BLOG | Novelty, Desire, and the Nature of Precedent: Human-Animal Relations in the Age of COVID-19

In the advent of what infectious disease scientists have labelled a 'novel coronavirus', Sarah Bezan argues that zoonotic disease transfer is in fact far from new. Instead, it is an emergent iteration of the ‘old’ violences of extractivism, colonial expansion, and animal commodification.

By Sarah Bezan. 

The coronavirus pandemic is a crisis that forces us to account for what is an ever-expanding list of tipping points in the story of human—animal relations. Each one of these tipping points is constantly reshuffled in the context of ‘new’ information, as evidenced by the standard cautionary notice appended to the editorial commentary section of journalistic reporting:

‘Due to the unprecedented and ongoing nature of the coronavirus outbreak, this article is being regularly updated to ensure that it reflects the current situation at the date of publication.’

This notice proclaims the advent of what infectious disease scientists have labelled a ‘novelcoronavirus. But as scholars who study human—animal relations know well, zoonotic disease transfer is far from new: it is an emergent iteration of the ‘old’ violences of extractivism, colonial expansion, and animal commodification. Since the beginning of empire, these violences have been — and continue to be — the status quo.

While this most recent zoonotic outbreak brings some challenges as yet unseen in most of our lifetimes, the representation of Covid-19 as an ‘unprecedented’ phenomenon neglects the longstanding historical relationship between colonialism and the increasingly lucrative and hazardous illegal wildlife trade. For more than 500 years, the use and circulation of animal commodities (both living and dead) has set the precedent for dangerous intimacies between human and nonhuman animals through the cross-species transmission of infections.

So why is it that the story of zoonotic disease seems to revolve around a discussion of origin stories, host species, and the novelty of animal-borne illnesses? What part of us is failing to see that the precedent for zoonotic transfer has been set for centuries?

Image: Medical men wore masks to avoid the flu at U.S. Army hospital. Nov. 19, 1918. Army Hospital No. 4. Fort Porter, N.Y. during the 1918-19 ‘Spanish’ Influenza pandemic. Credit: Shutterstock.

The Nature of Precedent

Following the news of the global pandemic a few months ago, David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (published in 2012) became a best-seller. This is in part because of the retroactive potency of its prescient outlook. Drawing from scientific research on zoonoses (from SARS and the Spanish Influenza of 1918-1919 to Ebola and the H1N1 swine flu), Quammen examines a wide swath of pathogens that have leapt across the species divide. Ultimately, the book makes a case for how the scientific assessment of past infections can foretell the future of zoonotic outbreaks.

As we learn from Spillover, zoonotic disease is only novel in the sense that it describes an incipient form of creative destruction; a making of more deaths along a subsidiary pathway located on well-traveled routes that connect human and nonhuman animals. The very fact that a pandemic can be predicted means that it is not an unprecedented occurrence but another chapter in an established story.

But as Quammen explains, prediction “is a tenuous proposition, more likely to yield false confidence than actionable intelligence.” This has so far proved to be true: save for a few exceptions, most governments were utterly unprepared for Covid-19 despite the ample body of scientific data that forecasted it. Instead, reporting on the pandemic demonstrated an inordinate preoccupation with tracing the origin point of the disease and locating host species (from bats to intermediary species like the pangolin) that subsequently spread the virus through contact with humans.

The negative consequence of this myopic focus on zoonotic origin points is that it can risk bolstering racist and speciesist ideologies. Neel Ahuja utilizes the concept of dread life to capture what he sees as the “racialized channeling of the fear of infectious disease.” This is no better exemplified than in language that describes Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus.” Racist rhetoric such as this, Ahuja explains, is focalized into interventions that are “deeply imbricated in capitalist geographies of racial differentiation and changing relationships between states, publics, and species.” Likewise, literary scholar Lucinda Cole examines how animals like fleas, rats and parasites are perceived in speciesist terms as “dangerous or noxious collectives” that threaten the taxonomic order along with public health and ecological systems.

To critique the needling fixation on the novelty of zoonotic viruses therefore begins with the work of recovering and properly addressing the historical precedent for zoonosis as a central feature of the human’s capitalized and colonial relations with nonhuman animals.

Desire and Dangerous Intimacies in the Illegal Wildlife Trade

As we head further into the coronavirus pandemic, now is the time to further reflect on the affective dimensions of desire that give rise to ongoing and future zoonotic disease transmissions. These affective expressions, along with the dangerous intimacies they incite, are nowhere more clear than in the illegal wildlife trade.

While emotional expressions are themselves hardly visible, desire functions within capitalist economies in the form of demand. Demand in turn is evidenced by its material conditions: animal goods poached, packaged, circulated and either consumed or seized at international borders. Most of these commodities disappear unseen into black markets, but the growing number of illegal animal product seizures allow us to visualize this demand. Consider, for instance, the four tonnes of frozen de-scaled pangolins stopped at the border of Guangdong Province,or the nine tonnes of ivory seized in a container shipment en route to Vietnam from the Republic of Congo. These are just two of a growing number of seizures that showcase how expressions of desire fuel the growth of an expansive circuit of wildlife trafficking economies around the world.

  Image: Chinese authorities confiscate nearly 1,000 dead pangolins. Source: news.163.com.

Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, a documentary that hit near-cult status at the peak of the pandemic, revealed some of the deeply visceral feelings that drive the demand for illegally traded exotic animals like captive tigers and other big cats. Cub petting produces the warm-and-fuzzies for the bulk of audiences who visit exotic animal parks throughout the US, but these feelings become part of a larger narrative about violations of the Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.

What these incidents reveal is that the desire for illegal wildlife commodities is also deeply intertwined with an emotional nexus of fear, repulsion, and panic that have swept the globe since the coronavirus outbreak. In the context of Covid-19, desire and disgust are the inseparable sides of the Janus-faced economy of illegal wildlife trading.

If there is a part of us that fails to see how the historical precedent for zoonotic transfer has been set, it is perhaps worthwhile to more closely examine the breadth of affective expressions that have shaped human—animal relations since the beginning of colonial contact. It is through an investigation of this affective relationship with the past that we might inspire a paradigm for more convivial, sustainable, and equitable relations with nonhuman animals for zoonotic futures yet to come.

Due to the historically precedented and ongoing nature of human—animal relations exemplified by Covid-19, readers are advised to regularly address their desire for illegal wildlife products.