Why ‘it’ happens: Disease, non-humans, and political change

By Brieg Powel, University of Exeter

One of the central questions asked by policymakers and scholars alike is ‘why did X happen?’. Be ‘X’ a war, a revolution, the collapse of a party’s vote-share, or something else entirely, those who seek to understand, prevent, respond to, or replicate a phenomenon often try to understand how it happened in the first place. The coronavirus outbreak of 2019–20, however, forces us all to reassess how we go about answering that question.

An artist’s impression of Uruk around 3500 BCE. Source

Indeed, a striking feature of the Covid-19 outbreak has been its dramatic reminder to both policymakers and scholars of the need to factor non-human ‘things’ such as disease into our understanding of apparently ‘human’ affairs. This is not to say that they were entirely absent: for instance, back in 2008 the United Kingdom government identified ‘pandemic influenza’ as the one threat likely to have the most impact on public life and as being one of the most likely to occur. In 2019, the year that Covid-19 first appeared, the UK was ranked second only to the United States for overall preparedness for public health crises in the Global Health Security Index. Nevertheless, such high regard meant little as the UK’s reported Covid-19 death toll quickly overtook that of China’s, and the US became world leader in a much grimmer, league table of death. The fragility of even the apparently ‘most prepared’ health systems prompted leading public health and societal risk experts to judge that the UK was ‘wholly unprepared’ and that its response was scientifically flawed on multiple levels. The truth, as some were quick to point out, was that policymakers much prefer to spend money on fighting other humans than on more abstract non-human challenges, from our microbial competitors to climate change and biodiversity collapse. Human matters are elevated above the non-human, regardless of their interdependency.

Academic debates over ‘what causes “X”?’ are equally blinkered, albeit without the mortal consequences of governmental policy failures. Colleagues at the Duck of Minerva blog note the distinct lack of public health-focused articles in leading International Relations journals between 1980 and 2017, with American scholarship particularly weak in this regard. Issues such as interstate war and deterrence dominate despite the clear recent decline in such conflicts and the sometimes-seismic impact of disease on the human world. Within our scholarly communities, contemplation of the empirical and theoretical implications of non-humans in the social world has typically been limited to ecologically-focused work, with dominant approaches and theories preoccupied by human actors and human-centred explanations. Promisingly, scholarship around ‘posthuman’ international relations, actor-network theory, and new materialism has increasingly challenged such blind obsessions with humans at the expense of the broader world in which all human processes occur. Nevertheless, even these critiques often fall short of considering pandemics and their associated microbes.

What is needed is a more consistent appreciation of the transformative impact of non-humans on human life and society by policymakers and thinkers alike, along with policies and scholarship that recognise humanity as only part of a complex smorgasbord of interdependent life and chemical elements. After all, Covid-19 itself is a zoonotic disease brought about by the interweaving of human and non-human life (the first known human Covid-19 variant is specifically related to a virus found in bats and pangolins). All human relations are embedded in and continuously shaped by things beyond the human, including disease.

Moreover, human relations have long been so, and by researching across disciplines we can arrive at a fuller picture. As medical microbiologist Dorothy Crawford noted, microbes and pathogens have always been humanity’s ‘deadly companions’ over the millennia. The DNA of many of modern humanity’s ‘childhood diseases’, such as measles, dates their emergence to the very same time and place as the intensification of farming and urbanisation in Mesopotamia around 5000 BCE. Work by archaeologists on the first ‘international systems’, such as the ‘Uruk world system’, may be significant for identifying the importance of ‘international’ factors in the evolution of the first ‘states’. This ‘system’ was driven by trade and the exchange of goods and ideas between increasingly settled populations from the Caucuses to the Persian Gulf, and the Iranian Plateau to the eastern Mediterranean. Yet as anthropologist James Scott observes, it also spread the new diseases ever further, making state extinction de-urbanisation (as populations fled disease-filled cities) as much features of the era as state formation and urbanisation. Humanity and politics have thus been shaped by disease and the natural world just as we have shaped them.

Similarly, viral and bacteriological pathogens have often played a pivotal role in many ‘what ifs?’ of international relations. Dysentery, for one, has long been and remains a powerful influencer of armies’ potency, thereby influencing some notable political processes. For instance, the French Revolution faced a real prospect of defeat before it had the chance to establish itself as, in 1792, the armies of key European powers under the First Coalition invaded France to quash the revolution. Their efforts soon floundered, however, as the Coalition army led by Prussia (a leading military power of the day) was decimated by dysentery. As historian David Bell explains:

Many Prussians suffered so greatly that they could not even drag themselves to the latrines, turning their bivouacs into mephitic “shit camps”. Of the 42,000 who crossed the French border, fully a fifth did not even make it to the site of the first major battle, and many of those who did could barely stand.

The climactic battle at Valmy was a rousing French victory, and the first French Republic was declared two days later.

Such cases are important reminders of the susceptibility of politics to disease and the formative role pathogens have played on socio-political processes, from state formation to revolutions. More broadly, they reinforce the need for us to think of ourselves not as all-powerful masters of the universe, immune to non-humans, but as one part of a co-evolving set of connections and relations wherein sometimes, perhaps more often than we realise, non-human factors such as disease play a key role in why ‘it’ happens.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *