Covid, Contagion and Resilience

Jul 5, 2021 | Projects, Transformations (Issue 3)

Written by Gerald Moore

We know that Covid-19 is a ‘syndemic’ over and above a pandemic, a contagion whose virality is a product of social circumstance just as much as biology.((Richard Horton, ‘Offline: COVID-19 is not a pandemic’, The Lancet, September 26, 2020. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(20)32000-6)) One’s chance of being affected by SARS-Cov-2 is subject to a range of markers including race,((Parth Patel, ‘Ethnicity and covid-19’, BMJ, June 2020; 369, m2282. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.m2282)) gender and class,((Richard V. Reeves & Jonathan Rothwell, ’Class and Covid-19: How the less affluent face double risks’, The Brookings Institute, March 2020. via factors like housing, access to greenspace, and one’s type of work. It is also inseparable from our obsessive, (self-) exploitative((Byung-chul Han, ’The Tiredness Virus’, The Nation, April 2021. availability for work: the cytokine storms thought linked to Covid’s fatality occur most vehemently in those with poor mental health,((M. Taquet, S. Luciano, J.R. Geddes & P.J. Harrison, ‘Bidirectional associations between COVID-19 and psychiatric disorder: retrospective cohort studies of 62 354 COVID-19 cases in the USA’, The Lancet Psychiatry, 8 (2): 130-140, February 2021. DOI: 10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30462-4)) sedentary lifestyles,((R. Sallis, D..R. Young, S.Y. Tartof, et al., ‘Physical inactivity is associated with a higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes: a study in 48,440 adult patients’, British Journal of Sports Medicine, April 2021. DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2021-104080)) sleep deprivation, burnout ((H. Kim, S. Hegde, C. LaFiura, et al., ’COVID-19 illness in relation to sleep and burnout’, BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, March 2021. DOI: 10.1136/bmjnph-2021-000228)) and obesity-inducing diet, including diabetes((Livio Luzi & Maria Grazia Radaelli, ’Influenza and obesity: its odd relationship and the lessons for COVID-19 pandemic’, Acta Diabetologica, 57 (6):759-764, June 2020. DOI: 10.1007/s00592-020-01522-8)) – all of which symptomatise, in turn, the deleterious organisation of Western societies around a concept of life defined by competition and non-stop productivity. Paradoxically, being ‘always-on’ has thus brought much of global society to the point of breakdown, in what serves as a harbinger of the intermittent functioning of our anthropocenic future. From forest fires, floods and supply-chain-disrupting volcanic activity, to the looming collapse of biodiversity; from famines that push farmers towards terrorism and zoonotic diseases unearthed by deforestation and spread in antibiotic-resistant megafarms, to say nothing of the risk of a failing internet or electricity grid,((Oliver Letwin, Apocalypse How? Technology and the Threat of Disaster (London: Atlantic, 2020)) we can see on the horizon multiple routes to social catatonia. How, if at all, can we prevent collective life from becoming only intermittently functional?

At an IAS scoping workshop on ‘Covid-19, Contagion and Resilience’ in July 2020 interventions repeatedly circled back to the inadequacy of existing models of resilience, which have given rise to a standardised and monocultural focus on ‘structural adjustment’, or the ability of countries, institutions and individuals to adapt to exposure to markets and manufactured competition – irrespective of the impact of change-absorption on our longer-term ability to withstand environmental perturbations. The strategy of lockdown has been employed to ease the pressure on health services, schools and food supply chains, among others, all of which have been shorn of the ‘redundancy’, or spare capacity, that the philosopher of health, Georges Canguilhem, would have called ‘normativity’, meaning the leeway to transform the rules that organise our local environments.((Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological (New York: Zone Books, 1991) [!1965], p.196-201)) While these institutions, too, have been forced to adapt to the virus, the burden of absorption has fallen disproportionately on private citizens, left to endure the psychological impact of staying inside and lost work and schooling. But what if the old trope of human – and especially children’s – adaptability is itself the problem?

Coronavirus has rammed home the limits of our capacity to absorb change, eliciting discussion of the stress-mitigating potential of ‘WFH’ and a four-day week. The choice between bifurcation and intermittent social functioning means we cannot but take on board the link between our attitudes to work and the proliferation of what have been called ‘diseases of adaptation’.((Hans Selye, The Stress of Life (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978) [11956], p.169.)) As a prelude to relaunching the (interrupted) IAS seminar on contagion and resilience, a major international conference, ‘The Intermittent Society’, to be held at Paris’s Centre Pompidou in November,(( (not yet live at time of posting)) will seek to disentangle the concept of life from its contamination by the economics of production and competition, so as to explore its relation to a different kind of intermittence, namely the one we see on display in organisms from tardigrades to hibernating mammals and, participants will argue, humans, too. Writing against a dehumanising work culture that treats people as endlessly adaptable automata, the philosopher Bernard Stiegler proposed that human life is always necessarily ‘intermittent’, with dormancy and unthinking, habituated routines punctuated by moments of dramatic ‘disautomation’.((Bernard Stiegler, The Automatic Society, 1: The End of Work (Cambridge: Polity, 2015), pp. 67-77)) Stiegler traces this metanarrative of obligatory adaptation back to capitalism’s obsession with calculation and predictability, but we can follow the same idea much further, to the consolidation of the first, fragile city-states – and take inspiration from what, tweaking Marshall Sahlins, we might now call ‘the original intermittent society’.

Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens famously asks why anyone would willingly submit to ‘history’s biggest fraud’,((Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens (London: HarperCollins, 2014), p. 79)) the Agricultural Revolution, given that it entailed a shift from the light, leisurely, work and varied, hybrid diets of hunter-gatherer-pastoralist-shellfishers, to malnutrition, interminable backbreaking toil and increased susceptibility to disease. One recent response suggests that the conversion to predominantly sedentary farming was likely coerced by the earliest taxmen, who quickly learned to favour the cultivation of a small number of predictable, visible, surplus-yielding grains over the ‘“illegible” production’ of bio- and agricultural diversity. Yet farming them necessitated large populations of workers, sustainable only through slave labour, who were densely packed, alongside animals, into cities that became hotbeds of contagion.((James C. Scott. Against the Grain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), p.33.))

68% of the global population is set for urban dwelling by 2050, but automation will likely obviate the need for both labour and its localised supply. Might that obviation create the basis for an alternative intermittent society, averting syn- and pandemics through diversified modes of resilience akin to those preceding the birth of the state?



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