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COVID-19: Preventing Outbreaks

The London Interdisciplinary School
13 July 2020
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60 mins read

How do social, economic, historical and political factors intertwine with ecology to make ‘spillover’ (transfer of new viruses from animals to humans) increasingly likely, and can anything be done to prevent it?

Listen to the podcast and/or read the transcript of this interview with David Quammen, author of ‘Spillover’.

💡 Think about one of the following topics:
(a) The illegal wildlife trade
(b) Logging
(c) Artisan mining
(d) Intensive farming

For your chosen topic, you might want to make a mind-map showing how it relates to the challenges of preventing the spillover of zoonotic viruses to humans. Think about it from different ‘Levels of Reality’:
– Individual / Economic (e.g. livelihoods)
– Ecological (e.g. habitats, ecosystems)
– Social (e.g. societal norms, dietary preferences, living conditions)
– Political (e.g. corruption, bureaucracy, inertia)
– Historical (e.g. colonialism, historical inequalities, exploitation)

From here, think about what we can learn from COVID-19 in terms of actions that different stakeholders can take to prevent future spillover incidents from leading to pandemics. What can we do as individuals? Which policy-makers can we write to, and what can we ask them to do?

Take it further:
– This fun 7-minute animation explains what viruses are, how they reproduce by ‘hijacking’ the host cell’s protein-synthesis machinery, and what effects that can have on the host cell. Strongly recommended, especially if you don’t have a science background.

– Ashish Kothari et al. (2020) delve deeper into some of the issues highlighted by David Quammen in ‘Shaking the Viral Tree’, with a first attempt at thinking about solutions.

– A poetic and powerful extended essay by a leading Nigerian philosopher, exploring the notion of giving agency and subjectivity to the virus itself. As Akomolafe introduces it: “This essay is an experiment in speculative fabulation, in reframes and the telling of wild facts. Think of that as journalism into the feral conditions and magnificent terrains that make facts, as we have come to understand them, possible. Like most offerings in this genre of posthumanist literature, the aim is to shock you, the reader-author, into noticing the world differently. Into touching the scandalous fugitivity and plausibility of the impossible. Noticing the world differently can have material consequences that could be the difference between taking care and perpetuating paradigms of oppression and needless suffering.”

– This scientific journal article by S. S. Morse (2004) offers an in-depth introduction to some of the complexities of preventing the emergence of new diseases. These include ecological, environmental or demographic factors that place people in increased contact with the natural host for a previously unfamiliar zoonotic agent or that promote the spread of the pathogen. These factors are becoming increasingly prevalent, suggesting that infections will continue to emerge and probably increase.

– This 2007 article from Wired provides light-touch scientific background on different aspects of pandemic prevention that go beyond the lecture content, including PCR, bioinformatics and viral chatter. On a deeper level, reading it from a critical perspective – comparing the representation of American (white or white-passing) vs Black African characters in the narrative, and its focus on subsistence hunting combined with its silence around extractivist capitalism – offers startling insights into the ways in which white supremacist assumptions can permeate ‘scientific’ journalism.

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