COVID 19, climate change and the viral imaginaries of crisis
Updated: May 28
Laboratory, British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge (photograph the author, 2019)
The hot summer of 2015 induced record sea ice and permafrost melt. Scientists gathering ice cores from Siberian permafrost discovered a live 30,000-year old virus Mollivirus sibericum of significant size. At 0.6 microns Mollivirus sibericum is considerably larger than coronavirus at 0.12 microns (being a Megaviridae in science parlance). Under laboratory conditions scientists demonstrated that the virus could still infect its target, a single-celled amoeba (1).
There are a number of interesting things arising from this story. One is obvious: a fear that ice melt caused by climate change could release pathogens that are dangerous for humans and wider animal world. This is not the news we need at this moment and the risk of this actually happening has not been discounted (2). Another is how this story enables us to map some of the connections and coordinates of the current coronavirus outbreak to conceptualisations of the wider environmental crisis we are already catastrophically bound to.
These late Pleistocene mega viruses (when I first wrote this, Microsoft Word autocorrected ‘mega’ to ‘MAGA’ ) enable us to understand both climate history (how these viruses interact with their habitat are informing environmental predictions) and an understanding of evolution (3). As recently noted by Kathrine Hayles, scientific discoveries arising from work on giant viruses show their genomes to be similar in size to bacteria leading to new understanding of the key role viruses have played in the evolutionary development of life on Earth (4). This new understanding of biosymbiosis arising from the Earth’s ancient viral archives demonstrates, yet again, how we are caught up in wide, deep and complex interdependencies with other forms of life, environments and Earth systems which reciprocate in force on our bodies when we fail to care for them.
Flattening the curve
Charts and models dominate our news cycles and hint at emerging visual languages of crisis (flattening the curve is an aesthetic figure). It’s worth mentioning here that we’ve been trying to flatten other curves in the last 20 years or so: CO2 emissions, temperature and sea level rises amongst other things.
Alongside these ‘necro-visualisations’ of human tragedy, the concept of the model cuts across the public imagination as a harbinger of what might be and what was. A new empiricism abounds, but like the old empiricism we have come to appreciate that what it produces is always situated (Haraway’s ‘God Trick’). Or to put this another way ‘all models are wrong, but some are useful’ (5). Science is fragile, partial, contingent, but much of the time it is enough. Models of all types, it seems, will be around for some time.
1. Legendre M, Bartoli J, Shmakova L, et al. Thirty-thousand-year-old distant relative of giant icosahedral DNA viruses with a pandoravirus morphology. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014;111(11).
2. Yong E (2013) Giant viruses open Pandora’s box. Nature News. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature.2013.13410
3. Scheid P, Hauröder, B. & Michel, R. Parasitol. Res. 106, 1371–1377 (2010)
4. Hayles, N K, Novel Corona: Posthuman Virus. Critical Inquiry,