Two weeks ago I moved from Hong Kong (where I lived for a year) to Frankfurt. In the half empty plane I filled out a special form in which I wrote the address where I can be found and where I will be staying for the month.
At the airport in Frankfurt I was taken by surprise; surprised not by the reading of our body temperatures with infrared sensors, which is a practice that has been ubiquitously used at Hong Kong airport and passenger terminal long before COVID-19 appeared, but by their total absence.
I experienced a kind of liberating feeling – finally I had arrived in a place which was less affected by the virus while being farther away from a society which I perceived as fundamentally controlling – whether through diffuse social means or directly, politically.
Within less than two days, Lombardy went into quarantine, then all of Italy. Romania experienced a transition from discourses about the rescuing of its diaspora to ones about a now dangerous invading, plague-carrying diaspora.
Suddenly my own feelings turned from momentary release to that of insecurity. I started to think, or rather to feel, that I’m much more exposed to ‘contamination’ here in Europe than I ever was in Hong Kong.
Viruses are interesting biological entities, ribonucleic acid sequences that do not have all the characteristics of a living being. Viruses need host organisms to reproduce and spread. When the hosts are humans, viruses become, in a broader sense, anthropological entities.
This article is not and should not be used as a reference for the course of action that each of us, individually or collectively, as a society, should follow. This advice comes best from doctors, institutions and specialised bodies.
I will try, however, to show how the interaction between viruses and humans creates contrasting types of behaviours. These behaviours differentiate upon pre-existing cultural structures. These behaviours interact with technology, and have both expected and unexpected results – including interesting measures taken to control them by above-mentioned institutions.
When the hosts of viruses are humans, the life of the virus becomes cultural. An epidemic reveals the social and cultural mechanisms of a part of our world, it clarifies these institutional mechanisms and reveals the possible moral wellsprings of a society. A pandemic, as we are experiencing in the case of COVID-19, shows humanity at its best – or worst.
The epidemics have a story. However, each time, their story is told differently, in the cultural key of the respective era.
In her book “Contagious: Cultures, Carriers and the Story of Eruption”, Priscilla Wald identifies the general structure of this story that begins with identifying an infectious area and searching for the famous zero patient, continues with the spread through agents carrying the pathogen and usually ends with the intervention intended to contain the virus and possibly eliminate it.
Wald also shows how in every era viruses and illness stories acquire narrative forms specific to the era. Obviously, the way in which the story is told is not only influenced by the culture and events of the respective era, but it influences it, determining at the same time and to a large extent the speed of transmission and the consequences of the epidemics.
Historian Frank Snowden, author of “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Plague to the Present,” speaks in an interview for The New Yorker about various epidemics and their impact on history. He relates how plague and tuberculosis influenced art in different ways – plague by increasing visual meditations on death, and tuberculosis through its association with elites and creative-artistic classes and its representation as a form of beauty.
which you can read here
At the same time, he talks about how the typhoid fever ravaged Napoleon’s troops sent to Haiti to restore slavery, directly influencing the gain of independence in Haiti and causing Napoleon to sell Louisiana to Thomas Jefferson.
Probably the important observation for today’s context is the association of the destructive epidemics with the marginal and the poor classes in France, Snowden arguing that the massacres that followed the revolution of 1848 and the commune of Paris in 1871 were seen as acts of sanitation of the society by the physical elimination of the supposed hosts of the pathogens – the marginal and the working poor. Sounds familiar? It should.
A famous and recent virus, still present but apparently “domesticated”, is HIV. From the beginning he was associated with a certain type of marginality and stuck to the stories of the time.
HIV appeared during the Cold War, and the AIDS epidemic also had specific forms closely related to how the behavior in relation to it was influenced by the Iron Curtain narrative. While in the eastern part of the Iron Curtain the disease was presented as a measure of capitalist decadence, in capitalist societies the story oscillated between invasion and divine punishment for homosexuality (especially in conservative American media). Initial disregard of the disease in the East and delayed or even denied treatment in the West led to the rapid spread of the virus. Obviously viruses do not discriminate. People do.
To see how culture, virus and science link, an interesting example in this case is St. Paul’s Hospital from Vancouver who belongs to Providence Medical Authority under the patronage of the Catholic Church.
