Our Virally Porous Walls
“The Invisible Invaders” is the title of Peter Radetsky’s book on “viruses and the scientists who pursue them.” It is a richly detailed, smoothly written primer on the subject for the non-biochemist. This book arcs through four topics:
first: a history from 1744 to 1930 of the development of the medical science and vaccines aimed at combatting infectious diseases (for smallpox in 1796 by Edward Jenner [1749-1823], for rabies in 1885 by Louis Pasteur [1822-1895]); the discovery of the virus in 1898 by Martinus Beijerinck (1851-1931); and the discovery in 1917 by Félix d’Hérelle (1873-1949) that viruses could attack and kill bacteria — which are living cells;
second: the science of virology, and the present understanding that viruses are parasitic forms of ribonucleic acid (RNA) or deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that invade living cells and hijack their functional programming, so as to reproduce and expel more viruses;
third: modern-day concerns and discoveries about viral diseases: colds, herpes, flu, hepatitis, cancer, AIDS;
fourth: gene therapy inspired by natural viral action, the intentional manipulation of biochemical dynamics to thwart viral infections and to artificially create designer proteins for desired purposes.
Radestsky states that: “[Most] of us have little idea of the impact viruses have on our lives. For they are not simply dangerous enemies, the only organisms besides ourselves that pose a threat to our survival; they’re our co-travelers in life, our most intimate fellow workers. Viruses are literally everywhere — inside us, outside us, constantly permeating the boundaries of the self… They may swap our genes around, rearrange our destinies, act as agents of the ecosystem. In their admirable simplicity and appalling efficiency, they may be the most successful life-form of all… if they can be said to be alive in the first place.”
COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2). We can metaphorically visualize a viral pandemic in a manner similar to the antique and unscientific ideas that the causes of inexplicable epidemics were astrological “influenza,” and bad airs, “malaria,” wafting out of swamps; by imagining viral epidemics as very tenuous and filamentary clouds of sub-microscopic nucleic acid particles, each wrapped in fat and coated with protein, that are all coursing through our atmosphere, propelled by air currents on every scale from weather systems to human exhalations, and despite their extreme fragility have the power to penetrate through our civilization and into our very bodies and once there to penetrate into the core genetic control units of our cellular functioning — and disrupt it.
We can never perfectly wall ourselves off from viruses, to them our bodies and our patterns of living are so easily permeable. Our surest defense against viral diseases for which we have no vaccines is avoidance of infection. Such avoidance if afforded by a combination of distancing from infectious people and environments (whether visibly or invisibly contaminated), and the conscientious frequent application of personal hygienic practices and household and occupational sterilization protocols. Physically, and mindlessly behaviorally, we are an open weave to viruses, a rich meshwork of protoplasm waiting to be virally colonized and explosively exploited.
The reason we have been hit so hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and with its still increasing force, is that the United States is a nation and society structured like a Matryoshka Doll that imprisons its people but is transparent to viruses. We each are walled in by many types of barriers intended to exclude us from the ‘tribal clubs’ of others, those barriers being: ageist, bigoted, cultural, ethnic, financial, intellectual, political, racist, religious and sexual; we humans can come up with an endless array of repulsive distinctions about ourselves.
We have a multiplicity of forms of imposed isolation, of social distancing, each tailored to the individual’s demographic characteristics, to their sociological DNA if you will. We all live within walls, within outer walls, within still outer walls, and so on for many layers of confinement away from the more favored tribes and classes, yet also shielded from the more unfortunate ones. This structure of social fragmentation and hierarchical survival is the embodiment of capitalist civilization. It is the separations and differences and conflicts and jealousies and inequalities that exist among us that create the necessary socio-political spaces and the material opportunities to prosecute individualistic capitalist schemes, those personal drives toward profits — and also for crimes and wars.
That drive towards profits — in its extreme it is pure narcissism — is impossible to even imagine in a hypothetical society of ideal socialism, a society that has been largely homogenized in the sense of eradicating all the artificial exclusionary distinctions that define the house-of-cards capitalist paradigm. That those distinctions were always illusory and only seemed intellectually sacrosanct and physically rigid was because the popular will of the nation’s many individuals had been trained over many generations by pro-capitalist anti-socialist mass indoctrination to unconsciously project the capitalist paradigm that is imprisoning them.
The COVID-19 pandemic has collapsed the illusion of that paradigmatic rigidity, of the reality of capitalism. The viral ‘cloud’ has easily penetrated through not just our bodies, but the exclusionary distinctions we previously thought of as either protective shields or barriers to our aspirations. The collapse of those illusions is experienced by the benefactors of the capitalist economy as fears of economic depression and of political revolt by the laboring masses. The collapse of those same illusions is experienced by the masses excluded from prosperity in the current paradigm, as an awakening to and anger over the unreality of the many strains of slavery we all have imagined ourselves into for so long, and an awakening to the breathtaking proximity to us of the bracingly real alternate and liberating paradigm of socialism. We can actually all live better, happier and more securely starting right away! It is solely a matter of popular will.
During this pandemic many have already stated the obvious: any successful effort to end these epidemics will necessarily be a socialist action, and the more socialist those efforts are, the greater the degree of their ultimate successes. Our exclusionary ‘walls’ and clashes of hoarding behaviors are transparent to viruses, only social solidarity can be made reasonably opaque to them. To effectively combat viral epidemics we must close up the now-gaping weave of human civilization. Such a closing up will encounter much friction and resistance, as each person seeks to preserve their private bubble of self-importance, money-making, irrational fantasy and bigoted exclusivity, which are the forces of repulsion within our atomistic social collectivity. The capitalist benefactors will actualize their resistance to the closing up of the human social weave, their economic collapse fears of the awakened and just anger of the exploited masses, by tossing bribes and police-enforced compulsion at them: the smallest, cheapest weight they can put on the lid of the bubbling cauldron of neoliberal capitalism to keep it from flying off as it boils over.
Despite the widespread and atomizing disorientation of American society in reaction to COVID-19, as if it were some impending apocalypse, it would be wise to become disciplined, rational and socialist, and to realize that this pandemic is but a skirmish in the monumental and unavoidable karmic war we now must face against our own narcissistic desecration of Nature, and which we call climate change.