Argument

The Coronavirus Is Not Mother Nature’s Revenge

Ideas about natural and unnatural behavior causing disaster are simple, easy—and wrong.

Bats are trapped in nets to be examined for possible viruses in Gabon.
Bats are trapped in nets to be examined for possible viruses at the Franceville International Centre of Medical Research in Franceville, Gabon. Steeve Jordan/AFP via Getty Images

If you gaze long into the abyss of a disease, your own ideology gazes back at you.

Authoritative expertise fades dangerously into the background, replaced by the conspiratorial whispers of those who know the truth—about coronavirus, they say, but primarily as a symptom of what’s wrong with everything else.

Anti-misinformation measures from tech companies may help mute these voices, but, as the anti-vaccine movement demonstrates, the task will be Sisyphean unless we understand and address the mechanism by which maladies become mirrors. It is a mechanism common to what otherwise look like disparate ideologies and contradictory theories: the belief that systems, whether biological or political, are naturally harmonious, and disorder is always the result of unnatural interference.

This belief is most explicit in the world of alternative health and diet, ground zero for coronavirus misinformation. On the extremely popular wellness website Natural News—“Defending Health, Life and Liberty”—concerned citizens will be unsurprised to learn what the ever-present “they” don’t want you to know about coronavirus: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “deliberately released [an] infected patient in San Antonio while positioning itself to financially benefit from an exploding epidemic.”

Thankfully the supplements and herbal remedies long touted by Natural News protect against COVID-19, from colloidal silver (“silver nanoparticles kill HIV-1 and most kinds of viruses”) to intravenous vitamin C (“every virus seems to respond to this type of treatment”).

At Mercola.com (6.5 million visits per month), natural-health enthusiasts are treated to a different sort of conspiracy. The vaccine-skeptical Joseph Mercola observes, ominously, that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored a novel coronavirus pandemic preparedness exercise on October 18, 2019, in New York called Event 201. “The hysteria being drummed up follows a well-worn pattern,” wrote Mercola, his words authorized by an official looking “Fact Checked” logo. “The population is kept in a state of fear about microbes so that drug companies can come to the rescue with yet another expensive (and potentially mandatory) drug or vaccine.”

The same faith in natural systems underwrites more mainstream movements, such as animal rights. Supporters of the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) can purchase Go Vegan face masks emblazoned with their favored theory about the origin of coronavirus and how to prevent it: “Meat markets breed killer diseases. Go vegan.” (Coronavirus is, after all, an anagram of “carnivorous.”) Understandably, advocates of an entirely carnivorous diet beg to differ.

Nor is transforming illness into ideology the exclusive practice of conspiracists and health nuts. As reported in Foreign Policy last month, Chinese state-sponsored media has, without evidence, been emphasizing the efficacy of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) against COVID-19. “TCM has never missed a single fight against epidemics throughout Chinese history,” gushed one characteristic article. “TCM classics have provided sufficient evidence of how TCM cured epidemic diseases such as smallpox over the past several thousand years.”

Ideologically inflected responses to COVID-19 frequently transcend the realms of health and medicine, becoming primarily political and theological. Far-right politicians across the world see the virus as punishment for open borders; religious zealots see it, of course, as punishment for our sins.

Although seemingly unrelated, these reactions share a key feature, just as COVID-19 infects its host using the same mechanism as other coronaviruses. They all exploit the human desire for a simplistic binary that explains good and evil, traditionally articulated in terms of natural and unnatural systems. Obey the laws of those systems and flourish. Disobey and suffer. As Susan Sontag wrote in Illness as Metaphor, “Dying has come to be regarded in advanced industrial societies as a shameful, unnatural event, so that disease which is widely considered a synonym for death has come to seem shameful, something to deny.” Panicked, we insist that deadly diseases must be unnatural—and, since origin determines essence, their cause must be unnatural as well.

Indeed, unnaturalness has long been used to explain all forms of dysfunction. Throughout Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, the word serves as shorthand for moral deficiency: “unnatural and unkind,” “unworthy and unnatural,” “savage and unnatural,” “inhuman and unnatural.” In his time—and before it—an “unnatural” birth meant a baby born with some deformity; an “unnatural” death meant, and still means, life cut short by murder or accident. With regard to sexual activity, “unnatural” describes perversions of desire; in government, perversions of justice.

Again, this foundational assumption is clearest in health and wellness conspiracy theories. COVID-19 could not possibly be natural, so it must have been seeded by the U.S. government or the Gates Foundation; cooked up in a secret Wuhan laboratory or as a CIA biological weapon for use against China. The details differ, but, as Stephanie Lee wrote in Buzzfeed, the central theme is consistent: “man-made,” “not natural,” and “prob. not random.”

