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Out of the Iron Lung: A Miasma Theory of Coronavirus

by | August 28, 2020

The following piece first appeared in print in Salvage #8: Comrades, This is Madness, our latest issue. Issue 8 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and start with the next issue (issue 9). 

I have often suspected, that there may be in the Air some yet more latent Qualities or Powers differing enough from all these, and principally due to the Substantial Parts or Ingredients, whereof it consists.
For this is not as many imagine a simple and elementary body, but a confused aggregate of ‘effluviums’ from such differing bodies, that, though they all agree in constituting by their minuteness and various motions one great mass of fluid matter, yet perhaps there is scarce a more heterogeneous body in the world.
Robert Boyle, ‘Suspicions about the Hidden Realities of the Air’

They say: ‘we will return to the new normal.’ This is a blank cheque, a licence to impose whatever conditions they choose.

The first wind’s approach is imperceptible, as is the way of winds. None of the townsfolk can recall when it started blowing and its arrival is heralded only by the merest alteration in the dances of dust motes and the faintest susurrus in the smoke of the cooking fires. In time it grows to a tempest of infernal velocity, propelling dust motes at such speed they scour flesh to the bone and spreading sparks from the cooking fires to scorch the four green corners of the earth. Nonetheless, the townsfolk scarcely notice its presence, so steadily did it begin to blow. Asked why their limbs are bleeding and their crops burned, they shrug and say: it must have always been this way.

How quickly this pandemic has caused so many things to go out of the window. Left shibboleths are abandoned, some deploying irony to ease the guilt they feel at defenestrating hope from the Overton window. Stalwart anarchists joke about calling the cops on community members incapable of following the woolly yet cast-iron strictures of the new normal. For the liberals, eternal return and World Cup repeats on the telly: for radicals, the melancholy blanket of humour, which distances as it comforts.

The new normal is woolly for the elite who spread this disease, jetsetting and handshaking and conveying freight across oceans: cast-iron for streetwalkers, day-labourers and the coming wave of looters. Yet it is not the bargain-hunters and park-goers and migrant workers forced into exodus who bear responsibility for the virus’ spread.

In his biography of London, Peter Ackroyd notes Voltaire’s distinction between louche, Cartesian Paris, where ‘light exists in the air … in vortices of subtle matter’, and brisk, Newtonian London, where it ‘arrives from the sun in six and a half minutes.’ Urban redevelopments framed as sanitising the city and making it ‘more airy and wholesome’ simultaneously effaced it of its identity, replacing local production of local necessities with ‘speed and efficiency’ and the ‘free circulation of goods through the body of the city’. The world now hums with circulation, a model of Newtonian efficiency which started in the Londons and Parises of this world before violently laying claim to the Wuhans, greedily laying claim to colonised and post-colonial and post-communist markets and remaking them in its image.

Andrew Liu writes that ‘it is precisely the unexceptional status of Wuhan as a second-tier Chinese city … in which international capital continues to extend further inland in pursuit of cheaper land and labor markets … that is notable.’ Rather than culinary habits framed as bizarre through an orientalist lens, the causes of coronavirus’ catastrophic transmission are bland as a Big Mac: the inexorable spread of ‘speedy and efficient’ industrial farming practices, and the arrogation of local markets, agricultural and otherwise, into an ever-expanding, ever more homogenous global system of exchange.

Sterile systems are easily polluted. It has only taken a speck of dirt to corrupt the global circulation of capital, seemingly so unassailable until the moment labour is withdrawn, when it runs coughing to the life-support machine of government bailouts.

All laws semi-permeable membranes, to be transgressed in one direction only.

The second wind, good and golden, is summoned by stately country dances to keep the bad and bitter away. These quadrilles, the voodoo steps of which were imputed to the townsfolk by a charlatan jongleur for no greater price than a slop of stewed tubers and a sack on which to lay his head, are sworn to conjure vitalising jetstreams from the verdant south to impregnate the land with green life. And indeed they do, the fields are emerald and glisten wetly, the pumpkins groan at the seams, a pungent stench of loam pervades the town. It is too much: an undernote of dung crescendos in the nose: countless caterpillars wriggle over unattended infants: the pumpkins burst and rot below an unrelenting hothouse sky. Gagging in the swampy heat, the townsfolk beg the balladeer to teach them the counterclockwise choreography which will undo all these things and restore the sharp familiar breezes which cut over the pastures before. But he will not relent, not for gold nor high office nor the promised caresses of milkmaids, not until every last grain of the harvest has been handed over in tribute will he finally undo his mischief and depart in a harlequin swirl, leaving the townsfolk destitute and eating one another among the flyblown fields.

