Viruses are neither living nor dead, but somewhere in between. As microscopic parasites, they need actual living material in a host cell for their genome or genetic program to replicate.1 Viruses may be older than living cells, may have spawned all sorts of evolutionary changes 2 and are downright weird.
How weird are they? First of all, we do a virus disservice when we give it motive. We say the virus wants to enter the lungs in order to replicate. That’s a standard trope of ours, to give something agency, to see it in human terms, wanting and needing things, which is anthropomorphizing it. A virus has no plan, no goal, no direction. In fact, it just floats around in aerosol droplets driven by the breath, the wind, or makes contact through human touch and gets inside us when we put contaminated hands and fingers on our face and into our nose, mouth and eyes. We spread it, we guide it, we are the pilots of its vagaries around the earth, steering a course often right into our bodies. There it latches on to living cells and its program ramps up for replication, making us sick.
Researchers are pretty sure this virus came from a bat in a “wet” market in Wuhan China, population 11 million.3 A little bat, a bit larger than a large moth. People in China eat all sorts of bizarre critters, and though the government there tried to shut down these markets selling pangolins, porcupines, civet cats, and other exotic animals, they reopened, ironically claiming to provide traditional cures for disease. Once we peel back forests and jungles for development, opening access to somewhat isolated creatures, we are treading into pandemic land. Our ongoing conquest of the planet has serious kickback effects.
This corona virus seems misnamed—it doesn’t have a crown of spikes. In some illustrations they look like plungers. More like a naval mine, it projects rods all around its body. These spheres of rods pierce and invade a living cell just by bumping into it. A drifting mine-field virus.
The cultural effects of plagues get explored in numerous texts, from the Bible, with approximately over 120 mentioned, to contemporary novels and science fiction. My favorite work in this genre is H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, where advanced and malicious Martian invaders set about incinerating the earth in their attack vehicles, until they begin to weaken and die. In the 1953 film, the poor vile things get out of their machines, wracked by a lethal illness that our own homegrown earth bacteria inflict on them. Our alien planet wafts its aerosols to them and like a wet market poison, brings them down.
The word virus itself comes from a word for poison, as in a virulent fluid or slimy goo—perhaps from snake bite venom? But the social impact of this Covid-19 pandemic needs investigation beyond its physical manifestations.
Its social effect is estrangement writ large. We must socially-distance (a new verb), self-quarantine, avoid physical touch and block inhaling nearby floating and atmospheric bits of it. We all should don a spring wardrobe of PPE (personal protection equipment).This ongoing estrangement results in widely acknowledged isolation, anguish, depression, as well as personal inconvenience and potential economic collapse. And these are the effects on those not infected.
Our social organism divides, decouples, disbands, seeks out private cells to escape a mindless invasion. We sense it all around us, but will it land on us? Like a thoughtless cloud of dust, it may pass us over or sift down on us. That is its impact—random, intention-less doom, unseen and incomprehensible. Such a worldview, that we are alone in an indifferent, arbitrary universe, can load anyone with overwhelming despair.4 No wonder we have the counter urge to connect and congregate, even knowing that makes us more vulnerable.
With the loss of others, we seem to huddle into ourselves, maybe explore facets of ourselves to discover a companion self. This may be something of a vacation from social obligations, but if we know anyone killed by it or forced to work around it, that becomes grim. We are alone with our thoughts about whether we will we win the lottery to escape it, no matter what precautions we take.
Mediated connection over the internet helps, multi-person video conferences, so do distractions of movies, games, resuming abandoned projects. But our people resources are absent, the separation almost death-like, as if they are only conjectured when dialed up in our virtual cable-linked imaginations. They seem gone, and we must physically separate ourselves from them to avoid killing them and ourselves.
Many speculate on the long-term consequences of such socially disruptive isolation. Maybe we’ll be more eager to stay close to those we love. Maybe we’ll become more altruistic—well, some may, with greed regaining its stature as a very vile vice. Maybe governments will be made to serve ordinary people. Maybe schooling will become a virtual process. Maybe more students will go into medicine and helping professions. Maybe we’ll have healthcare for all. Maybe we’ll become kind.
Can a heartless particle, an estrangement phantom as I call it, make us more loving? That may be its weirdest feature.
Live Science, What is a virus? (January 06, 2016)
2. Scientific American, Are viruses alive? (August 8, 2008)
3. Nature Education, Origins of Viruses (3, 9, 37 2010)
Nature, Probable Bat Origin (February 2020 579, pages 270–273)
4. Mark Reger et. al., “Suicide Mortality and Coronavirus Disease 2019—A Perfect Storm?”
JAMA Psychiatry, (April 10, 2020)