Thinking Beyond the “Wild” Pandemic

A blue paper masks sits in the grass

This is the first piece in the 2020 Visions: Imagining (Post-) COVID Worlds series, which aims to reflect on the uneven impacts of the “pandemic year” and to consider new futures that might be made possible in its wake. Series editors: Weishun Lu, Juniper Lewis, Richelle Wilson, and Addie Hopes.

We must be humble in the face of nature,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson, when announcing the United Kingdom’s second nationwide lockdown in November 2020. Through linking COVID-19 with the unstoppable force of “nature,” he sought to absolve his government of blame: who could compete with such a power? Leaders from the World Wildlife Fund, the United Nations, and the World Health Organization wrote in the Guardian that we must “protect and preserve nature” so that it can “protect us.” “Nature,” they lament, “is declining globally.” Conversations around COVID-19 are constantly changing, but the power of the nature narrative remains.

Invoking “nature” as God-like and omnipotent is not new. For centuries, in fiction and in reality, “plague” narratives have hinged on human transgressions being punished by a vengeful, plague-causing, primordial power. But the quotations above provoke a question: what does “nature” become in the hands of scientific and political leaders when faced with crises? And, what does this show about the ways in which humans are expected to understand and act towards “nature”? As historian of science Lorraine Daston has encouraged us to ask: what moral imperatives do these recourses to the “natural” reveal?

Screenshot of an online article about COVID-19, entitled "Coronavirus is a warning to us to men our broken relationship with nature."
“Nature” often takes center stage in conversations about COVID-19, like in this Guardian article, June 17, 2020.

Often, the ways moralities of “nature” are mobilized in relation to the pandemic overlap with crises of racism and xenophobia, settler colonialism, and ecological degradation. Indeed, the forms that narratives of disease outbreaks take—centering on punishment and retribution for perceived crimes against nature—can themselves help to fuel stigmatization. With this in mind, it becomes important to examine a related notion that frequently crops up alongside “nature” in relation to pandemics: “the wild.”

As with “nature” itself, it is often difficult to get a handle on what the “wild” really is. Is it something one should seek out for salvation and the sublime, a way to get closer to God and away from the sins of mankind; or is it something grotesque and uncanny, to be associated with savagery and danger? Consuming reporting on COVID-19, one might encounter “the wild” only in fleeting images, its meaning twisting and turning between these two poles. Yet in each occurrence it remains implicated with particular moralities. What links these diverse occurrences is that the imperial heritage of this term is left unexamined. This leaves the potential for historical harms to linger into the present, just as they do when moral judgements are made regarding what is “natural” and what is not. Who gets to define what counts as “wild,” and what kind of “nature” is protected? Who are the protectors—and who are the punished?

“Nature,” the “Wild,” and the Other in COVID-19 Coverage

When the news of the COVID-19 outbreak was first being reported, newspapers in the US and UK focused heavily on Wuhan, in particular its “wet markets.” These markets were portrayed as “grotesque,” and China was described as a “viral petri dish” in English-language media. Focusing on the range of “wild” animals traded, the Guardian listed “live snakes, turtles and cicadas, guinea pigs, bamboo rats, badgers, hedgehogs, otters, palm civets, even wolf cubs” in a deliberate attempt to make these practices unpalatable to a Western audience. Rather than being an object of romanticized fetishization, the “exotic” here becomes an object of disgust and repulsion. This kind of paranoid Othering has very real consequences, such as a sharp increase in hate crimes against people of Asian heritage in the US and the UK.

Often, epidemiology’s search for a coherent narrative of an outbreak that is suitable for Euro-American audiences reproduces these normative assumptions about the Other so that they can be made the villain of the story. This is not new, but it is political. In the 1950s, Cold War narratives linked with virology to establish disease outbreaks as “foreign” or “alien” agents that posed a national threat. Today, the paranoia continues as discussions of the origins of COVID-19 are limited to racialized notions of “Other People.”

In the early months of COVID-19 pandemic, English-language media focused on “wet markets” like this one in Shenzhen, China, amplifying anti-Asian sentiment and xenophobic fears of contagion. Photo by Chris via Flickr, 2012.

