Man and virus
Homo Erraticus

Man and virus Photo (detail): Gangis Khan ©

Nature does not make mistakes, it doesn’t “make” anything at all, nature happens. In contrast, human beings’ gift to make mistakes in their intentional actions can, in a way, be used to define them – “Homo Erraticus.”

Berthold Franke

Of course globalisation is to blame! Or better yet: capitalism is behind it, or even better, it’s human greed for profit, for which we can thank the global supply chains. Or perhaps it’s the consumption of meat or animal farming that led to the virus being transmitted from bat to pangolin to racoon dog and then to people. Or a lab mistake: but of course the Chinese are to blame, or Bill Gates, or alternatively the Jews. A conspiracy at any rate. A bunch of wonderful error sources, take your pick.

However, it was probably something completely banal – nature. A mutation, the “faulty” copy of a genome, for example, to some extent considered the mother of all errors. And for which we have nothing less than evolution to thank. And therefore everything “new” that the biosphere has ever seen. And yet, strictly speaking, nature does not make mistakes, it doesn’t “make” anything at all, nature happens. In contrast, human beings’ gift to make mistakes in their intentional actions can, in a way, be used to define them – “Homo Erraticus.”

Whereby, a distinction should be made between two classical types of errors: errors are either the result of conscious action or an act of omission. In our case, if one accepts globalisation as the underlying constellation of errors responsible for the pandemic, it is probably due to an omission because “globalisation” was never operatively installed as a monolithic whole.  On the contrary, it emerged from a number of individual, interest-driven decisions and operations, which also explains why, although a human construct (and therefore also reversible), neoliberal ideologues have always considered it something of a natural phenomenon.

Error 1: we allowed globalisation to occur and now have to contend with the unintended “risks and side effects” in the form of the pandemic. But it all turns out to be a chain of mistakes: if one has thought so far that Error 2 was on the part of globalisation profiteers, and that we could permanently externalise the unpleasant consequences of globalisation, such as the new forms of social inequality or environmental disasters (which came to light a long time ago), then the virus, in its equalising omnipresence, teaches us about the special quality of the global neighbourhood, namely economic and social interdependence.

That the pandemic, as collateral damage of globalisation, has brutally exposed some of globalisation’s flaws is apparent in several phenomena that highlight the lack of resilience in civilisations with a high division of labour. Probably reflected most clearly in the collapse of our entire economy when, for a limited period of time, we are not allowed to do or buy anything that is not essential. Which brings us back to greed, an error source. Some of the neoliberal ideologues mentioned trace greed back to the “eternally human,” egoistic primary motive of “Homo Economicus,” conceived as a lone warrior. However, another attribute is becoming even more dangerous in the age of coronavirus.

Homo Erraticus is not just a greedy creature, but one that is fundamentally social and community-minded, one that seeks to be close to people like him, at least closer than one and a half metres. People meet each other, are close to one another, they could not survive otherwise. And once a civilisation has reached a certain stage of development, people also meet in large groups, exchange goods and viruses, words and ideas, inhale and exhale in shared, aerosol-saturated spaces. It is no coincidence that the history of globalisation is also a history of epidemics. For instance, syphilis was introduced to Europe from America by Columbus’s seamen; cholera came in the 19th century from the Ganges Delta in India to where smallpox had migrated many, many years before. Probably brought by merchants from ancient Egypt. The carriers were unaware of the human errors that lay at the root of these infections. They accepted the outbreak of disease as divine punishment, not as collateral damage resulting from one’s own actions.

Another collateral occurrence related to global trade flows that dates from antiquity is the meeting and confrontation of cultures. Cultures can also be “viral,” can “infect” in the positive sense (fascination of a foreign culture, learning from others) and in the negative sense (colonial obliteration of local culture by an imported culture). And this is just how something new comes into the world because the “something new” is basically culture. It is never blameless and is in no way always part of the solution, but often the problem, as shown by the current waves of a global “infodemic,” in which the eternal human desire for ignorance is catching on in the form of coronavirus conspiracy theories.

What has the coronavirus crisis brought so far in terms of new positives? Some say the new conference software Zoom, or working from home (personally, I would rather devote the time to a few good books and becoming acquainted with the wonderful TV serial The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). But ultimately it could add up to more: a new appreciation of the welfare state or a reassessment of the global supply chains and the risks of cost-saving lean management? At best, a new and critical awareness of human fallibility, which is always present, also in the age of science and technology; in short: more humility.

A closer look reveals that the innovative power of the virus does not really lie in actually creating something new but in questioning much of the “old new” – we have indeed been aware of the doubtful benefits for a long time now – and removing it from the world once again: how about cheap flights, cruise ships, the oil industry between Aramco and Alaska, and professional football which has been corrupted by billions in revenue, for starters?

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