Coronavirus rarely kills people directly—so why are people dying? This piece from Paul Feather, animist farmer and writer, challenges simplistic, reductionist thinking, and proposes a synthesis approach to understanding the current crisis.

Cause of Death: Civilization

By Paul Feather

Sixty five thousand, six hundred and fifty two. As of this writing, John Hopkins reports this death toll from coronavirus [the official death toll is now above 100,000].

It’s strange to me, the way we count these deaths. I would like to count them differently. I would like to use science, even though the scientists won’t. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how you count things, but this particular number—or rather its rate of growth—has lost us our constitutional right to assemble.  A third of the world’s population is on lockdown with more to come no doubt, and I fear for the suffering that results from these restrictions.

So maybe we should check our numbers.

Our culture has a strange idea of cause and effect.

It’s very reduced; we have a tendency to explain very complex situations with very singular causes. (This is often useful: reduction is the key to controlling things, and to placing blame.)

However, reducing everything down to single causes—like cause of death from a virus—isn’t helpful for deep understanding of complex situations, nor is it good science. I’ll be cautious of speaking for cultures that aren’t mine, but a broad study of language and culture would probably show that there are other ways to perceive the world and better forms of science. This reduced view just happens to be the one we’re born into.

There are many reasons that people die. This is especially true in a situation as complex as global pandemic where economic factors clash with public health and culture; where death can result or be prevented by membership in a privileged group or by access to technology.

In such a complex system, we must resist the temptation and habit to reduce the cause of death to a single root and throw out every other contributing factor no matter how important it may be. Many of the reasons that people are now dying are long-term, structural problems that make us fragile to pandemic. These are the macro-causes of death, but we tend to ignore them in favor of short-term micro-causes, such as the presence of this particular virus at this particular time.

Here’s a metaphor. If I remove 90% of the structural members in your house and then the wind blows your house down, should we say that the wind caused your house to fall? Would that be good science? And if many houses had been sabotaged in this way, but we published statistics about house failures due to wind damage (mentioning nothing about sabotage), wouldn’t these be misleading statistics? And any policy based on those numbers bad policy?

Our health has been sabotaged. The saboteurs continue to profit. Death was coming. This disease is only the wind.

Cause of Death: The Chronic Health Crisis

There are many studies showing that people are much more likely to die after coronavirus infection if they already suffer from one of the many chronic health problems that plague our civilization such as diabetes, hypertension, COPD, cancer, and more. In some studies, as many as 99% of patients who died after contracting COVID-19 had a comorbidity of this kind (and that wouldn’t even include unreported asymptomatic cases). Further, it’s also clear that comorbidities make us more likely to contract the virus in the first place.

What this means is that tens of thousands of people are dying from complex situations involving at least two causes—virus and chronic condition—but we are reducing that situation to a single cause when we report the cause of death as COVID-19. These chronic conditions inflate COVID-19 death tolls, and the roles of Pepsi-co, Nestlé, and McDonald’s; Philip Morris, Bayer, and Pfizer; Monsanto, Sinopec, and Shell—the role of the poisons produced by these companies are not accounted for.  These factors are being distilled out of the death tolls.

If we accounted for comorbidity as a very well-documented factor in deaths that have occurred over the past several months—as well as for those that will occur in the upcoming months—we would not attribute these deaths to the virus. We would, in fact, see a sharp rise in death rates associated with the chronic diseases of civilization. Policy initiatives and public response to that spike in death rates might look more like shutting down the local Frito-Lay plant than taking our right to assembly and confining abused women in homes with their now unemployed abusers.

Please Note: for some reason, when I’ve made this argument people seem to hear that I think the deaths of sick people don’t count, because they were sick anyway, or they were old, and they don’t matter. That is NOT what I am saying at all. I am refusing to distill the cause for these deaths into a virus when people have been dying all along and will continue to die from poisons that corporations produce and shove down our throats or release into our waters and soils. I insist that these deaths be counted, but I refuse that they should be counted so wrongly. It is true that COVID-19 is a factor in these deaths, but co-morbidity is an almost necessary condition for death as well, and our death tolls do not reflect this.

Sixty nine thousand, four hundred, and forty four.  I step away from my writing for a few hours, dig a little in the garden, plant a row of potatoes, and 3,792 people have died “from coronavirus.”

