hand, a universally human crisis that compels social scientists to engage more seriously with the biological question what it means to be “human”, and, on the other hand, it a crisis with specific qualities and differing effects that provoke all of us to ask “whose life”? Judith Butler has addressed the political tension between human universalism and particularism in an editorial for Verso Books:
“The virus alone does not discriminate, but we humans surely do, formed and animated as we are by the interlocking powers of nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and capitalism. It seems likely that we will come to see in the next year a painful scenario in which some human creatures assert their rights to live at the expense of others, re-inscribing the spurious distinction between grievable and ungrievable lives, that is, those who should be protected against death at all costs and those whose lives are considered not worth safeguarding against illness and death.”
In what follows, I explore the significance of Covid-19 through five dimensions which set the experiencing of it apart from other crises: temporality, memory, nonhuman, war and solidarity.
One, the current crisis appears to move at a significantly slower pace than the spectacular and bombastic imageries popularly associated with the word “crisis”. The temporality of a crisis affects how people experience and react to it. COVID-19’s slow and covert invasion of bodies might have been one of the reasons why many official responses seem sluggish, inadequate and confused. When authorities did react, through biopolitical interventions that started with suggestions of hand-washing before culminating in attempts to restrict the mobility of human bodies, the pace of everyday life started to slow down rapidly. Busy cities today appear as if stuck in time, and animals, once in hiding, are now quick to discover a place in abandoned urban squares. With billions of people around the world under “lockdown”, accelerating the trend of moving social interactions into the virtual, perhaps the most uncanny affect is the temporal experience of this crisis. Days, minutes, seconds, mornings and evenings, light and darkness, previously all structured by strict divisions of work and free time, are all experienced differently. These changes, including the profound sense of “boredom with the Apocalypse” (Bruce Sterling), will and already are starting to have a profound impact on human psychology.
Separations of before and after are deeply problematic. Under what conditions, and who will decide when it is appropriate to look (and think) back from a future place and time of safety?
Second, we find ourselves in the midst of COVID-19’s unfolding, making it more difficult to assess when and how we will cross into the ‘post’ crisis period. Separations of before and after are deeply problematic. Under what conditions, and who will decide when it is appropriate to look (and think) back from a future place and time of safety? Alternatively, should we accept this as the “new normal”, a term which was first coined during the crisis of World War I, but is now best remembered for its association with the 2001 and 2008 crises. Or is a return to the “old normal”, or yet another, more utopian, version possible?
Is COVID-19 a beginning, or an end? Who gets to decide when it is “over”? Of course, there is also the distinct possibility that it is neither. Daniel Defoe’s fictive journal of the 1665 bubonic plague, which ravaged London, is disturbing because by the time he wrote it (in 1722) most inhabitants already had forgotten about it. For Covid-19 to have structural significance, it needs to be remembered, not as a new crisis, but as part of a long trajectory of failure to recognise the extraordinary biological precariousness of political and social life. This means turning COVID-19 (and responses to it) on its head by means of analysing it as one more piece of evidence of human vulnerability and fragility rather than treating it as a slipping of political and health protocols.
Should we accept this as the “new normal”, a term which was first coined during the crisis of World War I.
Third, what does COVID-19, or any virus, want? Infection and replication, yes, of course, but what it wants even more from the human body is to evolve together-with/ in it. The dependency on a host’s metabolism and replication machinery plays out covertly and over long stretches of time. In a now famous paper, published in 2006, the American virologists Jeffery Taubenberger and David Morens show that almost all of the human influenza cases of the last 100 years, killing millions, stem from one single viral genetic sequence, H1N1, which first appeared as the Spanish Flu. This “Mother of All Pandemics”, as the two scientists gendered the outbreak, might have started in 1918, but it certainly did not end then. We are still living in its aftermath, so much so that we have forgotten that it is now a part of our body and life. Although SARS-CoV-2 is not an influenza, there exists a distinct possibility that those living in certain climates will have to live together with it in the same way the virus will have to learn to live with/ inside us without killing us. Geneticists remind us that “[m]icrobes indeed have a knack for making us ill, killing us, and even recycling our remains to the geosphere. But in the long run microbes have a shared interest in their hosts' survival: a dead host is a dead end for most invaders too.” Such dependency is a reminder that the human genome is not stuck in time but always in the process of evolving alongside, in reaction to and together with those of other organisms. “We humans are an inextricable blend of mammal and virus. Remove our virus-derived genes, and we would be unable to reproduce” (Zimmer). Future debate on the significance of COVID-19 will have to return attention to treating humans as a lot less sovereign than conventional anthropocentric thinking and theory prescribes. “From here on out”, as the American philosopher Justin E.H. Smith writes, “I take it that we must not, and cannot, ever pretend again that we are alone on this planet.”
The human genome is not stuck in time but always in the process of evolving alongside, in reaction to and together with those of other organisms.
