July 4, 2020
COVID-19 updates: invisible enemy or unruly guest?

From the article: "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. ..."