/ 25 March 2020

Covid-19: Lessons from the zombie apocalypse

Disinfection Of Public Transport In Yerevan, Armenia
A man in protective gear disinfects a bus. The disinfection consists of washing the exterior of a bus, dry sweeping and wet cleaning the inside and aerosol spraying. (Artur Harutyunyan Tass via Getty Images)


The world is in the grip of something few people, if any, anticipated. And although I cannot say that I specifically anticipated the advent of the unwelcome novel coronavirus – SARS-CoV-2 – and its pathological effect, Covid-19, “in principle” one might say that I did. This is because I live by the paradoxical motto, from the ancient pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, to wit:

If we do not expect the unexpected, we will never find it!

Consequently, when I suddenly and unexpectedly come across a highly venomous Cape Cobra or a Puff Adder in the mountains that my partner and I climb each day, I am never overly surprised. I expect that they will arrive unexpectedly.

Similarly, in view of some imaginative cinematic works in the recent past, I was not really surprised to discover that the most widely accepted explanation of the coronavirus’s provenance is that it came from a bat — either directly to a human or via another animal, like a pangolin. Even the explanations offered for the Sars and the Mers viruses, not too long ago, involved animals. What interests me here is the fact that works of art, particularly films — because they consist of a series of audiovisual images — could perhaps be regarded as an expression of the collective societal unconscious.

Films are, in Freud’s parlance regarding his book on dreams, the “manifest content” of something else, the “latent content”, which is up to the psychoanalyst to decode (in the case of dreams). And, considering that dreams harbour our deepest fears and anxieties, it is not far-fetched to say that films, as expressions of a societal unconscious, may be approached in the same manner.

Hence, to turn to the cinematic works I have in mind – one a film and the other a television series – I wonder how many people recall what was widely seen as just a “zombie” movie (as encouraged by its title), namely, 2013’s World War Z, directed by Marc Forster. In fact, it was far more than an apocalyptic zombie horror film. Some may recall its opening sequence of images, where animals were shown in the process of attacking one another, or something else; this comprises the crucial backdrop to the triggering event in the narrative, namely, the “Z” virus transferred to a man in South Korea when a “rabid” dog bit him.

This event, conditioned as it is in the film by the initial image-sequences involving belligerent animals, is a well-nigh prophetic adumbration of what has happened with the infection of humans in China by a virus that came from animals (whether or not this was genetically modified by Chinese scientists, as some reports claim, or not). And I would argue that — given the role of art (here, film) as manifestation of latent fears in the societal unconscious — World War Z is an imaginative, if horror-provoking anticipation of this kind of event.

One can add the television series, Zoo, which aired on the CBS network in the US from 2015 to 2017, to this, insofar as it is a sustained cinematic imagining of a backlash from nature in the guise of animals and insects that turn on humans with the clear intent of destroying them – with the implication that humans are getting their comeuppance. These cinematic works are symptomatic of widespread guilt and anxiety, at an unconscious level, on the part of humanity, concerning the ravages inflicted on nature generally, and other animals specifically, by humans in the course of centuries. This has culminated in the last two or three centuries of industrial activity that has proved to be inimical to living ecosystems globally.

What I am driving at is that, when understood holistically, as an event inscribed in a much wider ecological context, the novel coronavirus cannot simply be causally attributed to animals like bats as their “original” carriers; the interaction between humans and animals (or nature generally) must be considered a contributing factor — probably the most significant such factor, in the light of two recent articles on this topic. 

In the first, John Vidal writes:

Only a decade or two ago it was widely thought that tropical forests and intact natural environments teeming with exotic wildlife threatened humans by harbouring the viruses and pathogens that lead to new diseases in humans such as Ebola, HIV and dengue. But a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19, the viral disease that emerged in China in December 2019, to arise – with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike. In fact, a new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections between the wellbeing of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems

One might wonder how this is possible. The answer has to do with the complex interconnectedness of all living things in nature, which ultimately includes humanity. Vidal’s article makes this clear:

We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbour so many species of animals and plants – and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses,” David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic (Norton, 2012), recently wrote in the New York Times. “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.

It is appropriate that Vidal refers to David Quammen’s book, Spillover, which publisher WW Norton & Company describes as “a masterpiece of science reporting that tracks the animal origins of emerging human diseases”. When it was published eight years ago, Quammen already noted that the zoonotic transmission or “spillover” of diseases from animals to humans seemed to be worsening, and warned that, in our globalised, interconnected world, this made a pandemic so much more likely to occur. Now it has.

In an article that resonates with Vidal’s, Nick Walsh and Vasco Cotovio echo his sentiments in no uncertain terms. Their article’s title puts it bluntly: “Bats are not to blame for coronavirus. Humans are”. This is not a message that people like to hear, let alone take to heart. The human species is much too selfish for that, as shown by its customary disregard for the fate of other species, as long as its (to me despicable) economic Leviathan keeps “growing”. From this perspective the globally burgeoning coronavirus is a stentorian wake-up call to find ways of slowing down economic growth, such as producing fewer cars, putting a stop to deforestation and having fewer children.When questioned by Walsh and Cotovio about the actual causes of pathogen transfers from animals to humans, Andrew Cunningham, Professor of Wildlife Epidemiology at the Zoological Society of London had this to say:

The underlying causes of zoonotic spillover from bats or from other wild species have almost always  — always — been shown to be human behaviour,” said Cunningham.

Human activities are causing this.

When a bat is stressed — by being hunted, or having its habitat damaged by deforestation — its immune system is challenged and finds it harder to cope with pathogens it otherwise took in its stride. “We believe that the impact of stress on bats would be very much as it would be on people…

It would allow infections to increase and to be excreted — to be shed. You can think of it like if people are stressed and have the cold sore virus, they will get a cold sore. That is the virus being “expressed”. This can happen in bats too.

And, as if the invasion and degradation of their natural habitat is not bad enough, the fact that many different animals are kept in close proximity to one another in so-called “wet markets”  — like the one in Wuhan where the novel coronavirus is suspected to have emerged — is a recipe for disaster. After all, as Cunningham reminded one, there are tens of thousands of viruses just waiting to be encountered by vulnerable (but arrogant) humans. Destroying the habitat of wild animals makes this much more likely to happen in pathological terms; hence, an obvious way to address this is to restore already degraded habitats.

When confronting these sobering facts about animal-to-human epidemiology, what might have appeared to be flights of fancy in the two cinematic works referred to at the outset are bound to seem less fanciful. The grim reality of the present, globe-trotting coronavirus is just beginning to kick in, and not a moment too soon.