This is exactly what happened with the portrayal of the 2003 SARS epidemic in Europe. A New York Times article at the time reported that the Dongyuan animal market presented “endless opportunities for an emerging germ,” as it consisted of “hundreds of cramped stalls that stink of blood and guts,” a “veritable zoo,” containing “snakes, chickens, cats, turtles . . . disemboweled frogs and feathers flying.” They reported that one of the earliest cases was a “seller of snakes and birds.” The Guardian pinpointed the outbreak to the “hinterlands” of China. Ideas of who is diseased and who isn’t, who is a threat and who isn’t, come to reflect legalistic national frameworks. This is evident not only in the discourse surrounding COVID-19’s origins, but all the way through to discussions of vaccine rollout where migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are left behind.

At the beginning of the pandemic, notions of exotic Others eating “weird” (“wild”) things came to the fore again and again in Western reporting. Yet as Thom van Dooren argues, what could be “weirder” than feeding cows to other cows? This was a practice common in the UK until repeated outbreaks of “mad cow disease” in the 1980s and 1990s, a fatal degenerative brain disorder linked directly to consuming the meat of cows affected by this practice. Indeed, though intensively farmed environments might be thought to be the opposite of “wild” ones, even farms containing less common livestock—like civet cats or rodents—are described as “wildlife farms.” But it is not only “wild” farmed animals that are susceptible; we know that previous coronavirus epidemics have affected industrial pig farms in North America.

Racialized disgust toward people who consume “wildlife” always resonates with harms.

Indeed, the reporting on Asian “wildlife farms” was very different from the later reporting on the COVID-19 outbreaks on Danish mink farms—and the consequent culls of millions of minks—which often focused on the tragedy of the situation and what it meant for our understanding of the virus, rather than seeking to evoke disgust for the practices of some Danish people. Furthermore, Western scientists expressed fear that the disease could leak out from mink farms into “the wild” via the few thousand mink who escape the farms each year. But should we not fear more how millions of mink are kept in tiny cages that create disease reservoirs, than the risk of mink escapees?

Ideas of what is natural and unnatural to do, how “we” should interact with “the wild”—and the risks of getting too close to the wild Other—are central in these discourses. Yet the other side of this fearful notion of “the wild“ is its romanticization. For example, an urban dweller eager to relieve lockdown boredom may long for a life closer to wild nature. But romanticizing the wild, like fearing it, can contribute “anew to the romance of going back to some mystical unsullied land.” The perceived existence of such a land has been historicized in William Cronon’s famous essay The Trouble With Wilderness, in which he shows how the idea of the sublime, empty wilderness is rooted in the colonization of the so-called “New World” and the consequent erasure of Indigenous lives and histories.

Tradition Versus Modernity

While it is justified to condemn the illegal wildlife trade, colonial notions of what counts as wild, and how it should be protected often negatively affect Indigenous peoples. Organizations might outwardly seek to “protect” these peoples and their ecosystems but they often reinforce colonial hierarchies by demonizing traditional practices or reifying groups as relics of a past, pre-modern time. This reduces the effectiveness of campaigns to actually protect wildlife and condemns groups who are already disproportionately affected by the slow violence of climate and ecological change.

Based on their research with Dayak peoples in Indonesia, Paul Hasan Thung and Liana Chua describe how anti-wildmeat narratives are imposed by authorities. For Dayak people, COVID-19 is associated not with “wild” (traditional) meat, but with new ways of life. The conservationists’ zoonosis argument, as the authors suggest, turns traditional Dayak practices into a problem. This is at odds with their long experience of eating wild animals. Similarly, in the context where I work in Malaysia, when Batek hunter-gatherers first heard about COVID-19, many initially moved into the forest, away from shops, towns, and non-forest sources of food. Though they soon came back to their settlements, in their view other communicable and non-communicable diseases—like tuberculosis and diabetes, as well as general malaise and unhealthiness—are also associated with being outside the forest.

In the wake of the HN51 crisis, backyard chicken keeping was demonized as a “dirty” practice. Photo taken in Lumpung, Indonesia by ILRI/Chris Jost, 2006.

Again, there are precedents for widely held colonial-inspired prejudices against “wild,” and therefore “traditional” practices. Celia Lowe has described how the common practice of backyard chicken rearing became demonized and seen as “traditional,” dirty, and threatening a global pandemic when HN51 hit Indonesia. In opposition to “clean,” “modern” poultry production, backyard chicken rearing becoming morally wrong.

Yet recurring ideas of “traditional” practices as in need of modernization deny those who practice them their coevalness with the contemporary. This can be a powerful form of Othering. By putting these practices, and the people who practice them in “the past,” their voices are silenced. Michel-Rolph Trouillot calls this a one-sided historicity, in which history becomes a linear form of chronological progress where non-Westerners are denied their place.

