An Era of Pandemics? What is Global and What is Planetary About COVID-19

Dipesh Chakrabarty

Let me state at the outset the point that I wish to get across in this short essay.

The current moment of the COVID-19 pandemic belongs not only to the global history of capitalism and its destructive impact on human life, but it also represents a moment in the history of biological life on this planet when humans are acting as the amplifiers of a virus whose host reservoir may have been some bats in China for millions of years. Bats are an old species, they have been around for about fifty million years—viruses for much, much longer. In the Darwinian history of life, all forms of life seek to increase their chances of survival. The novel coronavirus has, thanks to the demand for exotic meat in China, jumped species and has now found a wonderful agent in humans that allows it spread worldwide. Why? Because humans, very social creatures, now exist in very large numbers in big urban concentrations on a planet that is crowded with them, and most of them are extremely mobile in pursuit of their life opportunities. Our history in recent decades has been that of the Great Acceleration and expansion of the global economy in the emancipatory hope that this will pull millions of humans out of poverty. Or at least that has been the moral justification behind the rapid economic growth in certain nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. From the point of view of the virus, however, the environmental disturbance this has caused and the fact of human global mobility have been welcome developments. Humans may win their battle against the virus––I really hope they do––but the virus has already won the war. This is no doubt an episode in the Darwinian history of life. And the changes it causes will be momentous both in our global history and in the planetary history of biological life.

The Global: Great Acceleration and the Emerging Era of Pandemics

That we did not have this tragic global pandemic a decade or so ago now appears to have been purely a matter of human luck. A team of scientists in Hong Kong warned the scientific community some thirteen years ago, in 2007, that because coronaviruses were “well known to undergo genetic recombination” that could lead to “new genotypes and outbreaks,” the “presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the reemergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored.”[1] The warning was not heeded.[2] The “most crucial factor” about SARS-CoV, remarked David Quammen in Spillover (2012), was the way it affected the human body: “Symptoms tend to appear in a person before, rather than after, that person becomes highly infectious.”[3] “The much darker story,” Quammen observed, “remains to be told” (S, p. 207). Scientists were guessing that when the “Next Big One” came, it would likely conform to the opposite pattern: “high infectivity preceding notable symptoms” (S, p. 207). The “moral” is his finding, Quammen thought, was this: “If you are a thriving population, living at high density but exposed to new bugs, it’s just a matter of time until the Next Big One arrives” (S, p. 290). Prophetic words, but nobody was listening in either 2007 or in 2012.

Pandemics and epidemics have accompanied humans ever since the invention of agriculture and the domestication of animals. Hunter-gatherer communities also suffered some infectious diseases, but, “like the sparse populations of our primate relatives, they suffered infectious diseases with characteristics permitting them to persist in small populations, unlike crowd epidemic diseases.”[4] Agriculture with the concomitant domestication of animals played “multiple roles in the evolution of animal pathogens into human pathogens.”[5] Humans have seen many epidemics and pandemics since the rise of agriculture. But the difference today is this: These crises of the past “were once separated by centuries, or at least many decades,” write the infectious-diseases specialist David Morens and his coauthors in a recent paper, but the emergence of these diseases is now becoming more frequent.[6] Beginning from 2003, Morens and his colleagues recount the outbreak in seventeen years of at least five pandemics or potential pandemics in the world: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS, 2003), “a near pandemic;” an influenza pandemic (H1N1 pdm, 2009), a chikungunya pandemic (2014), a Zika pandemic (2015), and a “pandemic-like extension of Ebola over five African countries” (2014–2015) (“P,” p. 1). They grant that “the meaning of the word ‘pandemic’ has recently been reinterpreted according to differing agendas,” and yet conclude with words that stare us in the face: “It seems clear that we now live in an era of pandemics, newly emerging infectious diseases, and the return of old contagious foes” (“P,” p. 1). A more recent paper by Morens and Anthony Fauci comes to the same conclusion:

Newly emerging (and re-emerging) infectious diseases have been threatening humans since the Neolithic revolution, 12,000 years ago, when human hunter-gatherers settled into villages to domesticate animals and cultivate crops. . . . Ancient emerging zoonotic diseases with deadly consequences include smallpox, falciparum malaria, measles, and bubonic/pneumonic plague. . . . [But] the past decade has witnessed unprecedented pandemic explosions: H1N1 “swine” influenza (2009), chikungunya (2014), and Zika (2015), as well as pandemic-like emergence of Ebola fever over large parts of Africa (2014 to the present) . . . . One can conclude from this recent experience that we have entered a pandemic era.[7]

All of the pandemics named here, and Middle East respiratory syndrome MERS that emerged into humans from dromedary camels in 2012, are zoonotic in origin––they are infections that have resulted from viruses and bacteria switching hosts from wild animals to humans, sometimes via other animals. A 2005 inquiry found that “zoonotic bugs accounted for 58 percent” of 1,407 “recognized species of human pathogen” (S, p. 44). A 2012 review of the sixth International Conference on Emerging Zoonoses, held in Cancun, Mexico, on 24–27 February 2011 with eighty-four participants from eighteen countries noted that “some 75 percent of emerging zoonoses worldwide” were of “wildlife origins.”[8] It further remarked: “With 1.5 billion animals being imported into the United States each year, as well as an extensive international illegal animal exports . . . EcoHealth has become a necessity, not an optional policy goal.”[9] The majority (92 percent) of imports of animals into the US, we learn from another study of 2009, “were designated for commercial purposes, largely the pet trade.”[10] Nearly 80 per cent of shipments contained wild animals, the majority of which had had “no mandatory testing for pathogens before or after shipment,” and nearly 70 percent of imported live animals “originated in Southeast Asia . . . a hotspot for emerging zoonotic diseases.”[11]

 What causes pandemics? Morens and his colleagues could not have been more blunt in their answer to this question: “Human beings are the ultimate causes of pandemics.” They point out that it is “deforestation, agricultural intensification, urbanization, and ecosystem disruption” that “bring people into contact with wildlife and their potentially zoonotic pathogens” (“P,” p. 4). This opinion is not exceptional by any chance. Most studies of pandemics underline this conclusion. Quammen writes: “To put the matter in its starkest form: Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations, while human technology and behavior are spreading those pathogens ever more widely and quickly. . . . There are three elements to the situation,” he explains––humans are

causing the disintegration . . . of natural ecosystems at a cataclysmic rate. Logging, road building, slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting and eating of wild animals . . . clearing forest to create cattle pasture, mineral extraction, urban settlement, suburban sprawl, chemical pollution, nutrient runoff to the oceans, mining the oceans unsustainably for seafood, climate change . . . and other “civilizing” incursions upon natural landscape––by all such means, we are tearing ecosystems apart. [S, pp. 40–41]

Second, “millions of unknown creatures” that inhabit such ecosystems­­––including “viruses, bacteria, fungi, protists”––constitute what virologists call the “’virosphere,’ a vast realm of organisms that probably dwarfs every other group” (S, p. 41). And finally, “the disruption of natural ecosystems seems more and more to be unloosing such microbes into the wider world” (S, p. 41). “Spillover” is indeed the term used by “disease ecologists . . . to denote the moment when a pathogen passes from members of one species, as host, into members of another” (S, p. 43).

This understanding of the frequent emergence of zoonotic infectious diseases is backed up by several other publications: The United Nation’s Environment Programme’s Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission (2020) and The Loss of Nature and the Rise of Pandemics (2020) published by Word Wide Fund for Nature.[12] The first publication highlights “seven major anthropogenic drivers of zoonotic disease emergence”: (1) increasing demand for animal protein particularly in Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa where “per capita increase in animal protein consumption has been accompanied in many low- and middle-income countries by significant growth in population;” (2) unsustainable agricultural intensification, in particular of domestic livestock farming that “results in large numbers of genetically similar animals” more vulnerable to infection (swine flu being a case in point); (3) increased use and exploitation of wildlife; (4) unsustainable use of natural resources accelerated by urbanization, land use change and extractive industries that include mining, oil and gas extraction, logging, and encouraging “new or expanded interactions between people and wildlife:” (5) the increasing amount of human travel and trade; (6) changes in food supply chains driven by “increased demand for animal source food, new markets [including “wet” markets] for wildlife food, and poorly regulated agricultural intensification;” (7) climate change as “many zoonoses are climate sensitive and a number of them will thrive in a warmer, wetter, and more disaster-prone world foreseen in future scenarios.”[13]