To say ‘the new normal’ implies that where we were before was something other than a gross abnormality. It stakes out a semi-permeable membrane, which we have crossed and may not return.

Expect the rise of the televangelists, of vaccine trials as prison labour. Expect to be shot dead, to be dragged wailing from the graveside, to be handed the cardboard box of ashes.

When the forces of reaction are infinitely and inevitably stronger than any action we the people may take, can they still be thus named? Had we not better humble ourselves by exchanging the terms, and admit it is we who react?

The third wind sets the church bells pealing on All Hallow’s Eve, and freezes the clappers to the crowns on Easter Day.  It is the evil shadow of the blue sky and the corn-coloured sun, without brightness, without form, a violent action without source or mass. What the sun raises, it withers: what the sky smiles upon, it scrapes bare. The townsfolk recognise this perversity as the true nature of all winds, and have the priest expel every last one from the town. The atmosphere is dead and motionless and at last the townsfolk can breathe in peace. Patting one another’s backs they gratefully exhale, and find they cannot draw in clean air. Jackdaws and swallows plunge to earth and break their necks, and the clouds start to come down on the high meadows in titanic, petrified clots, spatchcocking cattle, raising mushroom clouds of spoiled grain. Gagging, tearing at their constricted throats, hating themselves for what they do, the townsfolk seize the frail and the sickly and those not of good home and trample the breath from their lungs. A meagre vintage of consumptive air is bruised out and they fall to their knees and lap at it gratefully, fanning the feeble breezes over brows stinking with sweat.

They call it a pandemic, and it is. But better to define pan– by metrics other than mere geography. There is more that unites Bolsonaro and Johnson than there is uniting, say, Mohammad Mirmohammadi with the unnamed Kurds body-bagged in western Iran, which is eastern Kurdistan in all but reality.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has sagely observed that coronavirus does not recognise lines of conflict, and that is true, but it surely recognises the ‘speedy and efficient’ nexus of global trade routes. In its blindness the virus ignores the lines we draw on the earth, is funnelled precisely through the spaces we create in the air for the flow of capital. Coronavirus has spread unevenly, globally, and were the viral bodies to glow bright they would expose the logic and pattern of ceaseless expansion.

Already, the pandemic has begun to metastasise and to find frailer subjects to consume in Cox’s Bazaar, al-Hawl and Moria. It will continue to do so long after the world system has righted itself with force. In its end as its beginning, it is the people who will die.

But coronavirus is definable as pandemic because of the capitalist class, not only in the sense that it has found epicentres among that class as well as among the wretched of the earth, but also because without that class and what it is doing to the world the virus could not have so spread.

To say this, of course, is to commit the crime of ‘politicising a tragedy’. Which is to say, the crime of saying: ‘this is not normal’.

The fourth wind overtakes itself, lifting leaves and litter long before its chill is felt on the face. Though the surface of the millpond is not wrinkled by the breeze, a wicked old woman with a pustular growth down her neck is tumbled into it and drowned. Though the heads of corn do not waver in the fields, the hayrick is tumbled onto swains as they copulate in its shadow and breaks their sinful bones. Unable to make out the origin of these mischiefs, the townsfolk ascribe them to wizardry or the malice of ghosts. When the gentle kiss of the wind is finally felt by the burghers and goodwives leaving chapel on a Sunday afternoon, those few who correlate it to the shepherd boys now buried in unmarked graves among the furloughs or the grandmother left to decompose among the roots of the bulrushes are themselves called mad and frogmarched to the pond for trial by ducking in its blameless clear waters and interment thereafter somewhere deep in the fields.

We must take this virus seriously. We must also continue to take seriously all those things we took seriously before.

What we say of our own struggles – that capital will always seek to consume and co-opt them – is no less true of the response to this disease. Even now, capitalist states use the virus to impose new excesses and justify the old, imposing the ‘new normal’ for the people even as they insist that the old normal must hold for the system.

And so the left are once again left behind, on the back foot, providing palliatives for terminal ills.

