It's a funny thing, language. Geniuses tell us that it's what separates us most from the chimpanzees at the zoo who spit at us, unimpressed. One time, I saw a guy spit back and pick up a banana that had fallen from the cage, and made as if to give it back to the chimp with entreating eyes, only to pull it back at the last minute and begin a burlesque peel that drove Bonzo, and his mates, cageshakingly apeshit, and as he ate it, like a one-percenter, I could see in Bonzo's eyes a vow to evolve -- just to get him back. The guy riposted with a finger, and flashed his opposable thumb, and walked away, a stream of monkey ejectile whizzing past his head. Made me ashamed to be a homo sapien. Know what I mean?
In these days of COVID-19 we need to be more careful about spitters and spittees, and the language that we use: lives are at risk. Nothing reveals the decline and fall of the American imperial mind better, at Das Kapital's end, than the inane debacle that took place a few months back concerning the use of masks in our current pandemic. Should we wear them? Or should we not? Which ones should we wear? Can we make our own stylized sputum catchers? Can we mask-up like Jesse James, criminal hero of many childhoods? Are American Muslim women now laughing at us behind fashionable hijabs? Some people got so discombobulated by the mask fiasco, hearing that mouth masks don't protect eyes from vile ejectile, that they panicked and wore face masks over their eyes and you gave them extra distance.
Well, we could all end up discombobulated by the time it's all finished, going out masked and looking like Picasso's Guernica, driven devolvos hoiked into our own spittoons. In a peculiar way, too many 'folks' in America seem to be enjoying Nature's schadenfreude festival in ways that are uncomfortable to observe and may border on some kind of dissociative hysteria that feels like The End is near.
In his preface to The Monster at the Door (2005), Mike Davis calls us out on our special species' lack of empathy during catastrophes. He writes,
Unlike certain other social animals, we have no collective sorrow instinct or biological solidarity that is automatically aroused by the destruction of our fellow kind. Indeed, at our worst we find a perverse, often delectable sublimity in Black Deaths, tsunamis, massacres, genocides, and collapsing skyscrapers.
You go to chide such an attitude, but, then, you can't see how it's untrue, looking back at history as a series of Bill Murray Groundhog Days (but without the happy ending), and guys going around flashing opposable thumbs at chimps the way hippies used to flash opposable fingers at The Man. We can be monsters, and we just don't seem to get it.
And that's one of many salient points Mike Davis makes in his new book, The Monster Enters: COVID-19, Avian Flu and the Plagues of Capitalism. The new book is actually The Monster at the Door redux, with a 45-page Introduction completed in late April 2020 that specifically addresses the coronavirus pandemic. Deflecting the apparent chutzpah of re-releasing a book largely about the "avian flu" virus (H5N1), Davis offers up, "The [COVID-19] pandemic, according to my current publishers, has given new relevance to my old flu Monster... I should emphasize, however, that the threat of an avian flu outbreak and its global spread continues to be 'imminent.'" In short, COVID-19 could team up with H5N1 and come at us like Godzilla, with Mothra, in a secondary wave of bio-terror.
That 'full disclosure' aside, The Monster Enters is a helpful reiteration of important details regarding the Problem we face: From AIDS to Ebola to SARS to MERS to COVID-19, Davis cites scientists who say we've entered a new epoch of pandemics; from now into an indefinite future, we will face waves of these 'novel,' viruses: "The species-jumping versions are extraordinary shape-shifters that constantly alter their genomes to foil the powerful immune systems of human and mammalian hosts." Maybe a shape-shifting virus-tipped spitball from space conked out the dinosaurs, too.
Davis writes, "As a recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine observes: 'It took the genome of the human species 8 million years to evolve by 1%. Many animal RNA viruses can evolve by more than 1% in a matter of days.'" It's a scenario reminiscent of the alien, crystal-like virus that changes before the very eyes of terrified scientists in The Andromeda Strain.
We've known for quite some time that viruses come in different categories. Some have a high mortality rate, but don't spread easily, so total deaths are down. Others have a lower mortality rate, but spread easier, and can kill more people. Davis says we are in the latter category, and that
Although not as deadly as the SARS or MERS, COVID-19's currently guesstimated two percent mortality rate is comparable to the Spanish flu and like that monster it probably has the ability to infect a majority of the human race unless antiviral and vaccine development quickly come to the rescue.
Spanish flu ended up infecting a third of the human population and killing up to 100 million people. A sobering fact to get soused to in your solitude.
But there's more, whether by avian flu or coronavirus, human vulnerability to viruses seems to be growing exponentially, especially now that viruses seem to be getting closer and closer to cutting out the middle pangolin and getting at humans directly. Davis fears a perfect-storm scenario whereby we are facing a virus that spreads easily and is so lethal that as many as "a billion people" could die. Citing Rene Snacken, leading influenza expert at the Scientific Institute of Public Health in Belgium, Davis mongers up a Doomsday image:
Eight years of research on H5N1 had convinced him that this cunning little Darwinian demon was capable of ecocide -- the wiping out of entire species.
COVID-19 may just be the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem, while we take zoom-selfies of our selfish doom.
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