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The Social Life of Humans and Viruses

Louise Edwards
University of New South Wales, Sydney

Diseases are social problems as much as they are biological. This point is especially true for communicable diseases that move from human to human through our everyday social interactions. The solution to containing the contagion and curing the illnesses it produces must necessarily be a combination of biological interventions and changes to social practice. While the world’s virologists are working hard to supply a vaccine against COVID-19, humanists are helping ordinary people make sense of this new reality. People who had previously been ignorant, sometimes wilfully so, of the extent of their global privileges are suddenly confronted by the fragility of their once carefree lives and the complexity of the interconnections that knitted them together and enabled the basic functions of their lives to occur. People of global privilege are suddenly confronted with some of the ugly aspects of the world economy and social organisation that they would rather not acknowledge. Previously sheltered from actual hardship, people in the global North are suddenly seeing behind the curtain of “the economy” and myriad taken-for-granted institutional practices as they watch their political, business and workplace leaders introduce previously unimaginable policies and make brutal decisions that save some people and sacrifice others. The choices are exposed as being ethical and not just economic. 

Philosophers have become increasingly prominent as public debate is suddenly confronted with moral questions of scarcity and fairness.1 As key products disappeared from supermarket shelves, householders came to appreciate that their stockpiles caused hardship and distress for people just-like-them in a home around the corner. As one worker’s job is saved, their joy is tempered by a relative’s plunge into unemployment, and the spectre of unmanageable debts, home-foreclosure, and even hunger. The short step from working class to welfare class is presented right before them. Decisions that governments and businesses have made for decades largely free from middle-class scrutiny are now laid bare as the moral choices they actually are. People watch as our leaders decide which people can access healthcare and which are denied? Which workers are provided with wage subsidies and which are not? Which businesses will be subsidised, and which will be let to collapse?

For decades governments have told us that the choices they make are based on “rational” economic principles. In so doing they have hidden or downplayed the ethical aspects of their policy decisions. The “market” has been presented as a morality-free zone—akin to a petri dish where multiple viruses grow, competing for dominance in a Darwinian system, oblivious to their impact on each other. Rationality, in this version of the economic story, is celebrated for its clinical absence of consciousness or conscience and promoted to the public as having a mechanistic inevitability. Even, the sleepy and once-comfortable middle classes are now increasingly aware that economic decisions have deeply ethical roots and are never “inevitable” and are rarely “rational.” For the middle-classes of the Asia-Pacific, ethical discussions are expanding beyond the churches, temples and mosques and outside of the realm of personal behaviour and how to be a good person—increasingly ethics is impacting our consideration of the “big-picture economy.” The interconnectedness of people working in low-wage, low-prestige jobs with the middle-classes and the dependence of the comfortable on these workers’ labour is now apparent to many who had previously ignored them. Poor work conditions in aged care facilities, construction sites and abattoirs make these workplaces the weak link in the struggle to contain the virus. Middle-class folk are suddenly confronted with the reality of their dependence upon and connections with people they had earlier distanced or disregarded. Questions of who is “us” and who is “them” are suddenly being reconfigured our direct and indirect dependence upon people we rarely considered are exposed.

And internationally the (im)moral choices are also laid bare. Powerful, cashed up governments scramble to purchase stockpiles of protective equipment and ventilators in anticipation of needs for their own populations, leaving those in immediate need vulnerable. Accusations of IP theft running between national laboratories in the scramble for the vast profits that a vaccine will produce rub up against the WHO’s calls for collaboration and cooperation. Private sector sharks circle the publicly funded scientists ready to take as big a chunk of the juiciest parts of the vaccine profits. The vaccine for COVID-19 will definitely be produced in a lab, but the consequences of the social tensions around the production, control, distribution and cost, must be dealt with in the human society of parliaments and transnational bodies—not left to the so-called rational free market with its price distortions produced by stockpile-induced scarcity.

Stories are powerful in their healing and educational potential. University-based humanists in the literary and historical disciplines now appear frequently in the media providing people with the many histories of global and local pandemic controls stretching back to the twentieth century’s Flu Pandemic of 1918, Cholera Pandemic of 1962, and the twenty-first century’s SARS and MERS pandemics. Relaying stories of the recent past alleviates some of the catastrophic thinking that people watching the progress of the pandemic may experience. The world has gone through these kinds of events before, we are reassured. Draconian quarantine conditions and border closures do come to an end, life returns to a less restrictive and more recognisable pattern—even if it is not completely the same and many loved ones have been lost. The perspective of the longue durée of our human journey helps people broaden their view beyond the immediacy of the crisis.2 It also reminds us that we 2020 dwellers are not unique, despite our modern conveniences and high-tech medical facilities.

