It was the last week of 2019 when health authorities in China notified the world about a novel virus outbreak in their communities. An increasingly growing number of people were developing a dry cough and fever before getting pneumonia. Doctors named this disease COVID-19 (or Coronavirus Disease 2019) which was caused by a virus called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). In the following months, the virus proliferated across the world, creating a pandemic. As of today, more than 13,41,907 cases have been reported in more than 184 countries worldwide. In an attempt to contain the pandemic, a number of countries have banned gatherings and events, closed down schools, universities, and markets, imposed travel restrictions and lately, turned to complete lockdown measures.
One of the many lessons that this pandemic has taught us is how intricately etched we are to nonhuman critters. While the human-animal relationship is usually filled with power – humans being the dominating force, at times and in small measures, animals evade this dominion to become dominant themselves. It is in times like these that we often shift how we think about the world and our place in it.
When authorities in China tried to trace the origins of Coronavirus, they found a likely source – a wildlife food market in Wuhan. A lot of viruses that affect humans originate from animals. At times, viruses evolve to switch hosts into humans and subsequently transmit within the human populations. This cross-species jump of disease is called zoonoses. Examples include COVID-19, Ebola, Nipah, Dengue and SARS. Animal markets and farms foster the perfect conditions for zoonotic diseases to emerge. The high population densities of different species put together in cramped spaces with poor sanitation create the perfect breeding ground for viruses and pathogens to infuse in the miscegenous mud and gear up to transcend the species barrier. The coronavirus almost certainly originated from a bat, genetic analysis suggests, though there are speculations regarding the animal host which acted as an intermediary link to pass it on to humans, with some claiming it to be pangolins.
This interspecies exchange that was place-specific and local, to begin with, by virtue of “radically changing space-time relations” of a postmodern society, travelled rapidly through the social flesh of a globally connected world. What Shukin (2009) calls ‘biomobility’, is the potential and agency of the viral disease to be experienced as global in all its effects. This pandemic potential is what Escobar calls “the irruption of the biological”. In a globally connected life world, biomobility renders not just the economic and cultural boundaries turbulent but also the material and imaginary boundaries between species. What I find interesting then is how a pandemic poses a promiscuous threat to life worldwide. This means that, by virtue of being indiscriminate, a pandemic uniformizes the uneven distribution of exposure to a disease previously accommodated in the history of biopower. As Shukin (2009) writes, the developed and dominant countries that have historically secured relative immunity from the biological irruptions, “are suddenly confronted with the fact that their historical immunity may have expired as disease threatens to irrupt out of or exceed those techniques of biopower that managed to contain it.” The corona pandemic certainly showcases these effects in many dominant countries including the USA and Italy.
As the world is transfixed by this new outbreak, and by ‘world’ I mean the human world, I can’t help but wonder about the multiple non-human worlds that are affected, that affect, and with whom we are in a consequential relationship, in one grand irreducible world of embodied and lived partial differences. We are in the middle of enmeshed existences, multiple life forms in relationships, this macaque, this old man, this hamlet, these assemblages, these labs, these suburbs, these industries and economies, these ecologies linking nature and culture without end. At the heart of these linkages, is the dimension of space and place. What happens to these relationships, how do they alter, and what new ecologies emerge as the globalized world grounds to a halt? Naturally, I’m curious about the urban critters which have adapted extremely well to be successful in the dense city biome. A city offers a variety of niche opportunities and anthropogenic resources for a number of species to thrive. Moreover, high consumption levels and generation of waste, topped with intentional feeding practices, means that a city meta is loaded with nutrients. Therefore, the success of many urban adaptors and exploiters depends on scavenging and omnivory tactics.
I think about the critters at my University. The University is more than a physical space where humans and non-humans such as macaques, squirrels, cats, birds, etc., co-opt, co-exist and interact in webbed existences. While cats and dogs perform ‘affective labor’ (by the virtue of being cute), to acquire food from humans, macaques resort to a more aggressive approach of food snatching. Similarly, squirrels and mynas make use of the valuable leftover loot. All these food items are made available and accessible to other critters by humans who dominate this space. I can further think of spaces like markets, restaurants, temples, public parks which form interesting sites of interactions and foraging grounds for critters.
What happens when everyday transactions come to a still; when these spaces are entirely vacated by humans for a considerable period? What happens to the critters in commercial pet shops that have locked down all of a sudden? What of cows, dogs, and macaques which would forage on the lumps of waste produced by markets every night? What about pigeons who are fed in the courtyards of Jama Masjid every morning? What about urban gaushalas which acquire feed from neighbouring states? What about urban Delhi forests where an assemblage of critters such as pigs, macaques, and golden jackals interact with a number of people who feed them on a daily basis? How does this unprecedented change affect the foraging tactics of our messmates? How does this change affect their behaviour? Who lives, who dies? Who struggles, who benefits? How do our ecologies of care modify in times of a pandemic? These questions may seem mundane at first but they are of consequences. They shape accountability.
While animals perform an instrumental role in passing zoonotic diseases to humans by actively hosting viruses, more of them play an equally important role in furthering our knowledge of and developing cures for those diseases. The Haraway in me keeps making me return to the category of labour. The animals on which scientists would depend the most would be mice, to begin with, and maybe hamsters and certainly macaques in the later stages. To test for the effectiveness of treatment, it is important that the animal is not only susceptible to infection but that it gets sick and shows symptoms similar to humans. To achieve that, mice are genetically engineered. The K18-hACE2 transgenic mouse which was developed at the University of Iowa expresses human ACE2 receptor and can be utilized for pathogenetic research and for development of antiviral therapies for COVID-19. Coronavirus enters the human body by binding to human (h) angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) and the expression in epithelia is driven by a human cytokeratin (K18) promoter; hence the name of the mouse. Labs and research institutions around the world are now ramping up the breeding of transgenic mouse models which would be distributed, at cost, in the coming months in a consolidated effort to develop an effective treatment against COVID-19. For one, the economic implications of these global transactions would be huge.
There are many objections, both moral and ethical when it comes to animal testing. After all, animals are the ones who suffer and sacrifice for the greater common good. But what if we do not regard animals as victims, or as ‘others’ to humans, or relate to their suffering and death as a sacrifice? (Haraway, 2008) What happens when we regard these lab animals not as mechanical substitutes having some rank but as significant partners whose differences and similarities to humans and to one other are crucial to the work of the lab? What happens when we take animals seriously as workers in the lab without the comforts of humanist frameworks? The animals working in the lab would serve as COVID-19 models substituted for human experimental bodies. These animals are response-able in the same capacity as humans are. These animals have faces, they are somebody just like we humans are. In a lab, both humans and animals are subjects and objects to each other in ongoing intra-actions. True, the relations of use are not symmetrical, that there is inequality but like Haraway (2008) points out, “inequality is in the precise and changeable labor practices of the lab, not in some transcendent excellence of the Human over the Animal”. In other words, inequality in the lab is not of a humanist kind.
It is time we think about the relationship we share with earth others. It is time we acknowledge that we and all other critters are co-constructed relationally in webbed existences; that we ‘become with’ one other.
- Haraway, Donna Jeanne. When Species Meet. University of – Minnesota Press, 2008.
- Shukin, Nicole. Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times. University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
Photo & Video Credit: Kartik Chugh