In the midst of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s Vancouver Central Hospital sent patients directly to St. Paul’s Hospital, without admitting them on the premises, not to mention treating them, often simply putting them in a taxi.
Although Catholicism was at that time against homosexuality, although the general belief was that HIV infects only homosexuals and members of the African American community, St. Paul’s Hospital chose to follow the requirement, also Catholic, to protect the most vulnerable, and those who came were admitted and treated with full medical attention. Access to cases, their care and documentation, have ‘naturally’ led to the establishment and development of one of the most prestigious HIV/AIDS research centers in the world by St. Paul’s Hospital.
more details about the centre here
Obviously, the subsequent evolution of the epidemic showed not only that the virus does not choose its carriers according to a divine or ideological plan, but especially that the way in which pre-existing culture and ideologies influenced the stories created about it in various societies and generated practices and recreated different propagation conditions. The drama of infected children in Romania in the 1980s and 1990s is closely linked to the exclusive imaginary association of the virus with Western decadence.
If HIV/AIDS was the epidemic of the Cold War, COVID-19 is the pandemic of globalization, the pandemic of a particular and unique discourse – the ideology of neoliberalism and free trade. If the story of globalization is related to the free exchange of goods and of financial markets that try to “escape” the regulatory control of hosting states, it can be expected that in these times the story of Neo-liberalism and free trade will also migrate to explanations of the way it functions that relate to viruses.
Like HIV and other newer viruses, the virus that causes COVID-19 comes from the viral “shedding” of the animal world into the human one. Avian flu, Swine flu, Mad Cow Disease, MERS, SARS are just some of many examples of viruses and other entities that have migrated to us mostly through our eating habits. The free exchange of viruses between humans and animals is gaining a global dimension.
The increase and densification of the human population, the creation of new routes of exchange and various roads and pathways that go deep into the animal habitat, the widening of the human food pallet for pleasure, experimentation or necessity; in other words, the increased size of the various interfaces and surfaces that can exist between humans and animals, all leads to the migration of these new viruses to a new host – us.
Not only do viruses not discriminate like humans do, they do not discriminate between humans and animals. It could be said that viruses have a ‘scientific’ perspective on life, one in which humans and animals belong to the same regnum: potential hosts.
The way in which the “spillover” from the animal to the human world works is very well presented in an interview with a virologist specialist in this particular subfield, Dennis Carroll.
read the interview here
The consensus is that the virus that causes COVID-19 emerged in Wuhan, China, and is associated with the huge animal market in the region. As viruses use the same spreading routes as humans do for travel, in the current global context, COVID-19 has spread relatively quickly around the world.
With it, however, various new ‘viruses of communication’ appeared as well. Influenced by the new types of media, the spread of fake news, there has been a dissolution of expert voices within the general cacophony. This, combined with the low confidence in the state institutions that has been generated in the last 30 years by the spread of the Neoliberal ideology of the free market economy which has accompanied the globalist discourse, has meant that the story of the new virus has been broken into punctual narratives that cloak the old clothes of “invasion” with the newest forms of world conspiracy.
First like Chinese goods, and then like Chinese population groups that have “invaded” the world market, both contributing significantly to the idea of globalization, the virus that causes COVID-19 has now “invaded” the entire planet.
Speech slips easily between viruses and humans by way of the new electronic viruses of communication, this time not discriminating between viruses and humans, but instead creating discrimination between people.
In the stories of “invasion”, the characteristics of the virus are transferred to people: in Southeast Asian countries, more or less racist discourses against the Chinese population have begun to appear in the public space. Outside Asia, discrimination is undifferentiated against all Asians – as was the case in recent attacks in Paris against a sushi restaurant. The attacks extend to people.
read the details about the attack
In China and Southeast Asia, the reactions to the epidemic were swift, with the states taking action and recommending new practices that the relatively disciplined population has embraced and put into practice. The new measures were adopted relatively easily, against the background of pre-existing practices of social responsibility (such as wearing masks when you have flu symptoms), leading to an increased degree of protection of the population under the given conditions.
