The origins of epidemics can be traced back to the emergence of civilization.
There is a family of bacteria dwelling in soil, in water.
Some reside in the bodies of cows. Humans domesticate cows, for meat, milk, labor.
Cows are corralled in large groups, in small spaces, near to human settlements. The bacteria, disturbed by the upset of their microbial life-ways, shift their behavior. Now they move quickly between cows, they become more aggressive. Cows get sick.
Increased human-cow contact allows bacteria to pass from bovine into human bodies, and adapt to their newfound hosts. Humans build cities, into whose crowded centres ever more people migrate, to live breathing a grey swill of fumes, eating poorly, labouring to exhaustion in cramped, lightless, unventilated factories.
Going home to rundown tenements on piled garbage streets. It is the dawn of the glorious new Industrial Age, and in their great cities, humans are coughing blood. A bacterial disease is diagnosed: tuberculosis.
Over a century later, it continues to quietly fell over a million of the world’s poor each year.
There is a virus in the bellies of wild ducks, harmless to the birds. As ducks fly pond to pond they shed the virus into water, infecting other birds, who fly to other ponds, infecting yet more birds.
Humans domesticate ducks and begin raising them in captivity. Birds in cages have no ponds to fly to, so the virus cannot reproduce itself as it once did—it must change its habits. It adapts.
Now, it transmits rapidly between birds. It grows more virulent, since it no longer needs a living host: in captivity, healthy birds cannot flee the dying. The virus learns flexibility. It infects.
Soldiers are packed into squalid barracks, undernourished, cold and damp. Their immune systems exhausted by the stresses of combat. Outside the trenches, humans live in greater density, in closer proximity, in larger cities than ever before.
Many are recovering from immunity-battering bouts of measles, tuberculosis. A formerly innocuous bird virus spills into human bodies as a formidable pathogen. It spreads person to person across the earth’s surface until one-third of the total human population is ill. 50 million are estimated dead.
It is the Flu of 1918, the deadliest pestilence in human history.
There is a virus, its natural reservoir a small, insect-eating bat whose home is the forest. The forests are shrinking. Human cities go on expanding, there are more factories, more farms where humans store their captive legions of birds and pigs.
The bats’ habitat is fragmented by deforestation. The stress of that loss strains the sensitive animals’ immune systems, exciting the expression of a latent virus. Flying through what remains of the forest, stressed bats shed the virus. Now other animals are infected.
Humans hunt and trap wild animals and sell them at urban wildlife markets. The concentration of different animal species creates a fertile medium for viral recombination. Sustained human-animal contact grants adventuresome viruses access to human hosts.
At a wildlife market in a city with a population of millions in one of the world’s most polluted regions, a virus strays from a caged animal into a human body. Commercial air travel has made it possible for humans to cross oceans overnight.
They take with them whatever microbes their bodies harbor. A new viral disease emerges, within months it has spread across continents. The human death count steadily rises.
Covid-19 is one in a series of infectious diseases to unsettle the standard operating procedures of human societies. Disease has been civilization’s consort since our earliest history. Yet we are stunned by Covid-19, as if the concept of disease were alien—an “unprecedented event.” In a state of emergency, there is a forgetting, an attenuation of vision. Drifting out of focus goes the context of the emergency, the history, patterns, reoccurrences of emergencies. As ecofeminist philosopher Susan Griffin writes, “Whatever is in the background disappears in the focus of a gunsight.”
The mass media pandemic-panic and governments’ wartime rhetoric manipulate public perception. It amplifies anxiety, training that anxiety on an illusory “invisible enemy.” To exist in the state of emergency is torture for a public desperate for relief. So people are inclined to suspend reflection and accept the solutions handed down by those in power.
Fear disorients, distracts; it drives reactionary behavior dictated by the volatility of cortisol. Panic, once seeded, has a virality to rival any contagion. We materialize our imaginings into reality, by acting as if the worst-case scenarios have already arrived. Sirens scream. A stricken public rush to the supermarkets to prepare for imminent collapse. People panic buy toilet paper, creating a shortage. The emergency oozes through screens into everyday life as something palpable for all to experience, regardless of the facts of the outbreak. Panic intensifies, not helped by the authorities repeatedly blasting “This is an EMERGENCY”.
Responding to the emergency, politicians, intergovernmental organizations, and pundits have declared War on The Virus. The UN’s Department of Global Communications asserts, “The world faces a common enemy. We are at war with a virus.” In the United States, at the helm of “our big war,” President Trump leaps into action, militarizing the pandemic by activating the National Guard.
We are assured! We have the help of Biotech firms, hard at work on a vaccine. Billions of tax dollars paid out to prop up struggling corporations. We are assured, we will defeat this plasmid-coated adversary. The Virus will be vanquished. Crisis averted, emergency over, release the balloons, return to work, resume business as usual. Humanity has triumphed.
It is a habit of the Western mind to imagine that human existence is isolated from the natural world. That we can eat our way through the earth’s resources, laying waste to the environment without doing harm to ourselves. If the story of emerging viruses in the 20th-21st centuries has a moral, it is that human independence from the natural world is a delusion. Human health is contingent upon the health of the biosphere. When we brutalize the earth, we foreclose upon our own survival. Our actions enabled the spread of new pathogens. The structures and systems of our civilization have entrenched widespread susceptibility to infectious disease.
