Viruses and colonialism are hand in glove, to posit an unsanitary metaphor. As Jared Diamond writes in Guns, Germs and Steel, his bestselling global history, European colonisation, particularly in the Americas and Australasia, cannot be understood without reference to the terrible, at times genocidal, ravages of disease on indigenous societies. Yet at the same time, and in a bitter irony, anxieties about disease and dirt were used to justify invasion, racial discrimination and paternalist colonial laws. While European germs wiped out indigenous communities, it was colonised subjects who were constructed as the harbingers of disease. The colonial project was imagined not just as a religious, moral and economic mission, but as an exercise in public health.
We get the metaphors we deserve. Bacteria and viruses are two ways of thinking about invasive foreign bodies; two ways of understanding processes of colonisation, be they corporeal or political. For, like colonialism itself, infections operate in different ways. Bacteria treat cellular life as obstacles to their expansion in space. Terra nullius, a legal term, is a bacterial fantasy—endless expansion into supposedly vacant land. According to the logic of settler colonialism, indigenous peoples were an inconvenience to be circumvented, and even—as in Tasmania—all but eliminated. But viruses depend on living cells in order to replicate. Slavery, a legal institution, is a viral fantasy—the hijacking of host organisms for the benefit of the invader. Based on the reasoning of extractive colonialism, local peoples were not an inconvenience to be eradicated: their labour was, on the contrary, a resource to be exploited.
So the language of infection provides a useful lens through which to understand two very different kinds of domination. Bacterial cells displace host organisms; viruses commandeer them. To be sure, heuristics oversimplify reality—colonial societies like Australia were not just one thing or the other; Indigenous people have always been treated as bodies to be used as well as spaces to be cleared. At the same time, the legacy of colonialism, and its associations with infection, continues both to impact and to illuminate the world we live in.
In a celebrated book, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff insists that metaphors are not just rhetorical or ornamental. On the contrary, they are fundamental tools of thought. The connections they draw between lived experience and abstract concepts and institutions shape our understanding of the world. What is a corporation but a metaphor—‘legal personality’—which the legal system has chosen to literalise? Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor, insists that certain diseases (she was thinking in particular of tuberculosis and cancer) take on a metaphorical significance that ricochets, often damagingly, on to how we treat actual human victims. She argues that metaphors of disease ought to be taken seriously, both for what they reveal about our societies, and for what they conceal.
The power of metaphor to reshape the unknown in terms that are already familiar to us is no more evident than in moments of crisis, moments of confusion and disorientation, in which our need to find comprehensible frames of reference becomes especially urgent. Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were awash with viral metaphors. The virus is the perfect metaphor for digital transmission: immortal, invisible, frictionless, immediate. It suggests a world of unlimited exponential growth. So it is also a perfect metaphor for digital capitalism: a system in which profits are created by microscopic trades that hurtle through virtual space at close to the speed of light, and in which financial products are themselves so abstracted from the limited physical and human resources of the planet as to appear weightless, effortless, incorporeal. We yearn to go viral, to multiply like a virus on our social media of choice, to overwhelm its defences and take it over. Perhaps we want to become like a virus ourselves, to partake in that communion of body and spirit.
But the very genius of digital communication is also its greatest danger. Viral contamination is highly contagious. It can be triggered by the opening of an email or the flicking of a switch. It can happen without our knowledge or consent. We install anti-virus software on our computers.
But the more our devices come to seem inseparable from our identities, our histories and our memories, the more vulnerable we are. Our dread of malware is almost existential in nature.
Now, it seems, the digital metaphor of the virus has returned to the body from whence it came. The coronavirus has revealed how dependent our societies have become on increasingly complex but also increasingly vulnerable connective tissues. The multiplicity and instantaneity of those connections account for the speed at which the virus spreads and the desperate measures of disaggregation required to check it. They also account for the rapidity at which unemployment arrived, particularly in the gig economy, among digital natives, and for the sudden collapse of supply chains on which we depended for everything from masks to toilet paper. The ‘just in time’ economy wasn’t. If the virus was already a central metaphor for twenty-first-century life, the coronavirus exposed it, non-metaphorically. It demonstrated the limits of metaphor in understanding our living conditions—which are not, it turns out, infinite, frictionless, or devoid of physical and human constraints. It turns out we have not left our bodies behind after all.