The same cannot be said about Europe. Here the recommendations of the specialists are interpreted within a local mindset of distrust of institutions, especially of the European or transnational institutions. These recommendations are then decoded through the magnifying glass of human rights; rights that emphasize individual decision making, often forgetting the social aspect of individuals themselves and their fundamental dependence on others.
When the virus creates new outbreaks of infection, the human discriminatory discourse also slips to a focus on those associated with these outbreaks. This was evident in Romania when people from the Romanian diaspora living in Italy began to return to their country of origin after the outbreak of the epidemic in Italy. This was often done against medical advice. These people then “became” the new invaders.
Policy makers reacted to the news of their arrival, using and interpreting the advice of specialists in relation to the local political culture. This was also seen in measures taken everywhere else in Europe. Some states are now slipping into isolationist tendencies that were already present in local politics and which have a deep bearing on the attitudes of the population.
The closure of borders comes very fast in some countries and happens much slower or not at all in others. The adoption of this particular measure is like a map of our confidence in the European project and has nothing to do with the effectiveness of the measure. This is because both practitioners and specialists clearly say – borders do not stop viruses, only behaviour changes are effective.
The case of the measures considered in the UK – the idea of controlling the spread through the generation of so-called group or herd immunity is highly controversial, as is everything else in British politics. A cynical look at this measure could say that it actually ignores and exposes the most vulnerable in Britain to the virus, the aging and also the most underprivileged parts of the population – ironically, the ones who voted for Brexit and led to the election of the current government.
Arguably, this population-based bet is based on assumptions about viral behaviour (scientifically not fully understood yet) that betray an extreme type of managerial view of the problem, one that is completely devoid of empathy at an individual level. For many, herd immunity fully rhymes with many ideas of social Darwinism (a concept which actually has nothing to do with Darwin and his theory, but evolved from Spencer’s subsequent interpretation of it during a later period). As with Brexit isolationism, the medium- and long-term social consequences of herd immunity are simply unknown.
If ‘communicative’ viruses that spread stories about contagious viruses are associated with a kind of immaterial technology, it is worth remembering that in fact all technology has material support and that viruses themselves need material support when traveling outside of their host bodies.
According to recent studies, the virus we are talking about survives differently on different surfaces. Non-porous surfaces such as plastic or steel favour their survival. If steel has long been present among us and is associated in various different ways with the spread of viruses (see also Jared Diamond’s book, “Guns, Germs and Steel“), plastic is the matter of globalization, being the prevalent material of devices that facilitate communication within global life – mobile phones, computers, aircraft interiors, aircraft interior’s interiors (air conditioning tubes, filters, cable insulation, etc.).
An even more interesting feature, and one that is deeply cultural and related to the discourse of the free financial market, is the very quality of the plastic and steel surfaces that enables survival and transmission of the virus – their non-porosity. The current discourse of modernity and globalization generates a preference for totally smooth, non-porous surfaces; surfaces that provide no obstacle to flow of any kind (of goods or capital).
We want everything in life – especially goods and capital – to slide smoothly, without interference, without the concern for cultural specificities, without the “obstacles” brought on by an over-regulatory state or by an interfering international body. We translate this unconsciously through an architecture and design based on extremely smooth surfaces; from steel and glass giant skyscrapers, to polished marble, to laminate toilets, through furniture covered by transparent layers of non-porous epoxy.
The current virus has emerged and “feels” good in this context. We can say, in fact, that the current state of its existence and its spread across the world was created by the ever present context of globalization. Viruses are entities that exploit their environment and find intersections within it in order to enhance their spread.
The smoothness of globalization offers the virus that causes COVID-19 an extremely conducive environment for its transmission – as effective an environment as that which exists for computer viruses and the financial transactions that spread across the world through virtual networks.
Along with masks and disinfectants, toilet paper was among the various goods that quickly disappeared from the shelves in Hong Kong when the epidemic erupted. The same thing happened later in Europe – when I moved to Frankfurt I was very surprised to see all the empty shelves.
Beyond the more rational or less rational justifications or explanations that might be given for these compulsive purchases of toilet paper, there is among them the psychoanalytic theory of control. Control over our bodily orifices is the first form of control we exert over the environment. The desire for toilet paper can express an impulse to control what is an individually uncontrollable situation, a situation such as a pandemic.
