A (Bio)anthropological View of the COVID-19 Era Midstream: Beyond the Infection

We are in a pandemic. COVID-19 infection threatens humanity with illness and death. But disease from this microbe is not the only hazard to human health and well-being. People around the globe have experienced months of isolation and have possibly more than a year of social distancing, both of which can have devastating effects on our physiologies and psyches. Simultaneously, how people perceive, process, share and act on information about COVID-19, all deeply social practices, is having substantial impacts on bodies and lives. The threats of the COVID-19 era are deeply biosocial, disrupting body, mind and community.

As a (bio)anthropologist, my research focuses on the biosocial, delving into the entanglement of biological systems with the social and cultural lives of humans, our ancestors and a few of the other animals with whom humanity shares close relations. The COVID-19 era offers an unfortunately strong demonstration of how these elements mix, illustrating why infection is only one of this new landscape’s distressing aspects.

The epic economic and political crises emerging from this pandemic are the nondisease aspects garnering most attention. They are juggernauts shaping much of the human experience at the moment, but they are not the focus of this article. Rather, I want to offer a glimpse of other facets that are particularly salient in a longer term perspective. The view through a (bio)anthropological lens illustrates many distressing, and some hopeful, goings-on in the COVID-19 era.

For anthropologists, context is everything. While the COVID-19 pandemic is a novel situation, what is happening draws on human histories, both social and biological, ancient and recent. To frame this observation of what is happening today, what humans are working with must be clear.

Being social is more than having interactions with others, being in groups and sharing feelings. The human niche, Homo sapiens’ ecosystem — the way humanity exists in the world — is social through and through. Humans evolved as beings whose needs to touch and be touched, to converse, debate and laugh together, to smile and flirt with one another and to interact in groups are central to healthy lives. The very functioning of neurobiological systems, of the hormones and enzymes circulating through arteries, guts and other organs is tied to human social connections and relationships with others. 1 Our socialness, usually such a benefit, becomes a perfect pathway for invasion by a virus such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). But not being social is not an option. Countless experiments and lived experiences demonstrate that removing these daily immersions in social activity causes bodily infrastructures of mental and physical health to falter. Bad things happen when humans are socially isolated or disenfranchised, such as physiological and psychological depression, reduced immune function, gastro-intestinal distress and cognitive difficulties.

Being with other species also epitomizes humanity. For at least the past 10,000–20,000 years, humans across the planet have been interacting with, manipulating and being manipulated by a diverse array of plants and animals. Some call this domestication, but it is best seen as a dynamic ecosystem involving humans and others shaping one another’s bodies, physiologies and behaviors over space and time. This includes the sharing of pathogens — microbes that move back and forth between bodies mutating, harming, helping and even inserting themselves into genomes of their hosts. Tuberculosis, influenzas, rabies, malarias, salmonella and a variety of corona and other viruses have been shuttling back and forth between humans and other animals for millennia. Infection from interactions with other species is not new, but the context of the COVID-19 pandemic is.

The context is new not because of the specific biological makeup of SARS-CoV-2, although it is particularly virulent and robust. Rather, COVID-19, the SARS-COV-2 disease and all of its accompanying processes 2 are new because of human reshaping of the world. Humans are consummate niche constructors; we push and shape the world, creating urban landscapes, industrial agriculture, global economies and genomic technologies. But the world pushes back. This creates new systems and dynamics; policy makers and biological and social scientists can predict the outcomes of many, but many we cannot. Contemporary human niche construction is not only about the emergence of urban landscapes, motorways, redirected rivers, filled-in coastlines and expansive agricultural processes but also the creation/restructuring of societies and cultures, of histories and perceptions of who and what is “natural” and who and what are “preferable.” Human niche construction creates simultaneously ecological, biological, social, political and economic systems that are always interrelated. These interrelations set the stage for COVID-19.

Today’s world is interconnected more than ever. Planes, trains, ships and other transport systems whisk people across the globe in record numbers and in record time. Humans and everything they have on and in them can fly from New York to London to Beijing in less than 24 hours. Humans are more densely packed across the planet. There are twice as many humans today as there were a mere 50 years ago (3.4 billion vs. more than 7.7 billion). Not only are Homo sapiens more densely concentrated, more connected, and just more, but human societies are more stratified materially, economically and politically than ever. Access to health care, shelter and nutritional support is extremely unequal. And racist and nationalist fervor, with deep roots and virulent impact over the past 500 years, has exploded and flourishes in the 21st century.