We must return from sentimentality to humanity. To do so, we must take paths through ancient thickets long thought impermeable.

We must go back, and arrive further ahead than when we started.

The fifth wind brings relief from the steady damp heat of the tropics. Known to the townsfolk as ‘the doctor’ for its restorative properties, it is venerated just as any medicine man is venerated, with profound suspicion and fear. That which seeds the crops may strip their budding fruits away; that which sweeps away pallor and disease may keep blowing until all else is lost. Accordingly the townsfolk curse it, stamping their feet and shaking their fists and spitting into the air. In this way they are restored and made grateful for the damp stillness that was before, and the doctor continues on its lonely way, rejuvenating each town it comes to and so finding a home in none.

The liberal ‘resistance’ mocks at the snake-oil salesmen though of course they have been snake-oiled all along, suckered into believing that the system which bred this sickness can heal it. Their call is that the states should be doing more and more competently, as though it is not the endless, wretched drive for competency which brought us to this end. As though it were not these margins which necessitate the immiseration of human capital.

It is globalised capital which is the sticking plaster and the so-called sticking-plasters – mutual aid WhatsApp groups, degrowth, global democratic confederalism – which must replace it. See how quickly the just-in-time deliveries of medicine and groceries fail, how rapidly the airlines that have been fattening this past half-century need bailouts to stay afloat. This was never a serious or permanent solution.

The sixth wind catches its own tail, coming upon itself at the point of its inception over the waters, and so impelling itself onward at greater velocities to more distant climes. Its strength seems infinite, drawing power from its own power as it catches itself over and over, swallows itself, is blown apart in each and every direction, until the original velocity and vector of its passage is no more chartable than the dance of the stars. Blowing everywhere at once, it might as well not blow at all. Its name slips into disuse and even the mariners forget its power. 

Our reaction to the collapse of the old normal need not entail casting it out entirely, even if such a thing were possible. This is a lesson well learned here in Rojava, where the actions of state and suprastate actors sweep over us like so many countervailing winds, not to be ignored but rather raw material to be worked with, even if we cannot control their whole force. (In this way, balancing US anti-Iranian hawkism against Russian expansionism, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) has managed to preserve its fragile autonomy in the face of gale-force opposition from all sides.)

Here, the political demands on the state level are clear: direct provision of test kits and other supplies from the WHO which currently refuses to countenance dealing with a non-state actor like AANES, re-opening of the sole aid crossing into Rojava following its closure Security Council decree this January, an end to Turkey’s repeated severing of the water flow into at-risk regions, and in the long term recognition of the north-east’s autonomy as part of a federal, democratic Syria.

In the short term, however, the region is once again forced to rely on its own strained resources. Multiple medical projects are underway to develop DIY, indigenous ventilators as a solution to the chronic shortages in this field: aid is being distributed on a family-by-family basis via the local communes which form the building blocks of the democratic system here. The communes work best in times of crisis, a practical politics borne of need and a cool-eyed recognition of the unlikelihood of any actual aid from outside. Macropolitical demands are made in the knowledge that few or none of them will be met, in the hope of purchasing the space and time to continue to build an alternative which does not need airdropped UN supplies to survive.

At the demonstrations and human shield protests here in Rojava one constantly hears the chant ka Ewropa, ka UN, ka mafên mirovahî? (Where is Europe, where is the UN, where are [our] human rights?) One could hear this as a foreclosure of hope, an admittance of defeat. But the cry also indicates their lack, the space which must necessarily be filled. (One might note that these supranational organisations’ names themselves embody lack – the unanswered question WHO?, the negative prefix UN-.)

In the same way, it would be the height of self-defeating left melancholy for comrades in the UK to turn their back on the outpouring of mutual aid and support underway there now the government is seeking to arrogate and stamp Union Jacks all over it. These are the raw materials that must be worked with, the forces with which we can and must move.

As we in Rojava call on the WHO to send us just one single testing kit even as we diagnose our sick with repurposed malaria tests and redistribute village crops, so comrades in the UK can continue working via Whatsapp and doorstep dropoff and letter-box conversation even as they do what is necessary to keep the vulnerable alive. The cracks around the state are slender in the UK, but they are there, and will widen.

They would have you believe that the margin between closing all the borders and imposing martial law on the one hand and surrendering all control to the diktats of ailing UN technocrats on the other is impossibly thin. In fact, green gardens and mutual aid abound in it.