Anthropogenic environmental degradation is a precondition for disease susceptibility. This is evidenced by the high Covid-19 mortality rates in regions with poor air quality. Before Italy and Iran became coronavirus hotspots, they drew headlines for the deadly repercussions of unbreathable air. In China, ambient air pollution kills upwards of a million people annually.
As for the epicenters of Covid-19 mortality in the U.S, “Air Quality Health Advisory” ozone warnings are a summertime tradition in New York City. Louisiana boasts Cancer Alley. An 85-mile stretch of air-poisoning oil refineries and petrochemical plants along the Mississippi River. The same human systems that maximize vulnerability to disease make our societies unfit to respond effectively. In the U.S. the privatized, (for-profit) healthcare system has proven itself predictably useless under the pressure of a pandemic. There is no infrastructure in place for systematic testing. There are shortages of hospital beds, ventilators, nasal swabs and respirator masks. We are expected to be thankful that the biotech industry is highly motivated ( by money) to make a vaccine to save us.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government, in a bipartisan Disaster Capitalism trick lifted directly from Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, has made hay while the sun of chaos shines. A $2.2 trillion package of handouts and loans will be distributed to corporations (airlines, the Pentagon and weapons manufacturers, industrial agriculture). For $1,200 each (per average-earning citizen) we are happy to subsidize corporate profiteering, warfare, environmental devastation.
The EPA has announced it will be suspending enforcement of pollution monitoring and reporting laws for the duration of the pandemic. There is no end date in sight. There is little consideration for pollution causing respiratory illness, which exacerbates the risk posed by Covid-19 . The U.S. is not alone in this. China has indicated it will be “modifying” environmental laws to hasten economic recovery now that its own Covid-19 crisis is cooling. Rejecting the panic driven amnesia, we can understand the connections now. The patterns from the present crisis to its predecessors. We can see that disease pandemics trace back to human actions and human systems. With tuberculosis and the Flu of 1918, it was the domestication of animals that spawned viral emergence. With Covid-19, it was progressive ruination of ecosystems and the commodification of wild creatures. Where we unbalance the natural world, we create ecological distress and disease. And once we are sick, it is social factors – industrialization, war, global capitalism, that raise death tolls. It was as true with tuberculosis as it was with the Flu of 1918 as it is with Covid-19.
The gravest threat to humanity is not any pathogen, but the diseased state of human civilization. Vulnerability to Covid-19 is predicted by preexisting chronic illness: diabetes, COPD, heart disease, liver disease, obesity and asthma. People with immune systems suppressed by pharmaceuticals and environmental toxins are also at higher risk. These conditions are the “diseases of civilization”. The upshot of human lifestyles disfigured by consumer capitalism.
Chronic disease is an off shoot of patterns of industrialised labor and consumption, the foods and intoxicants with which we overload our bodies chasing “fullness” and “pleasure”. We experience an accumulation of stress in toxic environments riddled with sexism, racism, poverty and the colonial mindset: the backdrop of industrial production. Although these conditions are endemic: it is indigenous people, people of colour, women and the poor who endure the highest incidence of affliction. The dispossessed will suffer most when confronted with infectious diseases such as Covid-19. The virus will flourish in bodies undermined by societal cruelties.
Demonizing a microbe as humanity’s nemesis scapegoats the natural world. This nurtures blindness to Covid-19’s background; the social history of infectious disease. If we pause, breathe, attempt a calmer review of context and history, what is revealed is that it is not The Virus, nor any pathogen, that threatens our continued life on earth. Human action precipitated the emergence of Covid-19. Humans razed the forests. Humans captured wild animals to sell at market. Humans squired a formerly harmless virus out into the world as a virulent pathogen. Human societies decimate the environment to glut the coffers of transnational corporations. To meet the insatiable demands of First World consumers, we collided with microbes once held within the fortifications of wild nature. Robust ecosystems. The unviolated bodies of animals. Like the virus of the hour, Junin, Machupo, Lassa and Ebola all spilled from wildlife into humans as a byproduct of deforestation and development. Novel flu strains continuously arise out of Confined Animal Feeding Operations, where humans warehouse domesticated animals in increasingly careless industrial conditions.
The world is comprised of microorganisms. To ‘wage war’ against microbes is folly. Infection and illness are inevitabilities beyond human control. So too is death. The social, cultural, structural pathologies that provoke viral emergence and needless mass suffering are our own inventions . It is in our power to remedy them. Protection from future pandemics is possible, but it’s not an antiseptic wipe, a face mask, a million ventilators, a vaccine, Medicare-for-All. It is preventing the viruses from emerging, by ending our violence against the natural world. We all, humans and non-humans, thread together within the delicate, interlacing of connections that binds us to the living earth. If we were guided by our deep knowledge of interdependence, rather than by fantasies of human detachment, we would not plunder as we do now. We would not be so reckless. We would know in our bodies that the destruction of the earth is self-destruction.
Protection from catastrophes of our own making are possible, yes, but only with a radical transformation of human civilization; the totality of global systems and institutions, including how we live and how we think. The human species will survive Covid-19, but without change, alignment to the natural world, there will be another virus, another pandemic culling of an impaired population, and another after that. One day, the earth we have blighted will have done with us.
aurora linnea is a librarian and ecofeminist pariah living near the Atlantic Ocean.