Jacques Lacan wrote that ‘what is repressed in the symbolic, returns in the real’. The things that lie unspoken between us will eventually find some alternative, physical means of expression. A stammer or an addiction; a fist or a riot or, sometimes, a war. Even a plague. In Albert Camus’ version, what the citizens of the doomed town first notice is the flood of rats that emerge, teeming, from the dark sewers below the city streets. The plague makes visible what we sought to forget: ‘It was as if the earth on which our houses were planted was being purged of its secreted humours, thrusting up to the surface the abscesses and pus-clots that, up till then, had been doing their work internally.’
What we sweep under the political carpet or lies hidden in the drains and sewers beneath our feet will come to light in the end. In this case, what had been repressed in the digital symbolic has been the fragility of the virtual: the limits we had failed to acknowledge of consumption, production, material existence, connection, dependence and so on. COVID-19 has returned those limits to the real, made them apparent for all to see. Metaphors, if they are any good, will turn out to be better than their author’s intended use, richer and more ambiguous. The metaphor of the virus turns out to be like that. COVID-19 has unmasked our vulnerabilities in ways we never imagined.
Illness as metaphor
Right now the coronavirus is our ‘condition’: our predicament and our illness. Sontag notes that in previous eras the greatest moral opprobrium attached to the most terrifying of diseases:
Epidemic diseases were a common figure for social disorder … Feelings about evil are projected onto a disease. And the disease (so enriched with meanings) is projected onto the world. In the past, such grandiloquent fantasies were regularly attached to the epidemic diseases, diseases that were a collective calamity. In the last two centuries, the diseases most often used as metaphors for evil were syphilis, tuberculosis, and cancer—all diseases imagined to be, pre-eminently, the diseases of individuals.
What is striking about the language of the present epidemic is that it is neither of these two things: neither moralised on the one hand, nor individualised on the other. COVID-19 is not like the medieval plague, but it is not like modern-day cancer either.
Coronavirus is not spoken of in the language of moral judgement. Occasionally we might be subject to a form of public shaming if we stand too close at the shops or buy up all the pasta. But these are minor modes of popular justice compared to the kind of moral meaning attached in past times to those who caught the plague or the pox or AIDS. Historically, the terror of dying, and even more the terror of suffering, has been enlisted to serve some moral purpose that allowed us to make sense of it. As Sontag rightly points out, the moral judgement that attached to HIV-AIDS caused the death of millions of people. But COVID-19 is strangely invisible in everyday life: the sick don’t look any different from the rest of us, and most of us have seen almost nothing of the course of the disease or what it looks like to be dying of it. The very sick are hidden away in hospitals; the rest of us are hidden away in our homes. Out of sight is not necessarily out of mind, but it does not inspire the drawing of moral lessons.
A caveat is in order. We should never forget how easily this pandemic, like smallpox and leprosy in the nineteenth century, can become a vector to promote the racist scripts that have been central to colonialism for centuries. Disease was and continues to be crucial for metaphors of racial superiority and vectors of xenophobic fears. Exclude Chinese immigrants, they bring smallpox. Ban the Irish, they’re dirty. Pass laws that prohibit Aboriginal people from crossing the leprosy line. Once again, racist scapegoating in Australia is clearly on the rise. Familiar stereotypes about the closeness of multicultural and ethnic communities can now be repackaged in the language of public health. The Australian government’s evident indifference to the wellbeing of international students is surely not unrelated to the fact that so many of them come from China. Universities spent years cultivating a relationship with them, promising not just an economic transaction but a cultural and intellectual exchange. We promised them they would be part of a community. Yet the prime minister told them in no uncertain terms to ‘go home’: a crass phrase whose racist subtext was lost on no-one.
Nevertheless, in a place like contemporary Australia, moral judgement—and this is what makes coronavirus a fitting discourse for late capitalism—does not have the explanatory force it used to. We talk instead about risk assessment. And this is the second point. COVID-19 is not predominantly imagined as a crisis that befalls individuals. We have been told little about the experience of living with, or dying from, the disease. No pictures of lesions, swelling, discolouration, disfigurement or even pain have captured our imaginations. Consider the most famous image to emerge from the crisis. Li Wenliang, a young doctor at Wuhan Central Hospital, sounded the alarm in December 2019. In March 2020, a photo that showed him hooked up to a ventilator, and only hours away from death, appeared on front pages around the world. But it was not his pain or suffering that held our attention. With his mouth covered by a mask, and holding out an ID card for our inspection, the image of Dr Li reminds us not of his pain but of the government that had tried to muzzle him. The mask and the document operate not just literally but also metaphorically. They represent not the implacable horrors of illness but the implacable horrors of bureaucracy.
