I n truth, part of me firmly believes the reason people are so frightened, anxious, and whiplashing like wind-tossed rag dolls between huge-hearted generosity and toilet paper brawls is two-fold: we’re keen to feel alive amid a world that deadens the senses and we’re desperate to put a face on the enemy — albeit a microscopic one.
Coronavirus has become a nexus for all our free-floating worries about everything from global economics and digital connectivity to the role of art in society, the fragility of our elders, and the poignant absence of a safety net for our most vulnerable populations. It’s been revealed as a cliff really.
But perhaps one of the most fraught reckonings we’re all having is inhabiting the very thing that threatens our demise. Our bodies.
When peered at beneath a microscope, coronavirus looks a humble royal, it’s top ringed with spikes of protein — indeed, “corona” is Latin for crown. Beneath these spikes is a membrane that holds one strip of RNA, genetic material that injects itself into healthy cells using its crown of spikes. The coronavirus then uses the replication infrastructure it finds inside our healthy cells to replicate the virus and the body grows infected.
The body becomes a host. A vessel for disease.
In How To Disappear, author Akiko Busch writes extensively on the idea of modern humans “trafficking the unseen.” So much of our life is predicated on things that are, by definition, invisible — literally and metaphysically — but they underpin everything from societal norms to our sense of self. We’re long accustomed to engaging with the unseeable — from radio waves to cultural conventions — but with disease, our inability to bear witness to its presence is very disconcerting.
Clinical psychologist Steven Taylor says that in response to this anxiety we’ve developed what is called a “behavioral immune system” to offset the idea — and arguable reality — that our immune system, “is not sufficient to help us avoid infections, because we can’t see things like microbes or bacteria or viruses. This behavioral immune system is like a psychological system that enables us to detect pathogens by looking at cues.”
This coping mechanism, at first blush, seems wise enough. If you see something dirty, an alarm bell rings its tinny vibrations across your brain, and you avoid it. But the underbelly of this impulse is decidedly more problematic. As strangers from other countries and lands have historically carried infections other groups have never encountered, Taylor says there is a kneejerk xenophobia to protect our bodies from that which we have no natural immunity to.
Our brain should rationally know better than to sanction fear of foreigners, but “novel threats” set off our amygdala, an almond-shaped mass of gray matter inside each cerebral hemisphere that heightens our awareness to keep us safe.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee found that novel images of snakes and flowers provoke more amygdala activity than repeated images of snakes and flowers.
“…this need to evaluate novel stimuli for threat signals is influenced both by the content of the stimulus and by the context in which the stimulus is presented. Under safe conditions, the amygdala evaluates only ‘biologically-relevant’ novel stimuli, while in unsafe conditions, the amygdala evaluates all novel stimuli.”
In short, our brains are madly ringing the alarm in warning of other people’s bodies. And our own. The result is a kind of perpetual low-grade exhaustion in which we pine for control over a situation that by definition we can’t solve or mitigate any other way than being as physically isolated as possible. But this cloistered life is in direct opposition to our fundamental need for physical contact and community and so we’re left in a kind of liminal strain between safety and sanity.
A body suspended.
Quarantine — despite all the introverts quietly deriving a tremendous if quiet joy from this mandatory respite — is traumatic. It’s predicated on trying to mitigate danger, but the very thing that will kill you is the very thing you’re housed inside.
Quarantine comes from the Italian quaranta giorni — forty days — which in turn stems from the Venetian policy of keeping ships hailing from plague-ridden countries off its port to assure no cases were aboard.
United Christian Hospital psychiatrist Ivan Mak Wing-chit says that many SARS patients developed PTSD as a result of being quarantined; their bodies healed, but the mind continued to suffer. Here the body and brain combine in a kind of haunted memory palace — the pain of once-lost breath and the pain of loneliness drag their iron chains round and round the mind as mournful and noisome as Marley’s ghost.
The body as prison. As enemy fire. A sweeping sickness of this magnitude is a recognition of our collective bodily weakness. Our constant proximity to death. Our lack of bodily control even as we tell it to walk forward, lie down, and compulsively wash itself with hot soap and lysol.
And of course, when we invert this strange dialogue we find prisons — heaving cement and curled barbs of wire — as a means of punishing criminalized bodies through isolation. Yesterday Harvey Weinstein tested positive for COVID-19 — while in prison — which reminds me that we not only penalize bodies with social suspension, but by subjecting them to unsanitary conditions poised for the mass-spreading of disease.
The profound inhumanity of the 10 million people incarcerated worldwide is further compounded by their forced physical vulnerability; jail officials expect the number of infected inmates to rise exponentially.
Bodies imprisoned by other bodies.
As a lifelong and dogged nail biter, my gut has been rendered a tangle of knots. And I’m anxious so I am biting even more. I’ll feel my hands rise to my mouth as I linger in the cheese aisle considering my options — trying to delight in a rare outing and proximity to other humans — when my boyfriend shout-mumbles, Katie! his eyebrows pinched.
And I’m frozen in a grimace, the sharp tang of my pink-raw cuticle stinging my mouth. My tongue lingers at the edge of my fingertips, and I’m thinking fuck it, it’s already too late.
Akiko Busch’s book also talks about all the different traits we imbue invisibility with — many of which are negative, even as every one of us has longed to disappear, to dissolve into the ether or prowl our earth unseen.
“Invisibility is often believed to be about transgression,” she says, “the ability to wrong, to get away with something, to cheat, lie or steal.”
We emotionally anthropomorphize the disease, we take it personally. We’re suddenly at war and the body count rises.
COVID 19 marks the third zoonotic coronavirus in the past three decades — it joins SARS and MERS — to leap from animals to humans. Coronaviruses are divided into four groups: alpha, beta, gamma, and delta. Gamma and delta primarily infect birds, while alpha and beta mostly reside in mammals. It’s believed that the virus originated at a “wet market” in Wuhan, China where animals are butchered alongside the living.
There’s something darkly prescient there. And cyclical.
Cell bodies poisoning animal bodies that infected human bodies that were trying to consume the animal bodies. Those human bodies will perish and return to the earth body to be eaten by their own bacterial body.
And I’m reminded that there is nothing unnatural about what’s happening at all. But that makes me all the sadder somehow. The solace of that cycle has yet to pierce my survival instinct. My love for all these human bodies.