What about PETA’s assertion that eating meat was the ultimate cause of COVID-19? A central plank of their case for vegetarianism is that eating animals is unnatural. Our unnatural diet explains not only COVID-19, but every modern affliction from racism to sexism. It’s the same argument made more than 200 years ago in “A Vindication of Natural Diet” by the vegetarian poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. “Man and the animals whom he has infected with his society, or depraved by his dominion, are alone diseased,” wrote Shelley, who proceeds to argue that crime is madness, madness is disease, and therefore abstaining from meat-eating will end criminal activity.

Dietary habits are a crucial part of identity, which is why intuitions about “unnatural diet” are easily conscripted into nationalist rhetoric. When Fox News host Jesse Watters blames Chinese people “eating raw bats and snakes” for COVID-19, he is tapping into a primal sense that foreigners are unnatural, unethical (they eat dogs, too!), inferior, and contagious—foreign bodies that compromise us physically and ideologically. From there it is a short step to tightening borders to protect a nation’s health. “Naturalizing” foreigners is necessary, since otherwise they will endanger the body politic. Open borders are as unnatural as the sexual activity that brings down divine wrath in the form of hurricanes and coronaviruses.

The antidote is a return to natural systems. The “oriental wisdom” of TCM celebrated by Chinese state media—and embraced by Western proponents of alternative medicine like Mercola—is rooted in its supposed attention to natural systems. “TCM interprets a pandemic from the principle of how human beings adapt to the alternation of seasons and natural change,” explained Cao Hongxin, the former head of science and technology at China’s National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine. (There is some irony in the possibility that COVID-19 may have come from pangolins, trafficked for their use in TCM.)

Likewise, the natural political solution to COVID-19 and future outbreaks is to limit the body politic’s exposure to foreign agents, those who are not our natural kinfolk (easily identified by their dietary habits). Blood and soil. Close up the borders to keep out the disease.

The persuasiveness of the natural/unnatural binary is not confined to those who endorse conspiracy theories, natural medicine, and radical nationalism. In fact, it is underwritten by standard epidemiological discourse about the causes of COVID-19. In a typical turn of phrase, the disease ecologist Kevin Olival explained to National Geographic that “when you bring animals together in these unnatural situations, you have the risk of human diseases emerging.” Writing in the New York Times, David Quammen identifies unnatural human activity as the culprit for our current situation: “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

The implications are clear. Ecosystems in their natural state are balanced, harmonious, and safe. Problems arise when we meddle with those systems. And not just coronavirus: invasive species, climate change, habitat destruction, pandemics of any kind—these are all a function of our artificial hubris, our dense cities, our interconnected global community and the industries that support it.

In this light, the wild-eyed conspiracies and ardent nationalism don’t seem so crazy. Isn’t Big Pharma one of those unnatural industries? Surely alternative medicine and a natural diet is a safer bet than their tainted vaccines. And if globalization facilitates unnatural pandemics, isn’t it just common sense to tighten borders and return nations to their natural, safer condition?

We are so accustomed to the idea of unnatural evil that unnatural activity seems like the obvious root of all woes. But unnaturalness is not an explanation of dysfunction. Some natural systems—childbirth, say—are manifestly inferior to our artificially improved versions. Highly technological forms of energy generation such as solar panels are better for the natural world than digging up coal and setting it on fire, natural though it may be. “Natural” and “unnatural” are descriptions, yet we insist on using them as judgments.

Speaking about illness as a product of unnatural activity facilitates the projection of ideological causes and solutions. Naturalness is an ambiguous metaphysics, an empty and powerful cipher which we can fill however we like. It’s entirely possible—indeed, it is essential—to condemn dangerous activities that might lead to COVID-19 without invoking a broader criteria of natural goodness. We would never say that vaccines are effective because they are unnatural—why, then, would we attribute protective properties to something in light of its naturalness?

If and when a vaccine is developed for the latest coronavirus, there will be a small segment of the population that refuses it, endangering public health. Maybe a government will refuse it, as the South African government once refused to treat HIV with drugs, opting instead for traditional natural remedies that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. When another virus threatens the world, there will be populist politicians who use it to gin up hatred and xenophobia. They will see in the specter of disease a justification of their own ideological tendencies. Perhaps that is inevitable. But if we do not take measures to change how we talk about the causes of our crises, starting with COVID-19, part of the blame for their persuasiveness will lie with us.

Alan Levinovitz is an associate professor of Chinese philosophy and religion at James Madison University. His most recent book is Natural.

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