This is the context into which COVID-19 emerged.

COVID-19 is not a biological event. This might sound incorrect, but it is not. The virus SARS-CoV-2 is a biological entity, and COVID-19 is characterized by significant morbidity and mortality related to disruption of and damage to human biological systems (especially, but not exclusively, the lungs and respiratory system). However, seeing these biological facts as independent of their contexts and the processes by which they manifest presents a clear danger for human responses to the current pandemic, and future ones.

There are many excellent and accessible descriptions of the biology of the virus and the geographic and temporal spread (basic epidemiology) of the pandemic. 3 There is also a diversity of news stories, websites and summaries laying out the social and health impacts, the political fallouts and the economic catastrophes. 4 While this separate framing of biological and social is familiar and widespread, it creates the sense of distinct, complementary threads of information. But these elements are not distinct. Treating biology as separate from the social and cultural carries risk.

The basic biology of the SARS-CoV-2 is critical information everyone should have. 5 For example, knowing that corona viruses are held together by lipid membranes, which makes them highly vulnerable to the lipid-disrupting properties of soap, enables one to understand why soap-and-water hand-washing is such an effective behavior in managing transmission of the virus. But such biological knowledge can be less relevant, or irrelevant, in different ecologies/contexts. For example, in urban shantytowns and homeless encampments across the world, access to water and soap is limited. The lipid membrane biology of the virus means something very different in an urban encampment than in a private residence in the same city with running water and occupants who have soap at hand. In the encampment, biological features of the viral membrane enabling differences in how long the virus can live on surfaces 6 (plastic vs. metal vs. cardboard) take on a critical relevance they do not have in the residence. And the virus’s vulnerability to soap fades to an aside. The same comparisons hold for the bodies of the humans in both contexts. In encampments, the likelihood of substantive health challenges, immune-compromised states and persisting respiratory damage is comparatively higher. In each context the “biological” relationship with the virus presents a different dynamic. And the reasons for the human physiological differences in these scenarios — unlike the reasons for the virus’s susceptibly to soap — are not genetic or part of a biological legacy but due to social inequity, economic disequilibrium and a multitude of other decidedly social processes that have biological features. Human bodies are never just biological or just social, and thus nothing humans interact with should ever be seen through an isolated biological lens.

In the case of COVID-19, to envision the biological as one realm of information and the social, political and economic as another creates a disconnect among key components of the integrated system. Given the omnipresence of assumptions about biology equaling “real” and “nature,” there is an impression that exclusively addressing the biological by containing/eradicating the SARS-CoV-2 infection will “solve” the root of the problem. The virus is not the root, however; it is a participant in the system. If controlling the virus with a vaccine is the end goal of tackling COVID-19, then once that is achieved, there is no guarantee of impetus to address the variety of reasons why the COVID-19 system could function as it does. Worse, a vaccine-as-primary-goal risks the scenario where a vaccine is found and globally distributed, then the economic and political recoveries begin without substantive attention to the system/context that enabled something like COVID-19 in the first place.

The biology of the virus; the health and physiological dynamics of human populations; economic and healthcare systems; global transportation and communication processes; the extraction, handling and use of animal resources for cultural and nutritional needs — are all interconnected variables that make up the system enabling the emergence of COVID-19. Assuming that resolving one variable takes it out of the equation misrepresents the equation, inhibiting the effectiveness and impact of subsequent solutions. The biosocial reality of COVID-19 is complicated, to be sure. But living with its “messiness” is necessary if humans hope to come out the other end of this pandemic with any possibility of not repeating this same scenario next time. And there will be a next time.

Simultaneous with the spread of COVID-19, there have been increasing verbal and physical racist attacks across the United States and the United Kingdom against Asian-descendant Americans and Britons and visitors from East Asian countries. 7 Beatings, stabbings, verbal harassment and online rants against “Asians” are on the rise. The instigators, primarily white Americans and Britons, target individuals of Asian descent because of (a) the mistaken assumption that people of Asian descent are responsible for the virus and primary communicators of it, and (b) a deep-seated, biologized racist bias against non-white people, including a history of scapegoating racialized groups. Both (a) and (b) are part of a systemic pattern of racism that permeates society and is reinforced at the highest levels. Case in point, the 45th president of the United States has repeatedly called SARS-CoV-2 the “Chinese virus” 8 despite the fact that the World Health Organization has explicit protocols for not using geographic/national naming for pathogens 9 to avoid this exact racializing of diseases and stigmatizing whole groups of people. The incorporation of COVID-19 for racist ends, while not surprising, is extremely dangerous.