The publication by the World Wide Fund for Nature, The Loss of Nature and the Rise of Pandemics, puts forward very similar propositions:

Human activities are causing cataclysmic changes to our planet. The growing human population and rapid increases in consumption have led to profound changes in land cover, rivers and oceans, the climate system, biogeochemical cycles and the way ecosystems function – with major implications for our own health and well-being. According to the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), three-quarters of land and two-thirds of the marine environment have been modified in a significant way, and around 1 million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction. WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018 charts a 60% average decline in abundance of vertebrate populations across the globe in just over 40 years. . . . Land-use change, including deforestation and the modification of natural habitats, are responsible for nearly half of emerging zoonoses.[14]

A study sponsored in the early 2000s by the Johns Hopkins University and the Cameroon Ministries of Health and Defense of Cameroon investigated in detail the impact of deforestation on traditional wildlife hunters. Authors of the study observed that “selective cutting” of high-value timber species––the chosen method of logging in Central Africa for reasons of costs of extraction and transportation––involved “constructing roads and transporting workers into relatively pristine forest regions.”[15] This in turn affected both hunting patterns and the reservoir hosts for pathogens. Building logging roads led to habitat fragmentation for wildlife. In some cases, it resulted in a loss of the “richness” of the “vertebrate reservoir host species” (“B,” p. 1823). This loss of diversity in the host species leads to an “increased abundance of highly competent reservoir of some zoonotic agents, increasing the risk for transmission to humans” (“B,” p. 1823). This fragmentation could also increase the zone of contact between human populations and reservoir hosts. The authors of the study write: “Historically, hunting activities radiated in a circular fashion from isolated villages, with decreasing impact at the periphery of the hunting range. . . . Roadside transport means that hunters can lay traps and hunt at the same distance from roads. This [shift] . . . from a circular pattern to a banded pattern [of human-animal contact] surrounding developed roads” increased the area of hunting and the risk for microbial emergence (“B,” p. 1823).

All this makes the pandemic a part of the phase of globalization that we equate with the Great Acceleration: the exponential increase, since the 1950s, in all parameters of growth of human presence on the planet, of economies, of travel, of population numbers, of greenhouse gas emissions, of human consumption, of human mobility, and so on. A recent (2017) report from the Brookings Institution informs us that:

It was only around 1985 that the middle class [with capacity for purchasing consumer gadgets] reached 1 billion people, about 150 years after the start of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. It then took 21 years, until 2006, for the middle class to add a second billion; much of this reflects the extraordinary growth of China. The third billion was added to the global middle class in nine years. Today we are on pace to add another billion in seven years and a fifth billion in six more years, by 2028.[16]

This is indeed the story of the intensification the process of globalization has undergone at the beginning of this century with China emerging as an industrial-military powerhouse of the world. Deforestation, loss wildlife habitat and biodiversity, factors that contributed majorly to the rise of this “era of pandemics” are thus critical parts of the story of the Great Acceleration of the global regime of capital.

But there is another aspect to the pandemic that points to the process that Bruno Latour and I discussed elsewhere under the heading, “The Global Reveals the Planetary.”[17] This emerges clearly when we read how virologists and specialists of infectious diseases understand the role of viruses in stories to do with pandemics. Understanding the emergence of this new era of pandemics actually requires us to look not only at the Great Acceleration of the process of globalization but also into the deep history of the evolution of life on this planet and how the current pandemic constitutes an episode in that history as well. This is what I briefly consider in the next section before concluding this essay.