Cause of Death: Patriarchy

There are other, perhaps less well-studied factors in these deaths as well. It is particularly strange how we’ll reduce cause of death to a virus, but then suddenly open our minds to other factors when it suits our political agenda or narrative. So for instance, my liberal friends will dispute the above argument about chronic disease as a cause of death but blithely attribute (and perhaps rightly) any number of deaths to Trump’s early denial of the crisis and his refusal to mobilize infrastructure to produce more ventilators.

Why don’t we have enough ventilators?

It would be possible to have a culture that was prepared for this tragedy. Many experts have foreseen it, and the only real answer to our lack of preparation is that we didn’t care. We do not value caring. Riane Eisler, in her book The Real Wealth of Nations, sketches the structure of a caring economy that would—among other things—reduce incarceration, empower women, and fairly compensate caregivers, healthcare workers, and educators. Such a structure would certainly value preparedness for pandemic.

Humans in other places and times have demonstrated caring societies. For instance, in The Chalice and the Blade, Eisler finds that Neolithic European societies were unmarked by social stratification or accumulation of private wealth. For thousands of years, these matrilineal goddess worshiping people developed technologies to “enhance quality of life” rather than for weaponry. However, towards the beginning of the historical period, invaders conquered these ancient partnership societies, and an unfortunate cultural transformation took place.

After a series of invasions, metalwork in this era began to be increasingly used for spears, swords, and daggers rather than fishhooks, awls, and woodworking tools; ‘chieftain graves’ appeared, in which an elite strongman was buried among rich gifts and the skeletons of his slaves and concubines. The symbols uncovered after this conquest indicate a patriarchal dominator culture that worshipped the blade, and who perceived power not as a generative force, but as the power to destroy, conquer, rape, and plunder. Modern civilization was born when the conquering dominator/patriarchy co-opted the symbols, myths, stories, laws, and writing of the matrilineal, goddess worshipping, egalitarian culture that they subjugated to create the society in in which we live today.

So we may blame Trump for his failure to mobilize our infrastructure to produce masks and ventilators, and I certainly believe in holding uncaring leaders accountable for their failures. But, we should not confuse this placement of blame with a ‘cause’ of death, for the systems that created this situation arose from what Friedrich Engels described as, “The world historical defeat of the female sex,” thousands of years ago. Irrespective of individual leaders, our dominator culture will never care if we have enough ventilators or enough doctors, nurses, and caregivers, or even if people die as long as there’s profit to be made. It’s slightly harder to know how to adjust COVID-19 death tolls to account for our uncaring culture than it is for well-studied chronic conditions, but I’d take any deaths that result from exceeding the capacity of our healthcare system, and chalk those up to the patriarchy.

Cause of Death: Colonization / Extraction

Certainly some number of otherwise healthy people with access to healthcare and a ventilator will be killed by this virus. But what caused the virus? (One problem with reduction is that it always leads to an endless chain of ‘causes.’) As endlessly hungry industrialized nations force their way into wild lands (or force people off of their native lands so that they flee into wild lands) multinational corporations expose us to more and more zoonotic diseases.  This has become such a problem that the US Agency for International Development has financed a project called Predict to anticipate these outbreaks in order to rape these lands without such inconvenience. (Pandemic isn’t good for the bottom line after all.)

So, what portion of pandemic death tolls can’t be attributed to the prevalence of chronic health problems or our uncaring economic system starts to look like the exported cost of colonization by multinational corporations destroying what remains of the wild.

Sixty nine thousand, four hundred, and seventy nine. In the time it took me to write these last paragraphs, John Hopkins reports thirty-five more people died of civilization.

Cause of Death: Hierarchy

I do wish people would stay at home. However complex these systems may be, and however nuanced or broad our analysis, we should act to slow the progression of this disease. And if we did so voluntarily, there need be no attack on our rights. Why don’t we do this?

It’s hardly reasonable to reduce the behavior of millions of people to any meaningful cause, but we could muse on this a little. Who is most at risk from this disease? Death rates increase exponentially with age above sixty years, while deaths of people under thirty are mostly anecdotal. There is a clear generational divide in the risks that people face during this crisis, and there have been many frustrated critics who’ve observed that young people disproportionally fail at social distancing. But why wouldn’t young people act to protect their elders?

