Living with Covid-19: invisible enemy or unruly guest?

As an anthropologist with an interest in milk production in human/non-human relations, invisibles such as bacteria who might contaminate milk have long been an interest of mine. Alongside Bruno Latour’s seminal work The Pasteurization of France that accounts for how we (humans) have become aware of the invisibles, other scholars such as Elisabeth Dunn, Donna Haraway, Stefan Helmreich,  Myra Hird and Heather Paxson have all written about the relations we have with the non-human invisibles whom we encounter on a daily basis.

Although these scholars have focused on our relations with bacterial invisibles, rather than viral ones such as Covid-19, their insights can help us to think about our current struggles with coronavirus. Bacteria and viruses share invisibility to the human eye, and both rely on interdependent relations with their hosts.

One very important point this body of literature makes is that our connection with bacteria should be treated as a social relation, which I think is essential to remember when we consider our present interactions with Covid-19. Some readers might initially baulk at this suggestion that human relations with a virus are in fact social – after all, Covid-19 has no agency in a human sense, one might argue.

But then you can think about it in this way: Covid-19 does “make choices” in the sense that its lethal drive is targeted primarily to older people and those with underlying conditions – it does kill younger healthy people too, but in much lower numbers. Covid-19 “prefers” crowded places with bad ventilation and “thrives” when people are close to each other and within range of those now infamous droplets.

Covid-19 murder instincts are particularly indulged when health systems have been underfunded for years, and there is lack of ICU beds and ventilators. In these and other ways, Covid-19 acts as an agent – a non-human entity, but an agent nonetheless. What is more, Covid-19 is an invisible agent, making it all the more insidious and hard to grasp in conventional terms.

And that is how scholars in the social sciences and humanities can contribute a thorough understanding and applicable insights to fight the pandemic: we have the tools to study human-virus interactions from perspectives that are often neglected by biological and medical sciences, but are key to understand the systemic effects of the virus.

So where do we start? The first step I think concerns the war metaphor that we have heard so many times in the last days. Returning to the literature on bacteria for a moment, in his writing about the pasteurians – the followers of 19th century French microbiologist Louis Pasteur – Latour describes them as the “revealers” of bacteria. By pointing out the presence of these “millions of individuals who (are) moving about who we cannot see”, he has argued that pasteurians reorganised society, the effect being that people had to make room for these invisible agents in their everyday movements. Since then, a war literally ensued where the dominant approach was to try and destroy these bacterial invisibles, for instance through heating them up, or wiping them with antimicrobial detergents.

In our current relation with Covid-19, we can see that microbiologists and epidemiologists have taken on the role of pasteurians: they are the ones who tell us where Covid-19 is, and what we need to do to stop its spread. As in Latour’s account of 19th century France, society is being reorganised, and we are having to adjust our daily lives to the invisible presence of coronavirus.

But one thing that scholars interested in human-bacteria relations have done, particularly in the writing of Paxson and her discussion on the concept of post-pasteurisation, is to challenge the perspective that we (humans) are in unequivocal conflict with bacteria. As Paxson’s work shows, cheese producers maintain a “selective partnership” with bacteria, where they work to “move beyond an antiseptic attitude to embrace mold and bacteria as allies”.

The microbiologist Maczulak has argued something similar, when she says that, rather than considering bacteria as enemies, or even as friendly enemies, we should approach them as powerful friends, who will never be defeated. This also evokes parallels with the current management of the HIV virus. People are now “living with it”, thanks to the availability of effective therapies.

To come back to the coronavirus, many epidemiologists, health service professionals, and politicians now employ the idioms of “war”, “battle”, and “conflict”. Images are broadcast around the world, showing the construction of vast field hospitals or the arrival of military hospital ships, which support the impression that we are at war with the virus.

Echoing the writing on relations between humans and bacteria, many have noted that the deployment of these metaphors is unhelpful, and possibly even dangerous. They warn that by describing our relationship with Covid-19 in this way, we unwittingly open the door for social practices that would not be deemed acceptable in times of peace – such as enabling unscrupulous figures to use this situation to introduce legislation that secures their positions, or allows increasingly intrusive levels of surveillance on citizens.

We then need to rethink our narrative strategy. This of course does not mean that we should go as far as considering Covid-19 our ally. But when we stop thinking in conflict terms, we are able to focus on other aspects.

Our relations with these invisible unruly guests such as bacteria and viruses, also put into question the boundaries of the self. Are we separate self-contained bodies with clear boundaries with the external world? Or are we more like porous vessels where multiple flows of life are both “inside” and “outside”?

Is Covid-19 just “out there”, as we try to fortify our body against it? Or could it already be so proximate to us that keeping a low viral load and reducing exposure become essential for our biological survival, so that we can manage encounters with low amounts of the virus without getting severely ill?

These reflections bring into question where the human ends and the virus begins, but also show that what look to many as biological relations are actually almost always social.

Framing our relations with Covid-19 as inherently social will help us move beyond an oppositional politics of “us” against “the virus”. Until a vaccine or a treatment is available and widely distributed, we do need measures such as isolation, social distancing and various forms of health surveillance. But if we think of the virus as an unruly guest, rather than an enemy, we can more effectively and flexibly deploy measures that go against “business as usual”, without falling in the danger  of protracted states of exception that might harm the social fabric and democratic orientation of many societies.

Sarah Czerny is an Assistant Professor in social anthropology, and works at the Department of Cultural Studies, University of Rijeka, Croatia. She has a long term interest in human/non-human relations, particularly human relations with invisible critters, and has just finished the manuscript "Milky Ways: An Exploration into the (Non)Humanisation of Milk".

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution.

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