Race is not a biologically accurate way to describe human variation, but race as a social category is a real and lived experience that is structured, imposed and maintained by racism, 10 a system of oppression and discrimination. The United States and the United Kingdom have deep histories as racist and racialized societies, where race and racism have been deployed to oppress, control and abuse non-European- and/or non-Anglo-descendant populations for centuries. 11 There is a robust history of using disease, false biological assertions and myriad invented medical contexts for justifying this racism. So it is no surprise that COVID-19 is used as a tool for racism and racist abuse. However, this is especially concerning given that while this is neither the first nor the last epidemic or pandemic to originate in a geographic area outside of the United States or the United Kingdom, it is the largest and most prominent to date. Thus societal reactions to it act as a predictor of future patterns.

While there is no biological or epidemiological reality supporting racist assertions and actions related to COVID-19, racist and nationalist fervor, stoked by prominent political figures, exploits preexisting biases. This sows fear and distrust across populations at a time when mutual aid and collaboration are critical. It makes dissemination of accurate information about COVID-19 more difficult. And it sets the stage for significant upswings in racist violence, challenging public health and well-being in a moment of substantial national and global crisis. Most concerning, if this particular form of racism is not recognized and eradicated or at least publically condemned and aggressively addressed, it will expand and grow, radiating itself as a type of infection setting the stage for ever more virulent racist outcomes in subsequent epidemics and pandemics. Racism generates mortality and morbidity in a society as lethally, if not more so, than coronaviruses.

As of this writing, large swaths of humanity are looking at months of isolation and maybe more than a year of social distancing. This can be difficult, even harmful to bodies and minds. Yet humans are coping.

Unlike our ancestors, humans now live in a world where the social is not limited to those standing next to them. The capacity to reach across the street and across the planet without leaving physical isolation is now almost ubiquitous. Tens of thousands of people are already crafting new and imaginative uses of social media, phones and other internet-capable devices to reframe and remake social lives. They are sharing compassion, joy and necessary knowledge. Multiplayer online gaming, social media book clubs, cooking groups, parties, wine tastings and a diversity of other social events are layered onto the near-universal use of FaceTime, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, Zoom and a multitude of other video linkage apps. These actions are bringing family, friends, even strangers together for social interface at a safe distance. Numerous studies 12 demonstrate how such virtual social activities can feed positively into our neurobiologies and emotional systems, fulfilling some of our need for social connection and helping to maintain the infrastructures of our bodies and minds under stress from the calamities of the COVID-19 landscape.

Humans are being social at a distance beyond the internet too. Early into their quarantines, thousands of people in Spain and Italy greeted and serenaded one another from windows and balconies. Across the United States, people with cars are helping (at an appropriate social distance) their homebound neighbors by collecting and delivering their groceries and medicines. Individuals are walking in their neighborhoods in costumes to entertain, drawing on sidewalks with chalk and forming impromptu social distance bands on their balconies and porches. People walking their dogs are making sure to greet everyone they pass with a wave and a few words (again, at a safe distance). Hundreds of thousands are profusely thanking, at every chance they get, the medical workers, grocery clerks, first responders and countless others reporting to work so that the rest of the population can attend to their own most basic needs.

Being social is not just about shared interactions; it is about building community. Human evolutionary history is centered on the social; the ways our bodies and minds evolved predisposes us to be investors in our communities. While being social, even at a distance, won’t solve all of the problems faced during COVID-19, it will help many. And it does suggest that humans have the capacity to weather this. Maintaining strong relationships and keeping up daily social interactions are critical biosocial behaviors that humans across the globe are undertaking to stay healthy, and sane, as they work to deny SARS-CoV-2 places to live and spread.

Both of the recent SARS coronavirus outbreaks, this one and the one in 2003, initiated via the jump of a coronavirus from another animal (most likely mammal) to a human. This was not due to anything the other animal did; rather, it was made possible by the contemporary human practice of extracting wild animals from forested and other nonurban landscapes and bringing them into dense urban markets for processing and sale. It is this context of capture, confinement, crowding, butchering and ultimately consumption by humans that presents the opportunity for an exceptional virus with a few particular mutations to find a new host. These are rare events, and it is even rarer for them to result in the perfect storm of something like SARS-CoV-2 and the subsequent COVID-19.