That’s an easy one. Young people have grown up with bleak prospects for the future and they can see that their elders who call the shots don’t much care. Young people have faced gun violence in their schools; surveyed oceans full of plastic; heard increasingly dire predictions about climate change; numbly watched as rhinos, orangutans, and polar bears marched toward extinction, and generally try not to think about what might be in their water and food. They have been defrauded by the educational system and placed in crippling debt without being provided skills that are relevant in this rapidly changing society. I could detail a list of grievances for young people against their elders that is every bit as long as Thomas Jefferson‘s against the King of England, and young people are barely more represented in our government than were colonial Americans.

We have a hierarchical social structure that concentrates power in the hands of certain groups of people who benefit at the expense of others. It is a complex arrangement of many different and overlapping groups that each exploit or are exploited by other groups. In this system, it is not reasonable to expect that any exploited group would voluntarily sacrifice their own freedom and well-being to protect the group that exploits them. Nor should they. Young people (and their children) will suffer hardship, have fewer resources, and probably live shorter lives to pay for the excesses of their parents and grandparents; and this is an injustice that we knowingly commit. Yet people act exasperated to see young people out on the beach during a pandemic and ask, “How can they be so irresponsible?”

We are now seeing—and will soon be seeing more—the deadly results of this hierarchical arrangement. What if older generations had made a good faith effort to stand up for their own children? What if elders had ceded some power, capital, and influence to the demands of future generations—demands that were loudly and clearly spoken but ignored? This did not happen, and now our hierarchical culture cannot muster the solidarity and mutual aid that would be needed to prevent deaths in this time of crisis.

Cause of Death: Civilization

The only good reduction is a synthesis. If we were to combine all of these causal factors, would there be a word that could contain them all? Could we then reduce these deaths that they tell us are caused by a virus to something that speaks for all of these causes together—of patriarchy, chronic disease, colonization, hierarchy, along with others upon which I have not elaborated: globalization, urbanization, political infighting—and what would that word be? It could only be our culture or our civilization as a whole.

When we bring all of these causes together, we must also note that COVID-19 death tolls pale in comparison to the daily death and suffering that results from that this collection of factors.

Malnourishment alone (certainly a legacy of colonization) kills 15,000 children every day, yet English speaking people in the global North don’t bring similar urgency to this crisis or even perceive it as an emergency, because the children dying are mostly black, brown, and far away.

It is only now—when our violent civilization generates a threat capable of piercing the armor of privilege—that we act to curb the effects of this violence; and then only by seeking to suppress the most micro-causal factor in this great chain of causes. As this micro-cause directly affects the global upper class, we fixate upon it, and most of us can’t perceive the extensive scope and nature of this crisis.

What to do with this analysis?

First, I think we should hold scientific organizations such as the WHO and the CDC accountable and demand that they publish uninflated death tolls that account for well-studied macro-causes of death such as co-morbidities.

This would be simple accounting, because it merely incorporates well-published data from studies that are entirely valid even in the language spoken by the scientific community. This alone would rapidly deflate COVID-19 death tolls and ease frightened citizens’ outcry for these draconian lockdowns that might endanger more people than they protect. It would also create a basis upon which to work toward dismantling the structures that are actually killing people. (Ideally, there would be some effort to account for economic factors that embody patriarchy, externalized costs of colonization, hierarchical power distributions, etc., but that might be a bit much for the modern scientific mind to bear.)

Additionally, I think we should refuse to cede the language space that attributes these deaths to COVID-19. I think we should go a step further than some existing observations that this virus is a disease of civilization, and refuse to acknowledge the virus as being a cause of death at all—or at least the most important one. For while coronavirus infection is a necessary condition for death from COVID-19, there are many other necessary conditions as well, and there are many cases where infection carries no risk at all or goes unnoticed. I think we should maintain our focus upon structural causes that killed people before this virus ever showed up, that are killing people now, and that will certainly kill people next year if we don’t completely restructure our society and destroy the economic system that makes those deaths profitable.

Seventy thousand, four hundred, and eighty two. I typically sleep on a piece of writing before making final edits, and in that time Johns Hopkins reports one thousand and three people have died from civilization. Seven and a half thousand children died from starvation in that same period of time.

For further reading on this topic, see “Civilization Makes Us Sick” and “The Ecology of Disease.”