Blaming “tradition” also masks that zoonotic disease transfer has a long history. It is not only a symptom of the problems caused by wildlife consumption, but, as Sarah Bezan has put it, “an emergent iteration of the ‘old’ violences of extractivism, colonial expansion, and animal commodification.”

Who gets to define what counts as “wild,” and what kind of “nature” is protected?

It is these issues that mean outbreak narratives, and associated searches for “patient Zero,” often “reek of Orientalism.” Coronaviruses have been around for a very long time and affect all kinds of animals—not only those classed as “wild,” and eaten by “traditional” peoples. This makes it particularly difficult to talk about origins. Citing a paper in Nature, Eben Kirksey describes how “viral genealogists who have closely studied the emergence of COVID-19 have not found a clear evolutionary tree sprouting from a single trunk. Instead, they have found a tangled web of relations, with jumping genes that defy human attempts to cordon off species from one another.” In other words, different lineages combined in different, multiple animal hosts to create the conditions in which the virus could jump. RNA viruses such as COVID-19 are particularly prone to this jumping.

Their constant, yet imperfect, replication means that they have particularly unstable boundaries, readily transforming as they interact with their host bodies. Coronaviruses might therefore be better thought of as “multispecies assemblages” or “multispecies clouds”—requiring numerous forms of bodies in particular political, economic and ecological combinations in order to take their particular shapes.

Wild Affects

The variety in how moral values regarding the “wild” were espoused in the early-middle months of the pandemic was in itself bewildering. Amongst that climate of bewilderment and fear about an occasionally asymptomatic disease, it is perhaps understandable that many succumbed to casting normative, moralized aspersions as they sought answers. Indeed, as Priscilla Wald writes, “communicable disease illustrates the logic of social responsibility: the mandate to live with a consciousness of the effects of one’s actions on others.” Yet this logic of social responsibility should include an awareness of how particular affective responses, such as racialized disgust towards wildlife-consumers, always resonate with harm. These harms are particularly powerful due to the incremental and inextricable forms of environmental violence that those marked out as “traditional” have long undergone. People’s experiences of this violence may indeed make them particularly susceptible to coronaviruses—a fact that is often glossed over in favor of condemning the consumption of wildlife as backward.

A man wearing a face mask during the COVID-19 pandemic walks in front of a poster of a young girl hugging a tree in a forest.
Nature is often set in opposition to city spaces, but they are thoroughly intertwined. Photo by John Perivolaris, 2021.

Zoonotic diseases show us that human and non-human animal health are intimately connected. When we think through how and why, however, we must account for the intellectual trajectories of the terms we use, and the power structures that they may reaffirm. As Lien, Swanson, and Ween argue in their introduction to Domestication Gone Wild, we cannot keep repeating origin stories that “explain and order through binary coupling: the civilized from the savage, the domestic from the wild, progress from regress. Its impact is profound and far from innocent.” These are the very narratives that underlay the origins of capitalism itself, and later the rise of industrial agriculture, the green revolution, and the forced labor of millions on rubber, tea, oil palm, and cinchona plantations across the global South in the interests of a Eurocentric form of “progress” and “improvement.”

While endangered species must be protected, the problem of zoonotic diseases can no longer be rooted in the fact that some people eat bats. We must root it in how multinational corporations continue to expand agribusiness enterprises at the expense of the health and sustenance of the global population and the planet’s biodiversity—particularly as a result of deforestation. Let’s re-center discussion of the problems of unequal power and capital that create and suffuse multispecies viral clouds, rather than moralizing on what is clean or disgusting, natural or unnatural, or right or wrong to eat. Perhaps, instead, the “wild” could become a way to transgress dominant Euro-American moralities through pleasure and desire, and to instead think beyond normative binary ways of conceptualizing the “traditional” and “modern.” This might encourage our politicians to cease placing blame on an abstract figure of “nature,” and instead to attend to the inequalities created by environmental destruction that are reinforced by COVID-19. As future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases—coronaviruses or other—are increasingly predicted by scientists, these concerns will become particularly urgent.

Featured image: “Thrown away surgical mask on the ground. Global pandemic nearing its end” by Ivan Radic, August 5, 2020.

Alice Rudge is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in Anthropology at University College London. Her research focus is on ethics and environmental change in Indigenous communities in Malaysia. Contact.