The pandemic came in waves. The warnings of its arrival barely preceding its crashing on the shores of our expectations. It announced itself through cancellations. First came the e-mails on conference cancellations, then came talk of school closures and then, before we had time to breath, came the lockdown as we all retreated into our nations, our cities, our homes and our bodies. And yet, throughout these overwhelmingly huge events, the crisis itself starts with the most intimate means of awareness of our being in this world with others. It begins with an acknowledgement of our urban bodies as they meet and bump into others, as we come to terms with the fact that we inhale the choke and breath of another, as we pull on our masks and move three feet away from everyone else, social distance seems to bring us closer into relations of entanglement. It reminds us of the simple, frequently unacknowledged, fact that we are made in the breath of others; that we are exposed and vulnerable to the life, health, and death of others; that in life and in breath we live always in the midst of things.
How quickly we forget these forms of exposure in “normal” life. How quickly we forget our bodies as they slew off cells and expel little droplets of life into the world. How quickly we forget our connection to everything that breaths. I have always thought that health is a much more useful concept than nature. Nature, that complicated word, with its histories of enlightenment politics, and racism, holds us always at bay of itself. It would seem that nature is always there were we are not. The wonderful environmental storyteller and anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose argues that the concept of nature serves to alibi ourselves out from our connections to environmental destruction and multispecies genocide. It would seem that environmental destruction happens in spaces were we are never present. And, unable to witness them or bare witness to them, we imagine these forms of destruction to be the making and responsibility of others. Nature, we imagine, is always somewhere else. Health, on the other hand, is more complex. Health always begins in the body, and in the most simple act of the body: that of breath. Are we not in breath always taking in the world and pushing it out transformed? Are we not always entangled with human and non-human others in breath? Are we not dependent on soil respiration as organism live and decay moving carbon dioxide around into the atmosphere we depend upon? And is not this crisis of health precisely made evident in breath? Where then does our breath begin and end? Where does our health?
Paying attention to our bodies in breath requires becoming exposed to the lives of other human and non-human beings we share our common worlds with. Can we end this lockdown if we do not ensure that those we invisibilize most in our society do not become infected? Can we avoid this pandemic if most of our population cannot afford to stay home? Can we avoid contagion rippling throughout the population if the immigrants, the refugees, those who work the lands to give us food, the garbage collectors, and the homeless have no refuge? If this crisis has taught us anything it is that public health is necessary in order to ensure individual health. Our health is made in and is dependent upon the beings we share our lives with. Mostly those we are less willing to notice.
Access to universal health makes sense as the space of political and social responsibility we have to others and to ourselves in the commons. And yet, in breath it is precisely the commons that expands. Universal health care can never be only limited to the wealthy, or to the national citizen, or to the human alone. Health is that space that reminds us through cough and chokes of the environment we share with other beings.
Those of us who can experience this crisis from the safety of our homes can spare a moment to reflect on the many social inequalities that impact this pandemic. From gender violence, to all forms of inequality and access to health care and a safe space to dwell, this pandemic does not affect all of us equally. These are vital considerations as we move forward. But staying there is not nearly enough.
Paying attention to our bodies in breath and in air, calls for us to bare witness to the world we share with pangolin. Hopefully in this act of baring witness we may learn to think more deeply about the consequences of our relationships with our environments, and of the ways our health is always made in the face of those others we share this environment with. The pandemic emerges out of an increasingly dysfunctional relationship with our common world. Zoonotic diseases like coronavirus are becoming increasingly frequent. In fact, during the 21st century most emerging infectious diseases (Ebola, swine flu, SARS, mad cow disease, avian influenza) spilling over to humans are zoonotic. This means that while they occur in animals, under the right conditions, they can jump to humans, and through Sila, move rapidly through human populations. The conditions that make these diseases more frequent include: habitat loss, contemporary mass-production of animal meat, intensive farming practices, global wildlife markets and climate change. Research has shown that intensive factory farms, are at the heart of this crisis. In short, zoonotic diseases are the result of our global environmental crisis. We will not survive our worlds unless we start to understand that the health of our commons will echo our own. And even more so, that our common world includes the animals and plants we eat, transport and consume.
Any serious consideration of universal health requires considering our relationship to animals, to what we owe them, and to what we owe each other in the face of them. If we do not devise ways of living well together in this broader community of life, then we will slowly choke together.
The Inuit word Sila refers to the breath that passes through everything. Moving each cough through the world, carrying oxygen and nytrogen, covid-19 and dust particles. Pushing life and death through bodies, in and out. “how lovely and how doomed this connection of everyone with lungs”, writes the poet Juliana Spahr. How lovely indeed; how deadly. And so it is that Sila moves through deforestation, evacuating bats from their natural habitats, out from forests, into cities. And so it is that Sila moves through animal farming facilities, where cows and chicken are born and die in enclosed cages one on top of the other in close quarters. Sila stays there stagnant for a moment. And zoonotic diseases get a chance to jump from one creature to another. Just look at swine flu! In and out. Sila moves through the lungs of wildlife caught up in ever-growing ilegal markets. It flows through the pangolin: which is not only the most traffic animal on earth, but also a possible transporter of covid-19.
In Sila, there is no place and no being where universal health ends. Can we learn to construct policies and communal responsibilities that are born in breath?
Breathers, cons-pire! Breath together (to paraphrase Timothy Choy). I take this to be an invitation to huddle together and learn to breath together so that we may dream up more survivable worlds for everybody.