The Pandemic and the Planetary

In a 2004 article examining “the challenge of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases,” Morens, Gregory Folkers, and Fauci opened their essay with a discussion of the only natural predators humans had failed to conquer in their technological and evolutionary history: microbial forms of life. They remembered the warning that Richard Krause, the Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases from 1975 to 1984, issued in The Persistent Tide (1981), that “microbial diversity and evolutionary vigor were still dynamic forces threatening mankind.”[18] They ended their article by referring to the role that the evolution of microbes played in the history of infectious diseases. “Underlying disease emergence are evolutionary conflicts between rapidly evolving and adapting infectious agents and their slowly evolving hosts,” they wrote (“C,” p. 248). “These are fought out,” they added, “in the context of accelerating environmental and human behavioral alterations that provide new ecological niches into which evolving microbes can readily fit” (“C,” p. 248). This is an ongoing, unending battle in which humans are forced constantly to improve and upgrade their technology while the microbes evolve and manage, in particular situations often created by humans themselves, to switch hosts. In concluding their essay, Morens and Fauci observe:

The challenge presented by the ongoing conflict between pathogenic microorganisms and man has been well summarized by a noted champion of the war on EIs [emerging infections], [the Nobel Laureate] Joshua Lederberg, “The future of microbes and mankind will probably unfold as episodes of a suspense thriller that could be entitled Our Wits Versus Their Genes.” [“C,” p. 248]

Morens and Fauci return to this theme in their recent reflections on the current pandemic: “In the ancient ongoing struggle between microbes and man,” they write, “genetically adapted microbes have the upper hand in consistently surprising us and often catching us unprepared” (“E,” p. 1078). Even the technologies we create to fight microbes to ensure human flourishing generally open up new pathways of infection and evolution. This point was very clearly made in another paper on infectious diseases by Nathan Wolfe, Claire Dunavan, and Jared Diamond:

The emergence of novel pathogens is now being facilitated by modern developments exposing more potential human victims and/or making transmission between humans more efficient than before. These developments include blood transfusion (hepatitis C), the commercial bushmeat trade (retroviruses), industrial food production (bovine spongiform encephalitis, BSE), international travel (cholera), intravenous drug use (HIV), vaccine production (Simian virus 40), and susceptible pools of elderly, antibiotic-treated, immunosuppressed patients.[19]

A particular evolutionary advantage that coronaviruses––one strain of which is currently a pain in the backside of humanity (if we could imagine a body-social for this abstract entity!)––have over humans is the “genetic instability of microorganisms allowing rapid microbial evolution to adapt to ever-changing ecologic niches” (“E,” p. 1080). This, Morens and Fauci say:

is particularly true of RNA viruses such as influenza virus, flaviviruses, enteroviruses, and coronaviruses, which have an inherently deficient or absent polymerase error-correction mechanisms [no proofreading capacity, in other words, as they reproduce themselves] and are transmitted as quasispecies or swarms of many, often hundreds or thousands of, genetic variants [which makes it difficult to humans to fight them]. [“E,” p. 1080]

This is fundamentally an evolutionary struggle that reminds us that humans, the species called Homo sapiens, for all their mastery of technology, are not outside of the Darwinian history of life and evolution that unfolds on this planet. Infectious diseases in humans are about microbial survival “by [their] co-opting certain of our genetic, cellular, and immune mechanisms to ensure their continuing transmission” (“E,” p. 1078). Morens and Fauci refer to Richard Dawkins on this point: “Evolution occurs on the level of gene competition and we, phenotypic humans, are merely genetic ‘survival machines’ in the competition between microbes and humans” (“E,” p. 1078). As human degradation of the environment creates opportunities for coronaviruses of various strains to switch hosts by moving from their reservoir hosts to various mammalian species, they get preadapted to human cells by working inside other mammalian bodies. Morens and Fauci write: “Viruses have deep evolutionary roots in the cellular world. This is exemplified by the SARS-like bat b-coronavirus, or sarbecoronavirus, whose receptor binding domains appear to be hyper-evolving by sampling a variety of mammalian receptors” (“E,” p. 1980). And they go on to add: “Evidence suggests that there are many bat coronaviruses pre-adapted to emerge, and possibly to emerge pandemically” (“E,” p. 1081).