The seventh wind comes down suddenly from the mountains, unlooked for and not spoken of by herbalists or bards. It strips the fruit from the vine, scorches the earth and freezes the cattle. The townsfolk quiver, for they know they will starve, and crucify their bards on the highest stripped boughs and drive their herbalists into the blasted meadows to await their fate. But wait: the herbalists are returning with rare truffles previously obscured by the gross green marrows, rich-bodied invertebrates plucked from the overturned earth, sweet wine distilled from the spoiled crop of grapes. Such a feast is prepared as was never before tasted, and the townsfolk rejoice. The crucified bards wink at the wind as it passes from the land, recognising one of their own.

‘Science, science, science’, the guardians of the old order cry. So let them have it. There are more sciences in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy.

When we say that science is as real and unreal as myth, what we mean is that for all practical purposes we all still live as though the universe were 6,000 years old and created for us to dwell in. We cannot bear it otherwise, and the denotation of coronavirus as pandemic is testament to that. And so it becomes a question of which snake oil is best to live one’s life by. The liberal fantasy is that the laws of reason and science will stabilise the system, install technocrats where necessary, get the job done. This is snake oil, but it appeals greatly, and it can be tasted on the lips of Labour Party apparatchiks.

Rather, the snake oil most fitting to our times is that old quackery which holds foul effluvia rise from the foul places of the earth – swamps, ghettos, wet markets – and are wafted around by the motion of air, with any close at hand at risk of contagion.

By all means wash your hands. But it is not the physical contact between loved ones that has caused the spread of this virus any more than the unthinking genetic twitch of the virus is itself to blame. It is the disturbance of the very substance of the earth and sky and ocean, the containment of labour and labourers into certain stinking places that birthed this disease and the concomitant whirl of shipping containers and trade winds which funnelled it precisely back into the heart of empire. Bad winds, night air, raised by the black magic of just-in-time delivery.

Scientifically, miasma theory mistook symptom (bad smells) for cause (bacteria and viruses). Socially, however, the miasma is a broader concept than the mere germ, understood as both naturalistic and theocentric, both corporeal and spiritual. Sulphurous stenches at once brought disease and betokened hell: incense kept these smells away both physically, and by pleasing the Lord.

It is not China we should be taking to account, but commodity circulation in the context of global market liberalisation. Not germs, bad actors, individual super-spreaders, but the theocentric surplus value addended to the corporeal commodity.

Thus we are freed from the sterile pettiness of social distancing and personal hygiene, from individual culpability for systemic failure. Thus we are burdened with the challenge of building a hygienic, spacious, caring society, in and around the old.

Around the old: that is, building on the old ways of subsidence farming, cooperative societies and checking in on one’s neighbour; but also building against the repression of the ancien régime and its life-support machine of bailout packages, coronavirus tests reserved for the super-rich and sundry mechanisms of repression; and also building for the long-neglected old and sick themselves, who even before they started being abandoned to die in nursing homes were being killed by loneliness anyway.

The eighth wind is that tempest which blows the town to the ground, tempests storming down from the north, boiling siroccos rising up from the south. The townsfolk are swept up also, stripped of hearth and home, tumbled into the air. In time they grow accustomed to being borne aloft, buffeted between gales which balance one another out and leave them treading air, washing their clothes in rain-bringing northern breezes, dozing at night upon warm southerly zephyrs. In time they forget the solid earth, returning only to run bright little wheeled kites along the ground and scry the future in constellations of mud. 

Of course, we cannot take miasma theory just as it was, bound up with the fear of the mob, the unwashed, the filthy. We must go back, and arrive further forward than where we started.

The sick have sometimes spoken of how necessary it is to be sick, how it constitutes a refusal of the unasked-for burden of labour. We should not cast aside our defiant wretchedness in the face of the pandemic. Rather, we should see this as the greatest test and opportunity of such a stance.

If 80 per cent of the world is to fall ill, had we not better exchange the terms, and admit that it is the world that is sick? As Johanna Hedva writes:

Once we are all ill and confined to the bed, sharing our stories of therapies and comforts, forming support groups, bearing witness to each other’s tales of trauma, prioritising the care and love of our sick, pained, expensive, sensitive, fantastic bodies, and there is no one left to go to work, perhaps then, finally, capitalism will screech to its much-needed, long-overdue, and motherfucking glorious halt.