Indeed, and this makes the pandemic almost unique in the annals of medicine, sick individuals are not the focus of our concern at all. COVID-19 has struck down the rest of us. We have confined the healthy. In Australia, the virus has created 1.4 million more unemployed, while killing hundreds rather than thousands at the time of writing—even taking into account the recent surge in Victoria. This observation is not meant to trivialise the emergency or to conclude, as Giorgio Agamben did, that we are in the midst of an ‘invented crisis’. The problem is counterfactual: we can point to the people who have died but we can’t point to the people who have lived. Yet the virus is, in our vocabulary and social imaginary, a problem of collective action, a problem of statistics: growth rates, hospital admissions, the basic rate of reproduction. As our government has told us on many occasions, the aim is not even (or not necessarily) to reduce the numbers of these who get sick. It is to ‘flatten the curve’, that is, to spread its impact over a longer period. The problem is not the number of people who are sick. The problem is the number of hospital beds—infrastructure.
This points to a mode of governance, of populations through data collection of all sorts, that some consider characteristic of the modern era. Perhaps that overstates its novelty. When England became a colony, way back in 1066, the first thing William the Conqueror did was to try to quantify exactly what he’d won. Every farm, every crop, every productive square inch of the land was documented and recorded in one of the great statistical enterprises of medieval times: the Domesday Book. Later, when the colonial tables had well and truly turned, Imperial Britain’s great invention was not the rule of law; it was the census. Government by counting.
The pandemic is understood collectively and probabilistically. Instead of individual drama or moral indictment, we are offered an assortment of metaphors of disembodiment. The curve and the chain conceive of the problem and the response alike as demographic, statistical. Counting is on the one hand a way of grasping orders of magnitude that are otherwise impossible to fathom. But on the other hand, we avoid the reality of death by turning individual experiences into statistics. Coronavirus is to the plague what calculus is to geometry: its abstraction. Even the name COVID-19 does not point to a distinctive disease or describe its appearance or character (the Black Death, smallpox—even cancer gets its name from its supposed resemblance to a crab). The visual or ‘corona’ part of the virus is buried beneath a generic acronym followed by a date. The virus is identified as one among many, part of an unending series of data points. The name warns us that this is ‘the new normal’ and warns us to expect similar problems and similar restrictions in years to come.
The language of treatment, as we have seen, carries through some of these elements of impersonality. Flattening the curve is not something an individual can do. Tracking and tracing locates individuals not because they are sick but because they are components in chains of transmission. The analysis of sewage identifies areas and rates of contamination. All these strategies operate on the level of communities and aim to lower the impact on them. When will the epidemic be over? We will not see any sign of it on the streets or in our homes or even in our hospitals. We will see it in the spreadsheets: R0 < 1. After the Genesis of the virus and its global Exodus, Leviticus—a book of rules and a code of conduct. Then comes Numbers. The numbers will tell us. The pandemic has brought out the actuary in us all. There is nothing new in this. The sciences of risk, probability and data have been reshaping government and our own personal lives for many years. Once again, the pandemic serves to bring into focus processes that were already underway. Indeed, the kind of responses it has triggered could scarcely have been imagined without the actuarial studies and big data of the modern world.
Australia’s summer from hell and then its autumn in limbo have together demonstrated just how vital public and community resources are in times of crisis—and how crippled they have been by government policies over recent years. Local fire services, the media, including the ABC, public hospitals, scientific research, unemployment assistance, global institutions and global action: COVID-19, it has been said, has finally put the lie to the politics of austerity; finally demonstrated the importance of the public sphere and community life.
Maybe. But there is another way of looking at the political epidemiology of the virus. It might represent the apotheosis of changes that have swept the world over the past 30 years. High unemployment, closed borders, greater inequality, less accountability, more executive power. The worry is that the coronavirus is not a sign of something new, but a symptom of something that has already happened. Perhaps COVID-19 is not a metaphor for modern times, but a metamorphosis. A metamorphosis is a sea change, a profound transformation that appears dramatic only if you have failed to notice the underlying compounds that, like a witch’s brew, have been slowly bubbling away. A caterpillar turns into a butterfly. Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree. Sometimes the outcome is rather more unsavoury: ‘When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach.’
