If we want to resist the intrusion of coronavirus into our sphere, we will have to be stronger and smarter than it is
It is only natural to think of the coronavirus as a disease or as an agent of disease; from our perspective, it seems that the sole aim of the coronavirus is to make us sick and as such it seems to be nothing but pure evil. The usefulness of the concept of evil as a philosophical and sociological construct aside, I suggest that it would be a good idea to think of the coronavirus, or any virus, as a parasite, so to think of it from a more neutral perspective, one that considers the virus’ point of view as well as our own, if I dare to be so equanimous and equitable about an agent that is causing quite a bit of stress on local, national, regional and global scales.
A good place to start is to remember that the goal of the parasite is to reproduce. It is the same goal that human beings have; it just takes a group of evolutionary biologists and a sprinkling of social scientists to make the connections for us. The late, great and embattled Sigmund Freud kicked off the whole modern conversation on this topic by positing that the motivation for all that we do resides in the process of sexual reproduction, what he called the life drive. Later he added the death drive to account for a certain existential exhaustion that sets in, but we can address that later.
So the little virus — and viruses are little, so little that they can parasitize a single bacterium — spends a great deal of energy on finding the best host available. In the case of the coronavirus, and let’s speak specifically about COVID-19 here, it used to reside in nonhuman animals, apparently the kind that are bought and sold in China’s so called ‘wet markets’, animals that are considered wild and exotic, and which are not raised commercially for human consumption, and yet are the basis of a thriving trade.
Given the distanced relations between these species and us, at least as compared to those we have with more domesticated animals, such as dogs, cats and other animals we keep as pets, and cows, pigs, chickens and other animals we raise for consumption, we have not developed an immunity to the microbes they carry, to their presence in our bodies. In fact, we have many viruses and bacteria living on and in us, as well as a few fungi her and there, and we either get along with them quite fine or even rely upon them quite heavily to go about our daily lives, including digesting the food we eat.
But once a microbe such as COVID-19 enters our blood stream, through our nose, our mouth, our eyes or some other portal, we get sick because our body is not adapted to its presence within us, either through developing some way to take advantage of its agency within us, or at least by neutralizing its presence.
As far as the virus is concerned, all it wants to do is complete its reproductive cycle. It no doubt has found a new host in us Homo sapiens, our rich, warm blood providing the nutrients it needs to develop and reproduce. And what a treasure trove it has found in us, we who are so dominant and mobile on the face of the earth, commanders of so many resources, swift and powerful vectors who travel over land and consume or subdue pretty much whatever we like. If you are a parasite and are looking for a host who will support your mission to grow as populous and powerful as possible, you can do no better than human beings. That is, if you can make the relationship work.
If you are a parasite, it is a bad move to make your host so sick that you kill it. If that happens, you can no longer use them as a host, especially a thriving and mobile one that will continue to support your development and reproduction; you are essentially killing the goose that lays the golden egg, which is not a smart move. Likewise, if you make your host so sick that it starts resisting your presence, such as by quarantining itself or developing medicines, vaccines and other forms of medical treatment that it uses to counteract your development and reproductive efforts, you will similarly end a good thing. So if you are a parasite, symbiosis with an aim toward mutual benefit is probably the best approach, but it is not always possible. And in fact it may not even be a conscious choice, as sophisticated as parasites are in the ways of the world, in the ways of inter-species and cross-kingdom relations.
Of course, this entire discussion is cold comfort to you if you or someone you love is suffering from a COVID-19 infection. To use the language of war, however, such as by referring to the virus as a tiranno or tyrant, as one Italian health official has, is probably no more helpful. COVID-19 is not waging war on human beings anymore than human beings are waging war on a nest of mice when they plow a field. But far be it for me to criticize any party who sees it this way, since the biological, philosophical, social or legal intentions behind any act of violence bear little relevance to the entity who is on the receiving end.
What is helpful, I think, is to quell the human tendency toward self protection by raising the holy but secular cry of culture, of defending and preserving a particular way of life, whether that is characterized by free and frequent mobility, physical displays of infection, or assumptions of superiority. We all have to get along if we are going to share this world, whether we like it or not. Sometimes, those whom we do not like and who do not like us will be stronger and smarter than we are, so if we want to resist their intrusion into our sphere, we will have to be stronger and smarter than they are, and that takes discipline, and reason, and calm.
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