Just a half-century ago the dangers presented by these patterns were nothing like those of today. The 21st-century context of global connectivity ensures that COVID-19-like events are both possible and probable. Health researchers, biologists, conservationists and anthropologists have been pushing for a halt to the resource extraction and abuse practices facilitating this context for more than three decades. With little success. Until now. In the wake of COVID-19, the Chinese government approved a regulation “Comprehensively Prohibiting the Illegal Trade of Wild Animals, Eliminating the Bad Habits of Wild Animal Consumption, and Protecting the Health and Safety of the People.” 13 The venerable New York–based Wildlife Conservation Society along with multiple other conservation groups applauded this first step but noted that there is a long way to go for a total ban on trade and exploitation of wild-caught animals. But it is a start — a prominent governmental acknowledgment of negative outcomes of such systems of resource extraction.

Governments and broader publics being more aware of the substantive health dangers of rampant animal resource extraction/use might open up new avenues of positive practice and policy. This in turn creates a space for a new ethics of relationships between humans and other animals, and maybe even ecosystems. China’s ban on capture, trade and consumption of wild-caught animals is a step in this direction, even if the reality of its implementation falls far short. The attention to the fact that pollution levels in areas under significant COVID-19 impact have plummeted may be the next step. The COVID-19 era illustrates how quickly drastic human behavioral changes can alter processes in ecosystems, indicating the possibility that much milder shifts are possible, and likely beneficial, once we come out of this current mess.

Humans have a distinctive capacity to deal with challenges to our minds, bodies and lives. We have developed over the past 2 million years from small, naked, fangless, hornless, clawless ape-like creatures with only a few sticks and rocks for protection to the creators of cities and nations, global economies, planes, computers, food processors, great works of art and thousands of culinary delicacies. We accomplished these feats by relying on one another — whether it was figuring out how to create new and better stone, bone and wood tools; making and using fire to cook and for nighttime light; reshaping ecologies or venturing into new lands across deserts, waterways and mountain ranges. Humans share an evolutionary history of dense cooperation and mutual aid, navigating life’s challenges by coming together, imagining and creating new possibilities. The social and the innovative are written into human neurobiologies, physiologies and societies, offering the tool kit to solve the challenges of the COVID-19 era.

While not ignoring the dire issues of the morbidity and mortality from COVID-19, people can also take in the larger picture of the biosocial complexity of this global event. Context is important, even if it is complex and difficult to understand. A brief (bio)anthropological glance at COVID-19 offers at least some hope that this crisis is surmountable. But not easily.

Notes

1. Agustín Fuentes, The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional (New York: Dutton, 2017).

2. “Naming the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) and the Virus That Causes It,” World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/technical-guidance/naming-the-coronavirus-disease-(covid-2019)-and-the-virus-that-causes-it.

3. Jonathan Corum and Carl Zimmer, “How Coronavirus Hijacks Your Cells,” The New York Times, Last modified March 13, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/03/11/science/how-coronavirus-hijacks-your-cells.html; “Coronavirus Map: Tracking the Global Outbreak,” The New York Times, Last modified May 18, 2020,https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/world/coronavirus-maps.html; “Coronavirus Coverage,” National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/coronavirus-coverage/?cmpid=org=ngp::mc=social::src=twitter::cmp=editorial::add=tw20200313science-coronaviruscoveragethread::rid=&sf231470483=1.

4. “The Coronavirus Outbreak,” The New York Timeshttps://www.nytimes.com/news-event/coronavirus; “Coronavirus Outbreak,” The Guardianhttps://www.theguardian.com/world/coronavirus-outbreak; Ed Yong, “How the Pandemic Will End,” The Atlantic, March 25, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/03/how-will-coronavirus-end/608719/.

5. Ed Yong, “Why the Coronavirus Has Been So Successful,” The Atlantic, March 20, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/03/biography-new-coronavirus/608338/.

6. Neeltje van Doremalen et al. “Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1,” New England Journal of Medicine 382 (2020): 1564–67, doi:10.1056/NEJMc2004973.