Even in our own strange metamorphosis we can discern traces of colonial history. A biological virus is behaving like political bacteria, colonising public space, emptying our cities and turning them into a new terra nullius. It would be wrong to describe this as merely a throwback to the colonial past. Rather, it serves to demonstrate the ties that bind that time to this. Critics have long argued that neoliberalism has weakened civil society and—paradoxically perhaps—strengthened governmental power. Books such as Robert D Putnam’s Bowling Alone and Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos have connected increasing social isolation with the loss of public spaces and public institutions, the trivialisation of politics and the undermining of democracy: a state that controls every aspect of the lives of certain groups in our community, and leaves others entirely free. But this story is not new. From colonialism to globalisation and neoliberalism there is not just a family resemblance but chains of transmission. Viruses, as we have noted, latch on to existing forms of life while constantly adapting themselves. The title of a recent book edited by William Callison and Zachary Manfredi, Mutant Neoliberalism, is no coincidence.
The current crisis advances these trends, but at the same time it has effectively turned the critique on its head. Social distance used to be considered part of the malaise of modernity. Now we have made a virtue out of necessity. We are to work together by isolating ourselves. Lockdown: a strategy to control disruptive prisoners; now the model of a new civil society. A similar shift in tone can be observed in the metaphor of ‘the bubble’. ‘The Canberra bubble’ used to be a term of abuse, implying a privileged and insular existence out of touch with ‘the real world’. But all of a sudden the bubble has become desirable. It represents an ideal of domesticity involving a withdrawal from others into a small protective shell. The ‘real world’ is exactly what we are expected to insulate ourselves from.
In Epidemics and Society, Frank Snowden argues that throughout history, epidemics have been catalysts for profound social change, chief among which has been the expansion and consolidation of governmental power. In the pandemic moment, democracy has been put on hold and ‘exceptional’ government powers have expanded, in ways that may or may not be reversible. The COVID-19 app is one example, a specific instance of a general phenomenon that the literature on ‘surveillance capitalism’ calls data colonialism—the appropriation of great tranches of our personal information as if it did not belong to us at all. This is not of course to give credence to any of the outlandish conspiracy theories now doing the rounds here and overseas. It is rather to note that one of the likely trajectories of these developments will see the consolidation of social, political and security trends already underway.
The fragmentation of public space and our alienation from social life has been transformed from a political calamity into a public good. We should stay away from one another. We should retreat to the nuclear family. We should find our bliss by ourselves and online. Avoid demonstrations and public meetings. Who needs decent working conditions when your employers have requisitioned your home or ‘uberised’ your career? Who needs restaurants when you have Deliveroo? Who needs a local theatre when you have Netflix? Who needs newspapers? The world echoes to the sound of various last nails being hammered into assorted coffins. COVID-19 is not a metaphor for what happens next. It is metamorphosis or mutation: the denouement, the big reveal, the smoke from a gun that has already been fired.
The images and tropes around us do not simply represent power. As the French historian Louis Marin wrote, they ‘valorise’ it, legitimating underlying social, political and economic structures, and ‘modalise’ them, bringing them more fully to everyday life. The long-term effect of COVID-19 might just be to valorise and modalise the fragmented, insular, privatised world of neoliberalism and the authoritarian state that shields it from political scrutiny. The point is not tendentious. Friedrich Hayek, the philosophical godfather of neoliberalism, is on record as saying that he would rather a liberal dictatorship than an illiberal democracy (he meant one that favoured public welfare). COVID-19 has brought the dream closer than ever.
Admittedly the picture is more complicated than that. Over recent months and no doubt in the months to come, stories of the resilience of communities and the provision of moral and material support to those in need have poured in from around the world: street parties on balconies in Italy, serenading the NHS in Britain. But the question remains as to which social forces will end up on top, in our language and in our response. The uncertainty of our present predicament is what makes this a true krisis in the original Greek sense of the word: the moment in the course of a disease that indicates a profound transformation is taking place, signifying either recovery or death. The crisis of a disease is its turning point, its moment of truth—when both possibilities are in play and the outcome hangs in the balance.
As Sontag pointed out, the metaphorical wars of recent times have owed a lot to the dominant discourse of disease: poverty, drugs or corruption were ‘cancers’ that had to be cut out by definition, or otherwise obliterated by violent and invasive methods. Not to mention Jews or immigrants or communists: the usual suspects. But the wars of the twenty-first century look like being for things, not against them: for communities, for peoples, for the environment; for the planet. We will need metaphors to match.