She notes that chronic disease encompasses lifetimes and so all of time – chronos– defying the capitalist demand that sickness be a temporary abrogation in the toil of homo economicus. So what of the acute condition, only a needlepoint – acus– in space and time?

How can we stitch together our acute little needlepoints of pain into a permanent testament?

Our actions now will determine the demands we are able to make later. Here in Rojava, the demands for international recognition and UN support are intended to keep this region alive until the borders with the rest of Kurdistan fall, and the communal system here can flourish and spread.

For the next pandemic, we must ready to fight to preserve the disaster socialism which emerges in the supranational response to this crisis. But, recognising that reaction is become the default mode of action, we must also enact a community-based socialism of our own. We must be ready to mobilise stocks of food, medical supplies, frontline care, community-mandated curfews should our government once again fail to act in its duty of care.

And at the same time, we must not let whatever hardened, state-protected capitalism emerges from this crisis get away with murder by presenting itself as de facto, the product of an inevitable science. Perhaps light does arrive from the sun in six and a half minutes: but practically speaking, we must live as though the sun’s arrival over our fields every day is a miracle unique to our fields alone, to be lost if we insist on taking more than we need. Perhaps we have shrunk the world so much we can import chicken from China overnight: practically speaking, we must act as though this is a myth, a bad dream.

We must expand our world by contracting it, recreating and defending those vacuums which capital abhors, between communities which can breathe, respire and flourish on their own account, repurposing their excreta, thriving in place. We must clean it by dirtying our hands. As opposed to the sterile, global immunology of germ theory, miasma immunology is local, mutable, varied – Boyle’s aggregate of heterogeneous effluvia, which nonetheless constitute a continuous whole.

Achieving this will mean finding new ways to live, both more quarantined and more socialised. It will mean not going back to work. It will mean staying home sick and the concomitant rent strike. It will mean. It means remaining – politically, actually – sick. It means exchanging the individual benefit, such as it is, of artificial care to the last gasp of breath for the social benefit of a healthier world. It means stepping out of the iron lung.

The ninth wind is too caustic to be directly borne. Cowled, the priest steps into it, but scurries back inside the vicarage before he has gone half a yard. The doctor gets a little further, turning his head away from the gale and scuttling crabwise across the street before breaking out in a riot of chilblains and beating on the door of the vicarage, seeking sanctuary and finding a rejuvenating nip of consecrated wine. The doughty squire turns his back to the wind entirely and trudges for a league across his fields. Afterward, whiskers stained claret, he brags about this to the priest and the doctor, omitting to mention that he not only sheltered the whole way behind the carthorse now left on a halter in the graveyard to freeze but left the fields entirely unploughed. Only the farmer’s sick old aunt, waiting in an outhouse for doctor and priest that she may be granted permission to die, understands what must be done. She steps into the perishing wind, nightie whipping round her skinny ankles.

Liberals mock Trump cronies who insist they will happily die to keep the Dow Jones afloat. Where is our equivalent offer? What will we die for, if not one another? For some, this may mean contracting Covid-19 delivering food to elderly neighbours. But the fundamental question is whether health means seizing any means to improve our quality of life and thus our life expectancy, or living according to our means and needs, in tune with the world around us.

At present, as Eliot writes,

the whole earth is our hospital…
wherein, if we do well, we shall
die of the absolute paternal care
that will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere…
to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

If we want to restore the earth, there are certain sacrifices we in the West will have to make. Life expectancy is not the only metric of a life well lived.

Are we prepared to contract the sprawl of our lives in order to expand those now being cut short? To accept a life ten years shorter and harder on the hands? Are we prepared to step out of the iron lung? To accept a cytokine storm shredding the organs, the final wind, which cannot and must not be resisted, for if you do it will break your bones, turn you inside out, tear you limb from limb and leave you gutless and floating on the breeze? To be borne with it, to allow it to enter into you, to be aloft? In this way you may survive for a year or two; perhaps more. We must hope that it will be more. Sooner or later we will realise no wind now blows, save that constituted of our own drifting flesh. Perhaps there never was. In any case, we have chosen our path, and must be borne with it wherever it will go. 

Are we prepared for the conscientious objection from health?

Matt Broomfield is a poet, journalist and socialist, living and working in Rojava (North and East Syria) in solidarity with the revolution there.