Our appreciation of the ancient connections between animals and humans has taken on new angles for vast numbers of highly urbanized people in Asia. Farming and animal husbandry were lifestyles that were discarded as urbanization proceeded apace. Animals became food sources purchased in markets rather than creatures requiring care and attention. Yet, despite the relatively recent distance of urbanites from animals in our daily lives, the diseases that cross species from pigs, birds, civet cats, bats or camels to humans continue to impact urban dwellers—just as assuredly as the fleas on the rats of the Eurasian black death did in the mid 1300s. Climate change, coupled with the expansion of humans into territory previously uninhabited produced the scourge of the Black Death. And scholars in the new field of Environmental Humanities point out that human actions and similar environmental and climatic changes combine to create similarly powerful impacts.3 Humans, even “modern” urban ones, share sufficient similarities with sufficient numbers of animals that concrete, glass and steel dwellings are no barrier to the diseases we can share with our fellow animals. Scholars of the Environmental Humanities provide us with reminders of how care for animals, and care for the environment sustains humanity.

For many people in Europe, the Americas and Asia the experience of “lockdown” made their worlds extremely small. Unable to leave their apartments except for vital food or medical supplies, millions of people’s lives became that which they could create within their own four walls. Yet, the rapid and international spread of this particular pandemic tells us more clearly than ever before in human history that our problems, and the solutions to them, are global in nature. Retreating behind the walls of our homes, restricting travel from other cities, regions or nations will buy us precious time, enable health care systems to manage a flow of the sick, but it is at best a temporary solution. A globally coordinated and comprehensive set of actions is crucial if we are to eliminate this virus.

The opposing forces of simultaneously narrowing and widening our views and allegiances make pandemics particularly difficult. Staying isolated with household “borders” restricted is an important personal action that delivers wide, collective benefits. But the narrowing of focus to the personal, the local, and the national has given rise to the ugly face of nationalism, xenophobia, classism, sectarianism and racism. COVID is anthropomorphised variously as a “Chinese,” “Muslim,” “dalit” or “foreign” contagion—in a populist delusion of invincibility that Johanna Hood has called “imagined immunity.”4 Envisioning the disease as having the corporeal form of an “other” leads us erroneously along the path of magical thinking—that somehow we are protected better because our skin colour, god or citizenship provides immunity. Just as the boundaries between species are closer than we have allowed ourselves to think, the boundaries between different categories of humans is closer too. The virus shows no discrimination, unlike many humans. And our sometimes desperate and venal leaders seeking to score political points or avoid responsibility resort to age-old practices of scapegoating, while ordinary people seeing to comfort themselves with ad hoc preservation practices of avoiding certain people, food or locations.

Scholars of multiculturalism, like Andrew Jakubowicz have alerted us to the importance of delivering health literacy in multiple languages and with the flexibility to recognise that mainstream media in the dominant language/s will not reach all people in our diverse communities.5 Efforts to achieve this broad reach have occurred around the Asian region as research by Loy Lising on the Philippines reveals—public health messages in only Filipino and English failed to reach communities that speak a range of other major languages—Tagalog, Cebuano, Illongo, Bikol and Illuko, for example.6 Linguistic inequalities persist throughout the Asia Pacific and humanities researchers have demonstrated in their work on the language of public health, events like the current pandemic make these inequalities more than mere inconveniences—they threaten our very health and livelihoods even if we are among the linguistically privileged.  And, as COVID has shown us, we are all only as strong as our weakest link.7

Media scholars have continued their work in broadening popular knowledge about the use and abuse of mass media—and the importance of valuing reliable sources of information. UNESCO describes the “fake news” as putting lives at risk.8 Gossip, misinformation, disinformation and outright self-serving lies have plagued all forms of media for centuries, but today we have to tools to check and double check. Scholars of media challenge us to take the time to do these checks and schools are active in promoting digital literacy to a youth that is flooded with information often through myriad devices. To enhance our skills as media consumers, London School of Economics (LSE)’s Gianfraco Polizzi provides a handy eight-point checklist to enhance readers’ capacities to evaluate the quality of information.9 As institutions and businesses both big and small dedicate more time to branding, image management and building positive profiles ordinary people are bombarded with spin—the search for truth and fact has become a serious mission for all people. For journalists committed to providing truthful information, the normal channels for checking abuses of power have been fundamentally weakened with parliaments hastily passing new security laws, restrictive media laws or even simply closing their doors. This “crisis” has certainly not been wasted by leaders seeking to avoid scrutiny. Katherine Jacobsen of the “Committee to Protect Journalists” has identified a range of measures that have been implemented around the world to restrict press freedom.10 The role of an open and investigative media sector has become even more important. But so too is the importance of a population that has the skills to wade through maliciously intended misinformation.