The metaphor to come will be the vaccine. A vaccine is a way of undoing the colonising power of the virus. Like social distancing, but with subtle differences, we agree to be jabbed not only because it protects us from disease but because it protects those around us. It is a policy that, while it confers an individual benefit, is valued as a public good. Falling vaccination rates around the world may in part reflect the power of neoliberal ideology to unravel the social contract, to reduce public goods and social value to individual calculations and economic value. But this crisis, by clarifying what is at stake for billions of people, might reverse that trend. So too, Trump’s tweets notwithstanding, a vaccine will not be successfully delivered without comprehensive global investment and global cooperation in information sharing, scientific research, public health infrastructure and economic aid. Margaret Thatcher, famously, proclaimed that there was no such thing as society. On the contrary, the vaccine is a metaphor that both proves the value and demonstrates the necessity of society. As opposed to the metaphors of the bubble and the lockdown and social distance, immunity does not stem from isolation but from connection.
Above all, vaccines work by stimulating the body’s own immune system. They work not by destruction but by augmentation. They empower us by developing biomedical resources that are already within us. We purposely make ourselves a little sick in order to improve our resilience. This imaginary, seeking to promote internal and productive responses rather than external and destructive ones, might give us a new language of response, new ways of conceiving of the problems we face and the solutions we need. The pandemic has demonstrated, and the metaphor of the vaccine reminds us, of the ways in which our self-interest depends on the welfare of others; the ways in which economic insecurity in the developing world can suddenly translate into empty supermarket shelves and collapsing industries; the ways in which the economic prosperity and standard of living of each one of us is ultimately dependent on a whole range of public goods, from higher education and universal health care to decent social safety nets and affordable childcare. We have learnt how much these things matter, not just to each of us individually, but to all of us together.
Social policies that seemed unimaginable only months ago—universal basic income schemes, publicly funded childcare or a four-day working week—are suddenly on the table. What the Prime Minister described only last year as ‘unfunded empathy’ has suddenly become a fundamental national responsibility. In many countries (though not yet in Australia) the language of resilience has led to a significant turn to renewable energy and sustainable agriculture. In Britain, the promotion of walking, cycling and even e-scooters—all in the name of public health—has left many onlookers scarcely able to believe their eyes. One of the sectors most dangerously depleted by the pandemic has been tertiary education. There is a greater possibility of rethinking higher education, including recognising its public and social value, than at any time in the past 50 years.
The form of our world economy had its origin in the colonial period, extended and intensified through globalisation and under the influence of the neoliberal hegemony. Coronavirus has exposed its fragile and exploitative character as never before. Metaphors that denote the language of resilience, sustainability and ‘future-proofing’ invite new ways of conceiving of the interdependence of social and economic relations around the world. The use of sweatshops to do our dirty work might start to seem not only unethical but also inadvisable. So might the destruction of ecosystems in order to feed our insatiable hunger for fuel or cash crops.
As to factory farming, recognition of its role in the mutation and spread of viruses might succeed where moral arguments have failed. Perhaps most importantly, COVID-19 illuminates how these and many other issues are interconnected. Inoculating ourselves against the diseases to come will not be a medical problem but a social one, in which the health of everyone and the health of the environment matter to us all. Like popping steroids without addressing underlying conditions and lifestyle choices, the language of ‘snapping back’ to a morbid normality only leaves us vulnerable to the next wave of infection. COVID-19 has opened a space to examine seriously, at long last, the major issues confronting us.
There is no guarantee that this crisis will lead to new thinking and new language. It would not be a crisis if we knew how it will unfold. But we have been vouchsafed a dreadful opportunity to come to our senses. It is not what damage the pandemic has done that matters, but what it has made visible, what truth of the human condition has bubbled up to the surface. That truth appears above all to be the human responsibility we each of us bear for the fragility of us all. As Camus wrote:
Each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know too that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him.
We are all killers. This has been brought home to us in a quite direct way by the experiences of 2020. The lives of others depend on our handwashing, our distance, our careless breath. Less directly but yet undeniably, our responsibility for the lives of others reaches out to encircle the globe. In the years to come there will be no forgetting it and no escaping it. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.
Desmond Manderson works on cultural representations of law in literature, music and the fine arts. He is director of the Centre for Law Arts and the Humanities, Australian National University. His most recent books are Danse Macabre: Temporalities of Law in the Visual Arts (Cambridge, 2019) and Law and the Visual (Toronto, 2018).
Lorenzo Veracini is Associate Professor of History at Swinburne University of Technology. His research focuses on the comparative history of colonial systems and settler colonialism.
Note: This essay is the fruit of an ongoing collaboration, stemming from a live interview between the authors, and follow-up conversations. This essay reflects our shared ideas but was mainly penned by Desmond Manderson. A rather different elaboration of our ideas appears in ‘A Virus Is Colonizing Our Public Life’ (Arena Online, 19 May 2020), where the authorship is reversed. •