I find it interesting to consider the question of agency when we think of the Coronavirus. To begin with, humans tend to assign a certain degree of ‘free-will’ to things, even inanimate objects. Chemists specifically love to do that all the time! We talk about the needs and wants of molecules, as if they are willingly choosing to behave the way they do.
For simple phenomena, it‘s easy to bring to mind the forces which actually result in the observed behavior – things fall due to gravity, not because they have an innate desire to be closer to earth. Now, with something complex enough like a virus (which on the scale of life may be argued to be the simplest life-form), it’s much easier to think of it as an independent agent that is self-interested in annihilating us so it reproduces.
But it’s just a bit of floating genetic code that fools the body of a host so it assembles more of that code. And unlike bacteria, the virus doesn’t even attack, eat, or reproduce. It just hits a cell in the right way, and the cell mindlessly starts making copies of it. In a sense, it’s a coding error that just happens to be self-replicating.
Well, all of this takes a wildly different twist when we think of the agency of a virus ontologically/metaphysically, especially considering how we (choose to) perceive and deal with this COVID-19 threat. More clearly: to what extent does our perception of viruses affect how we deal with this pandemic? Are we more aggressive because we think of it as a “monster” out there which wants to take us down? To what extent does our scientific ability/hubris play a role here? (let’s stop life until we figure this out because obviously we can figure this out!)
Would we be more lax if we accepted it as just a fact of life (sickness happens)? And then we would just carry on with our lives. Then what about all the religious people who perceive it as a warning from God(s) because of [ ] and thus the true solution is for humanity to repent? Then there are those who say this is a message from nature to get our shit together (maybe I like this group the most!) The question of “agency” is at the core of each scenario: Virus vs. Science, Nature vs. Human, God vs. Sin – (all the above?)
Cigarettes kill and have killed more than COVID-19 would ever do. Yet, there is a whole tobacco industry and people literally dedicating their lives to it! Of course, this comparison is unfair on many levels, but this is exactly the point! Our perception of smoking, i.e. and the agency of smokers, makes it a different issue, despite it being deadlier.
THE TITLE OF THIS POST IS BORROWED FORM THE VIRAL TIKTOK SONG / MEME THAT I CAN’T TRACK DOWN!