In sum, the work of humanities scholars and the students they have trained over many years is vital to sustaining the communities, local and global, that give meaning to this journey of life especially in difficult times. The capacity of the thinker trained in humanities skills to objectively examine the ideas behind a policy, or a media report and connect it to overarching narratives of power and inequality, or truth and justice over a larger stretch of time, beyond the immediacy of the crisis, is vital to the creation of a successful post-COVID world. The responsibility for the humanities scholar to present the ethical and moral dimensions of personal decisions as well as national or international policy choices, remains paramount. And we must communicate these discussions in as many languages and forms as we can to ensure that good information reaches as many humans as possible.


  1. See the blog series by Macintyre, L., “Everyday ethics,” The Conversation, March–May 2020. https://theconversation.com/profiles/lee-mcintyre-584917/articles (accessed 31 July 2020).
  2. Fang, X., China and the cholera pandemic: Restructuring society under Mao (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, forthcoming); Langstaff, A., “Pandemic narratives and the historian,” Los Angeles Review of Books and History News Network, 18 May 2020. https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/175569 (accessed 31 July 2020). Scholars in business and medicine have also been inspired to take a historical view of their fields. See Tang, J., “The lessons from past pandemics,” Pursuit, 5 April 2020. https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/the-lessons-from-past-pandemics (accessed 31 July 2020); Griffin, D. and Denholm, J., “This isn’t the first global pandemic, and it won’t be the last. Here’s what we’ve learned from 4 others throughout history,” The Conversation, 17 April 2020. https://theconversation.com/this-isnt-the-first-global-pandemic-and-it-wont-be-the-last-heres-what-weve-learned-from-4-others-throughout-history-136231 (accessed 31 July 2020).
  3. For an excellent overview of resources on the connection between animals and humans, the environment and pandemics see Rachel Carson Centre for Environment and Society, “Pandemics in context,” http://www.environmentandsociety.org/mml/pandemics-context (accessed 31 July 2020). See also collaborations between environmental and health researchers in Armstrong, F., Capon, A. and McFarlane, R., “Coronavirus is a wake-up call: our war with the environment is leading to pandemics,” The Conversation, 31 March 2020. https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-is-a-wake-up-call-our-war-with-the-environment-is-leading-to-pandemics-135023 (accessed 31 July 2020).
  4. Hood, J., HIV/AIDS, health and media in China: Imagined immunity through racialized disease (London: Routledge, 2011).
  5. Jakubowicz, A., “Multicultural Australia in danger in resurgent pandemic,” (parts 1 and 2) Pearls and Irritations (30 June 2020 & 1 July 2020) https://johnmenadue.com/multicultural-australia-in-a-pandemic-by-andrew-jakubowicz/ and https://johnmenadue.com/andrew-jakubowicz-multicultural-australia-in-danger-in-resurgent-pandemic-part-2-what-we-know-but-need-to-know-more-about-and-why/ (accessed 31 July 2020).
  6. Lising, L., “COVID-19 health information campaigns in the Philippines,” Language on the Move, 13 July 2020. https://www.languageonthemove.com/covid-19-health-information-campaigns-in-the-philippines/ (accessed 31 July 2020).
  7. Hopkyns, S., “Linguistic Diversity and Inclusion in the Era of COVD-19,” Language on the Move, 17 July 2020. https://www.languageonthemove.com/linguistic-diversity-and-inclusion-in-the-era-of-covid-19/ (accessed 31 July 2020).
  8. “During this coronavirus pandemic, ‘fake news’ is putting lives at risk: UNESCO,” UN News: Global Perspectives, Human Stories, 13 April 2020. https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1061592 (accessed 31 July 2020).
  9. Polizzi, G., “Fake news, COVID-19 and digital literacy: Do what the experts do,” Media@LSE blog, 17 June 2020, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/medialse/2020/06/17/fake-news-covid-19-and-digital-literacy-do-what-the-experts-do/ (accessed 31 July 2020).
  10. Jacobsen, K., “Amid COVID-19, the prognosis for press freedom is dim. Here are 10 symptoms to track,” Committee to Protect Journalists, 2020. https://cpj.org/reports/2020/06/covid-19-here-are-10-press-freedom-symptoms-to-track/ (accessed 31 July 2020).


Louise Edwards is Scientia Professor of Chinese History at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. Her most recent books are Citizens of Beauty: Drawing Democratic Dreams in Republican China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020), Women Warriors and Wartime Spies of China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016) and Gender, Politics and Democracy: Women’s Suffrage in China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008). She has been elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities, The Social Sciences Academy in Australia and the Hong Kong Academy of Humanities.

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