7. Holly Yan, Natasha Chen, and Dushyant Naresh, “What’s Spreading Faster than Coronavirus in the US? Racist Assaults and Ignorant Attacks Against Asians,” CNN, Last modified February 21, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/20/us/coronavirus-racist-attacks-against-asian-americans/index.html; Denise Dador, “Coronavirus: Local Boy Bullied, Attacked, Targeted Just Because He’s Asian, Officials Say,” KABC Eyewitness News, February 14, 2020, https://abc7.com/5929456/; “Suspect Admits He Tried to Kill Family at Midland Sam’s Club,” CBS7, Last modified March 17, 2020, https://www.cbs7.com/content/news/FIRST-ON-CBS7-Suspect-admitted-to-trying-to-kill-family-at-Midland-Sams-Club-affidavit-says-568837371.html; Anna Russell, “The Rise of Coronavirus Hate Crimes,” The New Yorker, March 17, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/news/letter-from-the-uk/the-rise-of-coronavirus-hate-crimes; Sally Weale, “Chinese Students Flee UK After ‘Maskaphobia’ Triggered Racist Attacks,” The Guardian, March 17, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/mar/17/chinese-students-flee-uk-after-maskaphobia-triggered-racist-attacks; XX, Editorial Board, “Call It ‘Coronavirus,’” The New York Times, March 23, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/opinion/china-coronavirus-racism.html?campaign_id=2&emc=edit_th_200324&instance_id=16983&nl=todaysheadlines&regi_id=32348664&segment_id=22692&user_id=83eafb7552cc5a6d89e0b20268f97057.

8. Maegan Vazquez and Betsy Klein, “Trump Again Defends the Use of the Term ‘China Virus,’” CNN, Last modified March 19, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/17/politics/trump-china-coronavirus/index.html.

9. “WHO Issues Best Practices for Naming New Human Infectious Diseases,” World Health Organization, May 8, 2015, https://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/notes/2015/naming-new-diseases/en/.

10. Agustín Fuentes et al., “AAPA Statement on Race and Racism,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 169, no. 3 (2019): 400–402, https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.23882; see also Rebecca Ackermann et al., “AAPA Statement on Race & Racism,” American Association of Physical Anthropologists, https://physanth.org/about/position-statements/aapa-statement-race-and-racism-2019/.

11. Leith Mullings, “Interrogating Racism: Toward an Antiracist Anthropology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 34 (2005): 667–93; Alan Goodman, Yolanda T. Moses, and Joseph L. Jones, Race: Are We So Different?, 2nd ed. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2020); “Race, Racism, and White Supremacy,” eds. Aisha Beliso-De Jesús and Jemima Pierre, American Anthropologist, March 6, 2020, http://www.americananthropologist.org/2020/03/06/whiteness-and-white-supremacy/.

12. As summaries, see, for example, A. Kearns and E. Whitley, “Associations of Internet Access With Social Integration, Well-Being and Physical Activity Among Adults in Deprived Communities: Evidence From a Household Survey,” BMC Public Health 19 (2019): 860, https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-7199-x; J. L. Clark, S. B. Algoe, and M. C. Green, “Social Network Sites and Well-Being: The Role of Social Connection,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 27, no. 1 (2018): 32–37, https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721417730833; Janelle W. Myhre, Matthias R. Mehl, and Elizabeth L. Glisky, “Cognitive Benefits of Online Social Networking for Healthy Older Adults,” The Journals of Gerontology: Series B 72, no. 5 (2017): 752–60, https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbw025.

13. “WCS Statement and Analysis: On the Chinese Government’s Decision Prohibiting Some Trade and Consumption of Wild Animals,” Wildlife Conservation Society, February 26, 2020, https://newsroom.wcs.org/News-Releases/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/13855/WCS-Statement-and-Analysis-On-the-Chinese-Governments-Decision-Prohibiting-Some-Trade-and-Consumption-of-Wild-Animals.aspx.

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Agustín Fuentes

Agustín Fuentes, trained in zoology and anthropology, is Edmund P. Joyce C.S.C. Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. He has conducted research across four continents and 2 million years of human history and is interested in both the big questions and the small details of the human experience. His current explorations include the roles of creativity and imagination in human evolution, multispecies anthropology, evolutionary theory and the structures of race and racism. Fuentes’ recent books include Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths About Human Nature (University of California Press, 2012), Conversations on Human Nature (with Aku Visala; Routledge, 2016), The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional (Dutton, 2017), and Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being (Yale University Press, 2019).

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