Ultimately, these infectious diseases remind us of the deep evolutionary connections that exist between our bodies and other bodily forms of life (one reason why we can develop vaccines by testing them first on other animals). Quammen makes the point in a telling fashion:

By a strict definition, zoonotic pathogens (accounting for about 60 percent of our infectious diseases) are those that presently and repeatedly pass between humans and other animals, whereas the other group of infections (40 percent, including smallpox, measles, and polio) are caused by pathogens descended from forms that must have made the leap to human ancestors sometime in the past. It might be going too far to say that all our diseases are ultimately zoonotic, but zoonoses do stand as evidence of the infernal, aboriginal connectedness between us and other kinds of host. [S, p. 137]

What is planetary then about the current pandemic is that, for all the human tragedy it has already caused and will cause (partly due to the failures of political leadership), it is an episode in the evolutionary history of life on this planet. In the struggle between microbes and humans, made more acute by factors that have contributed to the Great Acceleration of processes of globalization, “it may be a matter of perspectives [as to] who is in the evolutionary driver’s seat,” comment Morens and Fauci––microbes or humans (“E,” p. 1078). Microbial forms of life have persisted on this planet for 3.8 billion years. Homo sapiens have been around for 300,000 years. “This perspective, say Morens and Fauci, “has implications for how we think about and react to emerging infectious disease threats” (“E,” p. 1078).


Dipesh Chakrabarty is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History and South Asian Studies at the University of Chicago. He is the author of, most recently, “The Planet: An Emergent Humanist Category,” in the Autumn 2019 issue of Critical Inquiry. He is also a consulting editor for the journal.


Thanks are due to Fredrik A. Jonsson for discussing some of these ideas with me.

[1] Vincent C. C. Cheng et al., “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection,” Clinical Microbiology Reviews 20 (Oct. 2007): 683.

[2] See David M. Morens et al., “Prespective Piece: The Origin of COVID-19 and Why It Matters,” American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 103, no. 3 (2020): 955.

[3] David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (New York, 2012), pp. 207–208; hereafter abbreviated S.

[4] Nathan Wolfe, Claire Panosian Dunavan, and Jared Diamond, “Origins of Major Human Infectious Diseases,” Nature, 17 May 2007, p. 281

[5] Ibid.

[6] David M. Morens et al., “Pandemic COVID-19 Joins History’s Pandemic Legion,” mBio 11 (May/June 2020): 1; hereafter abbreviated “P.” 

[7] Morens and Anthony S. Fauci, “Emerging Pandemic Diseases: How We Got to COVID-19,” Cell, 3 Sept. 2020, p. 1077; hereafter abbreviated “E.”

[8] R. E. Kahn et al., “Meeting Review: 6th International Conference on Emerging Zoonoses,” Zoonoses and Public Health 59 (2012), p. 6.

[9] Ibid., p. 7.

[10] Katherine F. Smith et al., “Reducing the Risks of the Wildlife Trade,” Science, 1 May 2009, p. 594.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See The United Nations Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute, Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission (Nairobi, 2020); World Wide Fund for Nature, The Loss of Nature and the Rise of Pandemics (Gland, 2020).

[13] Preventing the Next Pandemic, pp. 15–17.

[14] The Loss of Nature, p. 14.

[15] Wolfe et al., “Bushmeat Hunting, Deforestation, and Prediction of Zoonotic Disease Emergence,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 11 (Dec. 2005):1823; hereafter abbreviated “B.”

[16] Hannes Bergthaller, “Thoughts on Asia and the Anthropocene,” in The Anthropocenic Turn: The Interplay Between Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Responses to a New Age, ed. Gabriele Dürbeck and Phillip Hüpkes(New York, 2020), pp. 78–79.

[17] See Bruno Latour and Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Global Reveals the Planetary,” in Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, ed. Latour and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, Mass., 2020), pp. 24­–31.

[18] Morens, Gregory K. Folkers, and Fauci, “The Challenge of Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases,” Nature 430, 8 July 2004, p. 242; hereafter abbreviated “C.” The full title of Richard Krause’s book is The Restless Tide: The Persistent Challenge of the Microbial World (Washington, D.C., 1981). For biographical details on Richard Krause (1925–2015), see Morens, “Richard M. Krause: The Avancular Avatar of Microbial Science,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) 113 (Feb. 2016): 1681–683.

[19] Wolfe, Dunavan, and Diamond, “Origins,” p. 282.

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