Covid-19, the undercover agent

Genetics and politics have always rubbed shoulders in the history of societies. In my molecular genetics courses 25 years ago, we talked about human vulnerability to pathologies carried by agents whose life cycle is much shorter than ours. Especially the most intimate among them, viruses, retroviruses. Not very surprising in fact, but modern medicine has made impressive progress in circumventing or delaying the effects of this rule of life. But nature and its food chains have other tricks, detours and routes in the survival toolbox of the living.
In my Science and Society and Resources [1] courses, I had stressed the vulnerability of natural environments to the impacts of human activities amplified by the technosphere and the importance of thinking of the balance of nature rather as balance with nature. The notions of symbiosis and planetary (common) health were elements of the toolbox that the students explored with interest [2] .

It was therefore known that all the ingredients were in place for the inevitable rendez-vous between a Covid-19 type episode and the human species. Homo economicus, restless and mobile, opportunistic and prolific, over-extractor and over-consumer of a nature-well of renewable but exhaustible resources, gets caught up with his microscopic adversary-partner. In this co-evolution of combat, today as in the past, everything that the anti-pollution, anti-waste and anti-growth movements had difficulty in making heard and implementing, Covid-19 is on the way to succeeding. And this is only the beginning of a purge that the BaU (Business as Usual) is about to experience. We would have liked this purge to have been prepared and even mastered [3]. BaU and Covid-19 decided otherwise. This raises questions that deserve attention.
How will public health systems, already diminished by anti-public policies for nearly 5 decades, cope, today and tomorrow, with the waves of infectious diseases (but also with the increasing burden of non-transmissible diseases) ? By what miracle will the globalized economic systems, with strong disintegration of the value chain and technologically and fiscally asymmetrical, question themselves in favor of systems that are more resilient, more diversified in space, and more attached to socio-ecological values that make sense and are necessary in the current context ? Or will the coming curative fiscal and monetary policies be sufficiently coordinated and effective ? And for us researchers, the intriguing question of why is China the main trigger of viral epidemics ?

Let’s start with China. This country brings together all the factors likely to fuel epidemic processes : cultural-food, economic, political, demographic. In a short period of time, China has gone from the Cultural Revolution to the industrial, capitalist, digital revolution [4]. At a time when China is positioning itself in the race for a world order according to the silky colors it loves, (1) the web of silk roads deserves to be well understood and, incidentally, to be modeled on the Covid-19 pandemic map [5] and (2) its socio-economical-ecological model deserves to be analyzed in the light of its current ambitions and its past.
Concerning this second point, how will the Chinese food system, based on certain risky culinary habits and perilous traditional beliefs [6], be able to survive if China’s economic, military, and geostrategic objectives (land grabbing, globalization infrastructures, etc.) are thwarted by the health phenomena emanating from these same food practices ? China’s political power is faced with a dilemma. Will it tackle head-on the systemic sources of viral contagions, and in particular
(I) the methods of procuring and the sanitary conditions of preparation of a large number of rare and exotic plants and animals (animals such as snakes, bats, bears, palm civet, etc which are components of the chains of viral transmission and transmutation), as well as
(II) the degradation of nature in China and elsewhere which, by feedback, concentrates inter-species transmission events in space ? Indeed, 70% of viral pathologies in humans are of animal origin (and China is a dominant spot), while ecosystems act as filters and bulwarks against numerous infectious diseases.

At the same time, the BaU is showing signs of old-fashioned nervousness. Covid-19 shows up as an anti-pollution agent and BaU disrupter. The stock markets are devaluing, supermarkets are being robbed of toilet paper in phase 2 of the epidemics, the Italians estimate that they are losing 3 points of GDP, the business lobbies and their political relays are acting as if the contagious greed of the upper echelons could make phi of health and environmental contingencies (see the film Dark waters by Todd Haynes, currently in theaters).
For example, the EU’s migration policy around the Mediterranean persists in its Frontex strategy, which takes great advantage of the financial resources committed to the technological mastery (the frontier technology) of a situation in which one wonders how much longer displaced populations, highly destitute, spatially concentrated [7] and surrounded by Covid-19 foci (Iran, Israel, Italy, Greece) will escape the inevitable Covid-19 [8]. Or again, to take up the environmental constraint, the "fossil" lobbies that are doing everything they can to deconstruct and sabotage from its inception the EU Green Deal by promoting carbon capture technologies and the public aid that goes with them [9].
Public resources are therefore wasted not only to block the roads of Covid-19 and its successors, but also to rethink geopolitical conflicts over water resources [10], coastal zones in reprieve [11] - there is no shortage of examples, as evidenced by the thriving state of arms sales around the world. And above all, making use of such resources to implement more global policies of planetary (common) health and social justice [12].

Let’s look back at the debates in our amphitheaters - supported by the thinking of philosophers such as Michel Serres and Bernard Stiegler [13] - at the time of Covid-19 and a winter time during which roses did not stop flowering in Lyon or elsewhere.

Ioan Negrutiu

Translated with (free version)

Article publié ou modifié le

12 mars 2020