Since the beginning of the pandemic we have listened to many different points of view about what is happening in the world. The most recurrent analyzes, at least in the general media, concern the medical, sociological, psychological and economic fields. What perhaps has been missed a little is a less anthropocentric, broader general view (in time and space) such as that offered by the evolutionists.
On the occasion of the exhibition Contagion (Museo Casa Giorgione) a conference was held by professor Telmo Pievani (philosopher and evolutionist, professor of philosophy of biological sciences, bioethics and naturalistic popularization) entitled Evolutions of the Plague. The conference has the merit of highlighting what are the elements of continuity and discontinuity with previous pandemics. Many interesting reflections emerge from the conference; I report some of them hoping that they can make the debate more fertile.
Rereading the pages that Tucidide and Lucretius on the one hand, Alessandro Manzoni and Albert Camus on the other have dedicated to plagues and epidemics, it is surprising to see how much some aspects of the current emergency are anything but new. The main element (which we could define as humanistic) of continuity with the past is represented by that pattern of human behavior (pattern) that always repeats itself over the centuries: the first signs of the epidemic occur, incredulity follows, then a long period of underestimation, comes the surge in infections, panic ensues. There is no shortage of ancient refrains such as the search for a metaphysical guilt (a god who punishes us) or a scapegoat. And again the desire to start again after the first wave, the second wave … Finally, when the pandemic goes undetected, oblivion systematically decreases and everything is forgotten. It is difficult not to see that this is exactly what is happening this time too.
The elements of novelty compared to the past instead they are represented by a “new” virus, by the density and the total number of the inhabitants of the earth, by an unprecedented mobility of the world population (and a couple of others minor factors).
1) Regarding the nature of the virus, it is sufficient to remember that although it is an exponent of the coronavirus family, however we are faced with an unprecedented pathogen which, after being in bats for a long time (which have been on earth for more than 50 million years) has mutated, recombined with other species, and finally passed on to man.
2) Regarding population density, 56% of the global population now lives in cities (technically colonies) and land matters just under 8 billion people in total. When the last great pandemic arrived (the Spanish) we were about two billion …
3) With regard to the extreme mobility of our days, it is evident that with intercontinental airplanes, mass tourism and the circulation of goods on a global level, the opportunities for contagion are enormously superior.
4) A further element of novelty is constituted by human behaviors such as poaching of exotic animals, speculative deforestation and intensive frequentation of wet market. If promiscuity with animals is certainly nothing new (farming dates back to 10,000 BC) and deforestation is also an ancient habit, it is also true that they have never been practiced to such an extreme and extensive extent. Animals illegally transported to different habitats and markets where they are handled without any precautions mean that the leap of species becomes only a matter of time. To this topic, the researcher David Quammen dedicated the text Spillover (second edition of 2012) in which he makes a projection (and not a prediction) of what characteristics the next pandemic would have: it would have started from a coronavirus, recombined and with new characteristics, with many asymptomatic, starting from China, more precisely from a wet market… And other points, all of which are also correct.
5) Last element of discontinuity with the past is the vaccine. In previous pandemics, the population has always been decimated, decimated, even halved. Let’s imagine if four billion people had died to date … So it is a formidable defense weapon whose only limit is to be effective in containing this particular emergency and against this particular virus. The vaccine, unfortunately, it does not represent a definitive solution if you plan to fight all future pandemics, hoping to find one every time in nine months. The distancing in turn certainly buffers the emergency, but stopping the world for weeks is not a structurally sustainable measure. The only way is that of prevention and systematic risk reduction that we encounter if we do not review many of our habits.
Finally, it would be nice if for once as a species we didn’t just wait for disaster to act. The ice that melts, the animals that are extinguished, the public debt that increases … Why not moderate behaviors that harm us right now, already in our present, before the future presents us with a much heavier bill?
Somewhere, which seems remote to us, another 150,000 viruses are ready to recombine and visit us again. All while here we are busy arguing confusedly about a provision born in a state of emergency, or about the side effects of a vaccine tested on billions of people. Anxious to take sides, hate us and divide us into opposing factions (which give us a uniform and an identity) we continue to quarrel among ourselves, while the real enemy becomes stronger and stronger.