Frédéric Keck is Senior Researcher at CNRS, director of the Laboratory for Social Anthropology in Paris, coeditor of The Anthropology of Epidemics, and author of several books in French. His newest book is Avian Reservoirs: Virus Hunters and Birdwatchers in Chinese Sentinel Posts, which is freely available until June 1, 2020 in our Navigating the Threat of Pandemic syllabus. The following interview originally ran in French in Philosophie Magazine and was translated by Dan Hicks.
A coronavirus transmitted from a bat to a pangolin at a wet market in Wuhan, and then to humans all over the world: what does this mean to you?
We are living in a changed world, but Europe has only just realized this with COVID-19. China and what I call its “sentinel posts”—Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore—have known this for some time. After the SARS outbreak in 2003, which was also caused by a coronavirus, these countries invested massively in virology research and in technologies to detect, screen and monitor populations to prepare for a crisis like this one. Chinese researchers were expecting a virus causing a respiratory disease to be transmitted from bats. After the initial three weeks at the end of December and up to mid-January, the Wuhan authorities controlled the epidemic, and they did what they had to do, according to the WHO report of 28 February. In Europe we simply refused to imagine this could happen to us. Little affected by SARS, Europe just didn’t understand the global shift that it caused—the fact that China has controlled pandemics not only on its own territory but also at the global level, and the fact that the Chinese authorities have influenced the nomination of the head of the World Health Organization after 2006. Europe doesn’t just lack the equipment to deal with the pandemic: we lack the imagination to understand what’s happening to us.
Can you say more about what you mean when you say that Europe lacks the imagination needed to prepare for pandemics ?
In Europe, public health is based on prevention not preparation. It’s led by nation states within defined territories, as with vaccination against tuberculosis or smallpox. But viral infectious diseases require global preparedness, swift detection, and containment. In the 1990s with avian flu, Chinese societies learned that this is about preparing for a catastrophic outbreak, with “sentinel” chickens in poultry farms, simulations of pandemics in hospitals, and stockpiling masks, vaccines and antivirals by national states and multinational companies. Back then, American strategies for anticipating nuclear attack was one model, but there are others: Japan has the frame of earthquakes; France has that of industrial action—preparing for a strike. The point is that industrial strike, an epidemic outbreak, an earthquake are catastrophic events which halt economic activity—they requires different forms of preparedness.
Can you tell me about the analogies you make between Chinese preparedness and hunter-gatherer societies, andbetween European “prevention” strategies with the world of pastoralism?
We can see virologists as “hunters” of microbes or viruses. That’s why they get along well with ornithologists, who also operate by tracking. The anthropology of hunter-gatherer societies allows us to reassess this figure of the hunter-tracker. The virologist isn’t just someone who observes invisible wild entities under the microscope: more than that, they seek to adopt the point of view of birds, bats, and monkeys. The virus is a warning signal that affects animals; the “hunter” follows its transmission from birds to pigs to humans, or bats to pangolins to humans. This tracking is a kind of “hunting,” and it sees uncertainty in relationships with animals. That which is hunted can also kill.
So, the hunting relationship is reversible. But pastoralism relies on what Foucault called biopolitics. Shepherds control their flocks, decide which animals are cared for, which killed or sacrificed to protect the herd. Biopolitics is the power to ‘make live’ and to let die. Now, this was Boris Johnson’s initial approach in the UK—on which he’s now reneging because it was of course an indefensible plan: to let the virus spread and to have 400,000 deaths among the old, the weak and the poor while city traders survive, with it all costing the smallest possible sum of money! Pastoralism made the modern state possible. That state is based on what I’m calling “prevention.” So today epidemiology and public health is on the side of the pastoralists.
Are we not obliged to use ‘pastoralist’ techniques when the pandemic is here ?
There is a middle ground between hunting and pastoral care, preparation and prevention: which I call “precaution.” Taken to its logical conclusion, pastoral care requires acts of sacrifice. It assumes that people must die since the most important thing is to maintain the health of the population as a whole – the so-called “herd.” But in contrast, Taiwan and Singapore quickly tracked down the virus and confined it, like hunters. Now of course if a “hunting” approach is applied badly or too late it becomes just precaution: it identifies maximum risk and shuts everything down. With “mad cows” and chickens with avian flu, all of a farm’s livestock were slaughtered if one animal was infected. Now we are the ones who are collectively confined.
What does this pandemic reveal about our relationships with animals ?
Since the 1970s, the ecology of infectious diseases, with major thinkers such as René Dubos and Frank Macfarlane Burnet, has been warning us that nature can “strike back.” Virologists have tracked Ebola (in 1976, from bats in Central Africa), AIDS (1981, from monkeys), mad cow disease (1996, cattle), avian flu (1997, chickens/migratory birds), SARS (2003, bats) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-CoV in Saudi Arabia (2012, camels). Then there’s what’s in store from the world of insects: Dengue fever, transmitted by mosquitoes, is at the gates of Europe; in 5 years we may have to adopt containment measures against that! Every four or five years a new disease emerges which comes from animals, against which we have no immunity, no vaccine.
So this is a kind of “revenge” of nature ?
Not quite. In my work, I reframe Jared Diamond’s idea of diseases of domestication. In my view, the 1970s witnessed a revolution as profound as the Neolithic revolution: industrial animal husbandry and its corollary, globalization of trade, have produced new diseases because the relationship between humans and animals has been totally overturned.
But bats and pangolins are wild animals.
The geographies of diseases today no longer just involve places where humans and animals live together, as in the case of domestication, but to the unpredictable movements that come with industrial livestock farming, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and climate change. The “wild” has been dislodged and is forced to find other niches, including in urban areas. We Europeans have been “good shepherds,” and pastoralism has enabled us to deal with the diseases of the Neolithic period. But now we have to become hunter-gatherers again.
What kind of world is emerging out of COVID-19 ?
In the middle of a deeply unpredictable crisis, what’s certain is that China is ahead of Europe. Not because of a dictatorship capable of confining its population authoritatively and without resistance, but because of the experience of health disasters in China and in East Asia more generally. My argument is anthropological. We find it difficult to face our fear of disease-transmitting animals because we believe in a firm divide between nature and culture. Our “naturalist liberalism,” which has already done such a lot of harm to the planet, now needs to learn some humility.