If the virus responsible for COVID-19 is both an outcome and expression of the emergence of free-market globalism, control can only come from state or supra-state bodies. However, the important feature here is the word control. In a way, the emergence of this virus signals that the autonomous, self-controlling free market paradigm is problematic for human life itself and to existence of life outside of the human sphere.
The economy stagnates if people do not and are not allowed to move: the economy is not a separate entity from people, with a life of its own, but, like the virus, the economy is supported by the carriers, that is, it is supported by people. A mistake of Neoliberal globalism has been to assert and impose the possibility of free movement of goods and capital in the absence of, or by restricting the free movement of people. By postulating the need for this freedom of movement in material or abstract entities (goods, capital), Neoliberalism has tried to gain control over and subvert our regulatory bodies.
Not recognizing themselves as actual viruses, building on and exploiting the parts of the world which states have failed to protect (for instance, the jungle, forests and rivers), freely invading the environment and controlling or reducing state influence in key areas such as health and education, the neo-liberal economy and its free market practices have generated their own viruses that take advantage of this new environment of free movement.
In response, these virtual viruses remind us of the importance of regulation and of our need for collective thinking. And we are reminded of the fact that individual humans cannot survive outside of the collectivity of our species. As one viral cartoon on the Internet says, the intention of COVID-19 is not to kill the host (and by the way, viruses that kill their host are “stupid” and disappear quickly), but to draw attention to the need for health systems based on our collective effort and support.
For those who think in absolute terms, do not confuse Neoliberalism with democracy. Neo-liberalism is no more than a viral mutation of capitalism; it is not capitalism itself nor is it the condition of democracy. On the contrary, Neoliberalism is an illness, as is COVID-19. It might simply be true that Neoliberalism is in reality a bad virus, one which will kill its hosts, that is, it kills both democracy and capitalism.
The divergent reactions that various societies, states, and international bodies have to the virus are closely linked to the ideologies they embrace.
In China, I saw total state control. In Hong Kong it has been a more nuanced response – control is more diffuse, social, and not necessarily authoritarian (especially in the context of the protests now raging). South Korea has acted through mass testing and the application without limits or care for “who will pay” of the latest technologies, and the society there is following the rules and applying them without derogation. From North Korea we have no news, for obvious reasons.
Europe, at the country level, reacted according to the confidence of each in the European political project, and at the individual level translated the proposed or imposed regulation on the population within the dominant key of individual rights – including the right to interpret the danger of the virus using each individual country’s own expertise within the full spectrum of their own perceived invincibility (I do not touch the virus, so I do not submit to it), all the way from there to extreme national hypochondria (let’s do like China and suspend all rights because only that way will we defeat the virus).
It is interesting how, in many comments, Asia appears as a model of collective action, and “Asians” are given as examples of social and collective responsibility. In these discourses, responsibility and care for the other appear as important in the general adoption of the rules, which is true, but what escapes Westerners when I talk about this subject is the source of this behaviour.
It is presented as an individual responsibility (that is, in the Western key of the individual’s choice to be responsible). Not so! The source of this display of responsibility is a form of social control based on the logic of shame, not on the ethics of individual responsibility.
The fear of “losing face” is what makes people responsible here. It is not an individual feeling of deep responsibility towards the other as an individual, but to his own community of belonging. If an individual makes mistakes (and getting contaminated in Hong Kong for example is seen as a result of one’s own responsibility, because one did not follow the rules), his mistake extends to his community of belonging, first of all the family, with which he experiences shame.
So, in other parts of the world, where a shame ethic is less present, the “Asian model” or South Korean practices, for example, cannot be adopted. Any model must be adapted or it will simply adapt by itself. So the question is not why China does it, but why would we do it? It is important to find an acceptable answer that resonates both emotionally and culturally – one that resonates beyond the coercion of a state of necessity that is declared politically.
There is certainly hope and hopefully some certainty that the effort to contain and control this new virus will be successful. This possibility will only co-emerge with the simultaneous containment of neo-liberal ‘viruses.’ Rest to be seen how we can control both of them through collective effort.