In her 1978 essay on Disease as Political Metaphor, Susan Sontag demonstrated that the trope of the infectious malady has been used through human history as a metaphor to represent, describe, and critique failures of the polis by critics of culture and politics. The present COVID-19 crisis is ripe — some might say “rife” — with further examples that embody the complete spectrum from profound to ridiculous. The fact that many of the metaphors being used have been expropriated from my own fields of evolutionary biology and earth science simply serves to underscore the difficulties, and the opportunities (some unrealized to date), that the metaphoric mode of communication entails.
First, let’s get some facts straight about viruses. They get a bad rap from the press. Ask just about anyone about them and all you hear are complaints. It’s “disease this” and “infection that.” No one seems to have anything nice to say about viruses, which is a shame because you wouldn’t be here reading this without them.
Viruses are the most ubiquitous life forms on the planet with 1031 individuals cited as one recent estimate of their number. They are also one of the least understood. They live everywhere in nature and everywhere both on and inside of you. Less than one percent are known to be pathogenic, but many more are known to be symbiotic (which means they assist the host), mutualistic (which means both host and virus benefit from the association), or benign (which means we don’t know what they do). In addition, viruses’ modus operandi of targeting specific cell types and interrupting these cells’ genetic functioning means they can be used to destroy certain cell types selectively (e.g., cancer, HIV) and repair genetic damage in others. So, next time someone asks you about viruses, show a little respect.
These days when people say something has “gone viral,” they almost always are using the term as a metaphor for an event that touches a great number of people and news of which is passed from individual to individual, usually via social media. As metaphors go, it’s not too bad. Of course, there’s nothing especially virus like about microbial infection. A wide variety of small beasties spread disease among individuals via close proximity and/or physical contact (e.g., bacteria, prions). But the term virus sounds much closer to vita (Latin for “the life force”) and so is obviously the better choice for representing any event, idea or philosophy that touches large numbers of people.
More interesting is the, somewhat neglected, aspect of the viral disease metaphor’s cultural extrapolation. Viruses are not designed to damage or kill their hosts. The point of a virus is life, not death. Because viruses need living cells to reproduce over time, they have developed transmission strategies that make the finding of living hosts quick and efficient. Ideally, a pathogenic virus will enter a living system and have sufficient time to make many copies of itself before it is eliminated by the host’s immunological defenses. The virus survives and the host survives. That’s the model. The problem with pathogenic viruses — especially those hosts have not encountered before — is that, in the system’s efforts to find, and develop a means of neutralizing the virus, the state of the body is changed, sometimes beyond the point at which the body (especially weakened bodies) can remain alive. Consequently, it’s not the virus that kills, it’s the body’s reaction to the virus that kills.
The COVID-19 virus is special but not for the reason that most people think. Its infection of our bodies is nothing noteworthy as viruses go. But COVID-19 has also infected our cultures, our economics, and our politics, worldwide. It’s a virus and it’s a meme. In order to reduce the inferred levels of mortality in at-risk individuals our societies have reacted in unprecedented ways, by mandating the shut down of economic and cultural activities, curtailing the individual (and increasingly legal) rights of citizens, and by forcing both individuals and family groups into physical isolation for an, as yet, unspecified time interval. It remains to be seen whether these societal reactions will be sufficient to mitigate the damage the virus will inflict on human populations. In a moral sense, we have no choice but to endure them in the hope they will. But just as a body’s reaction to a pathogenic virus can leave it in a weakened state, and so susceptible to other infections that would not prove problematic had the virus not come along, the economic social and cultural reactions the COVID-19 meme has caused will leave our societal bodies in much weakened states. It will take a substantial interval and sustained efforts for our societies to recover from their reaction to this infection. In thinking about the legacy COVID-19 will leave, especially in light of the knowledge that similar microbe/meme pandemics have happened in the past and will happen in the future, it will be important to remember that, unlike our body’s immunological reactions, we are in control of how our societies react to this and future infections. It is in our power to learn from this infection and so establish structures that will recognize the danger and take steps to mitigate harmful societal responses both to future pandemics and to other events of a holistically environmental nature, as they arrive.
Of course, this process is nothing more, or less, than an example of cultural adaptation and, as with all forms of adaptation, the key to success is diversity. But herein also lies danger. Drawing, once again metaphorically on natural systems in the immediate wake of a supervolcano eruption, asteroid impact, or ice age, the strategies that lead to successful postevent diversification are unknown. Some lineages remain more-or-less unchanged and continue to pursue old established ways. Others undergo rapid and profound alteration in their approaches to life. Success always belongs to whichever strategies work best for whatever reason. Moreover, adaptations that confer an advantage, whatever their origin and however slight, can eventually displace those that don’t, irrespective of the success the latter may have enjoyed previously. Prior incumbency is no guarantor of success in the aftermath of a profound dislocation.
As it is with nature, so it is with the social factors of culture, economics, and politics. Humans can do many things that are highly unusual, even unique. But, by definition, humans can never do anything that’s unnatural. Owing to the manner in which human cultures have responded to the COVID-19 infection, many of their most cherished mores, traditions, and institutions have, to all intents and purposes, been suspended. It’s far too early to tell which will survive after the crisis has passed and in what state. What can be said with a fair degree of certainty, however, is that aspects of the world of tomorrow may be very different from the world of yesterday and that the challenges we’ll face in coping with that world won’t end with our society’s survival; they’ll only have begun.
6 April 2020
Norman McLeod teaches at the School of Earth Sciences and Engineering, Nanjing University, China NMacLeod@nju.edu.cn