Fourth, COVID-19 appears much more geographically diffused than the very specific locations and borders that characterised and made up other crises of “war”. I use that term because the invocation of such terminology is one thing that ideological and biological crises share in common. Governments and public health officials around the world have used vocabularies and imageries of a global war to describe the battle against the virus as a moral duty of entire nations. A former director of the U.S. Centre of Disease Control and Prevent went a step further and declared that “World War C” posits “humans against the coronavirus.” I have some reservations about the appropriateness of such a term, which rests on and evokes easily digestible divisions between an “us”, which I consider is a problematic claim to a human universalism, and a “them”, describing an organism whose “life”, enabled by the transition from animal to human, is intimately interwoven with our own. The Italian journalist Massimo Giannini wrote to his readership: “We are not ‘in’ danger, we ‘are’ the danger.” However, the purpose of this “enemy” operates not in opposition to us, supposedly with the malign objective to destroy “us” from within, it is not interested in our bodies’ dying, although it killed and will kill many more. Instead its purpose follows a path of survival that merely propels it to inhabit us.
The fact that this is not a war of two opposing sides, has not prevented the logic and definition of such a Manichean battle from being invoked as a means to call for a situation of radical exception. The narrative of an “us” threatened by an insidious and cunning “other”, who is scheming and plotting to infiltrate our defences and invade our body underneath the skin, is a familiar trope commonly used by the political right. Few would have been surprised that only a few days ago COVID-19 was evoked by the Hungarian Government to enable the sitting Prime Minister to rule by decree for an indefinite period. His spokesman explains that: “Just as in wartime, a state of emergency could extend until the end of hostilities. Today, we confront not a military power but are in a war-like state to defend our people against a pandemic the likes of which we have not seen in a century.”
The major theorist of sovereign power, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, identifies the present moment with “the state of exception, to which governments have habituated us for some time…. It is not surprising that for the virus one speaks of war. The emergency measures obligate us in fact to live in conditions of curfew. But a war with an invisible enemy that can lurk in every other person is the most absurd of wars. It is, in reality, a civil war. The enemy is not outside, it is within us.” Responses to Agamben’s argument that today’s epidemic “lockdown” is a continuation of biopolitical regimes warn us to account for the specificity of Covid-19.
It is harmful to draw hasty and paranoid generalisations about the nature of state interventions. The fact that Covid-19 is first a biological crisis makes the virus an exception that governments merely can act upon. It is not the state that compels national emergencies to suspend “normalcy”, instead the power of sovereignty this time appears to be situated elsewhere. In times of Covid-19, sovereignty can be found not in the body that handles the sword but on the head of the wearer of crowns (“Corona”).
COVID-19 worsens the effects of inequality but, it also feeds on inequality.
Anastasia Berg, commenting on Agamben’s thinking, urgently questions what it is “that we are sacrificing for?” The answer, which also is the reason why many respond to the ethical call to self-isolate, does not refer to the bare life of the “I” but to the political life of the “we”.
She writes: “Agamben laments that we are sacrificing ‘social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions’ to ‘the danger of getting sick.’ But we are not making sacrifices for the sake of anyone’s mere survival. We sacrifice because sharing our joys and pains, efforts and leisure, with our loved ones — young and old, sick and healthy — is the very substance of these so-called ‘normal conditions of life.’”
Berg is not the first to emphasise the solidarity and collective consciousness that the coronavirus has provoked. Millions of people around the world have offered to volunteer and help less fortunate ones. This too, it bears emphasising, is unprecedented. Even the British Conservative Party, for whom the figure of the lone individual for long has been the unifying mantra, suddenly seemed to have discovered that “there is such a thing as society.” “Who could have even imagined just half a year ago for Boris Johnson to temporarily nationalise the British railways?” (Zizek).
“We are in it together”, to use another post-crisis catchphrase, this one introduced by the most divisive British Government since Margaret Thatcher, is rehashed and shared across the political spectrum to describe the supposedly indiscriminate violence of the threat. Of course, as Trump’s attempt to obtain exclusive rights to a vaccine and the Dutch Government’s refusal to help Europe’s southern counterparts showed, we are not in it together equally. While the one percent wash their hands with expensive Aesop soap, enjoy self-isolation on private superyachts and assert their class-privilege at the expense of others, the poor, homeless, uninsured and marginalised suffer unjustifiably more, provoking a situation that some Italian newspapers have warned is akin to a “social time bomb”.
COVID-19 worsens the effects of inequality but, as studies show, it also feeds on inequality. The significance of the crisis, which should not and cannot be separated from the crisis that is capitalism and that is climate change, is global and universal. However, differences in its effects, interpretations and responses, all of which are shaped by those two other crises, foreshadow the many complicated fractures and contradictions from which a narrative and a politics will eventually have to be forged. Can expressions of solidarity born from a biological crisis that hinges on separation, distancing and isolation bear the seeds for a collective resistance that brings humans closer together?
Can expressions of solidarity born from a biological crisis that hinges on separation, distancing and isolation bear the seeds for a collective resistance that brings humans closer together?
You may ask, where does this leave us? How significant is the COVID-19 crisis? Well, very, of course, but it is difficult to assess the impact it will have on the political and economic infrastructures that only a few months ago felt immoveable and almost permanent. Things appear in flux and yet feel suspended at the same time.
Yes, of course, we can withdraw online and rely on virtual systems and machines to continue conversations new and old, a misanthropic vision well-established in Ballardian literature, but one of the things that COVID-19 has shown so far is that we can’t bear to live life in embodied isolation. We will manage to “move on”, even if it is unclear what that means.
But it is difficult to determine what impact (if any) our separation will have on the newly-discovered fragility of our interconnected infrastructures, the reality of human-nonhuman co-dependency or on the willingness to pursue political change on the crossroads of hope, despair and collective amnesia.