What does the Virus need?

Image: artist Saadia Karp

Gripped by a global pandemic, societies and humans worldwide are tasked with confronting some fundamental issues. Issues such as how societies, economies, health systems and food supply chains can be maintained in the face of crisis, are but a few. Among the myriad of challenges now facing us, both personally and collectively, a basic question coming into focus for many is “What are my needs?”, basic and beyond. What is it that I need to survive, to feel safe and secure, and how can these needs be met in civilisations that are now being revealed as intrinsically delicate and fragile?

For those directly endangered by this pandemic, and even for those with the luxury of (perceived) security, who do not immediately have to worry about their basic income, food, or housing needs, we are being afforded a snapshot into what the world can look and feel like when our structures are threatened. Safety and security, it turns out, are very fundamental needs indeed.

Much has been made in the last days and weeks since the virus has spread through western society of the metaphorical message that it brings for us. Many are enquiring into what is needed in response to this global challenge, whilst other are asking what it is that the virus has come to teach us? The answer touted to this particular question is not terribly surprising: We need to slow down.

It has been patently obvious what we as a society have needed for some time now; we need to slow down. We need to curb the constant consumption and productivity and the “on demand” lifestyles that have become the pinnacle of standard of living for our species. We need to slow down, to reacquaint ourselves with life, to re-evaluate that which makes life meaningful for us and indeed that which makes life possible at all, before it is too late. It is a sublime kind of irony that the very measures deemed necessary to halt climate catastrophe, those that seemed so utterly impossible just a few months ago, are now being enacted across the globe (halting of non-essential air travel, for example).

What we are being afforded is a perfect snapshot into what is actually possible in the face of crisis. The discourse has been irrevocably changed. What we are also being afforded is a new perspective into our needs — what it is that we need to be well, to look after one another, what we really need from the material realm of life (and what we don’t) and how we can hold the realms beyond this; realms of inner and outer fortitude, compassion, grace, solitude, soul, the sacred. This is what the virus can help to show us.

Beyond the anthropocentric view of what it is that we need in the privileged pause that this pandemic offers to some, I have been sitting with the question of “What does the Virus need?” I do not aim to bestow entity upon the virus in this enquiry, nor to assume a greater intelligence at work. Rather I aim to dwell in the space of unknowing, a space few of our species inhabit in these times of information overload. As Bayo Akomolafe has written “The universe is under no pressure to privilege our knowing as the driver of its emergence.” Therefore, to feel into the potential unknowns is to feel into what might really be real. It is to feel into life itself.

What does the virus need?

From a scientific standpoint, the virus is another form of life seeking its own survival. It has been uprooted from its native habitat and hosts, and transferred to humans who have not co-evolved with it. As Jim Robbins wrote in the Ecology of Disease, “Sixty percent of emerging infectious diseases that affect humans are zoonotic — they originate in wildlife.” This emergence is driven by loss of habitat as we continue to encroach upon the last remaining ‘wild’ places on Earth. So, what does the virus need? On a very basic level, it needs host cells. Ideally, the virus needs the wild animals and vast rough biodiverse habitat that knows how to host it. In short, the virus needs its native ecosystems left intact.

What the virus needs to complete its course through the lungs of the human species, I do not know. What the virus does not need is for war to be waged upon it. We are not at war, nor do we have to be. This virus “is another living organism in full migratory flow and we must stop so that our respective currents do not clash too much.” (Sophie Mainguy, ER doctor.) The virus might need ample space and peace to complete that migratory flow, only time will tell.

So, the virus needs wildness; living natural environs that have evolved with the biodiversity of life itself. Don’t We need that also? Wild and untamed places where Nature is the key player, not humans. Beyond an ecosystem service, beyond the essential processes of Nature on the planet, wildness is essential. Wildness allows life to explore its own path. We can only dream of the intelligence that might arise through this, for we are but one tiny aspect of that very intelligence.

The Virus needs not to be at war, in very much the same way that the narrative dominating so many aspects of our own realities also needs to be adjusted. Our constant “enemising” of that which is other, that which challenges, triggers or threatens us, and the way we demonise that which we do not understand — all of this only serves to fuel our internal and external struggle. Peace will never be achieved when we reject and fail to even attempt to understand that which is. That which is. That which is before us right now. The world does not need our fight. The world needs our co-operation.

What is before us now is an unprecedented global challenge. What we need and what the virus needs may be worlds apart, or not, but may we continue to accept what life is presenting to us, and to BE with it. This is the pause that life feels like it needs right now.

What this virus has revealed in its scale and movement is the precarious and ultimately interconnected nature of all of life. From habitat to wild animal to human host, from country to country across the planet, the threads that hold us are as undeniable as they are delicate. What we do to the world, we do to ourselves, and each other. In the Irish language, the word for interconnected is “idirnasctha”. Directly translated, this word goes beyond suggesting loose overlapping connections to say that we are ‘bound’ together; we are interbound — and if we are bound together, then we are each others destiny.

What has also been revealed, in the forced pause in human rushing across the face of the planet, is how quickly Nature can once again occupy a healthy presence in our constructed worlds. The resurgence of wildlife witnessed in parts of Italy is something that was previously only described as a pipe dream. So much more is possible.

So, what if the virus is also the medicine? José Stevens of The Power Path writes “In light of all this help we have been given, is it too much to contemplate the coronavirus as a powerful ally for humans at this critical time in our evolution?” Is it too much to contemplate that a virus which attacks the lungs (in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the organ associated with grief and sadness) is facilitating a processing of the grief collectively held throughout our societies, the grief held within a species that is threatening its own survival? Is it too much to contemplate that the virus is taking our elderly because of the appalling value we place on elderhood itself? Our rejection of the ageing process, our aversion to death, our evidently collective unwillingness to enact measures which will see the survival of life on this beautiful planet Earth? Our denial of our own futures?

Is it too much to contemplate our own fallibility, our own unknowing, to feel into the uncertainty, to welcome the diversity of responses that life is showing us now, human and non?

With every compassion for the struggles this virus brings with it, I also offer my respect and gratitude to that which makes us pause and reassess our presence here on this gift of a planet. That which affords us the opportunity to perceive our fragility and interdependence. That which may ultimately need to reshuffle our entire civilisation, or may simply need that very gratitude and respect to bring us closer to living and to Life itself.

What the virus needs and what we need , indeed what Life needs, may not be so very different after all.

Things will never be the same again, and though this has been true many times before, evaluating the needs presented to us now might ensure it to be true many times again as the world spins on.

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Jenny O’ Hare

Deep Ecologist. Writer. Facilitator. Passionate about consciously living our part of the story of the planet.