Here is the best evidence I can muster for how much the past few months have pulverized my psyche: I can’t stop thinking about the bat that caused all this.
We are in a kind of perpetual frenzied nightmare at the moment. Millions have been stripped of vital unemployment benefits. There is a potential eviction tsunami looming. The cops continue their rampage, and politicians continue to defend property over people. The less said about the 2020 race, the better.
For thousands of years, a parasite with no name lived happily among horseshoe bats in southern China. The bats had evolved to the point that they did not notice; they went about their nightly flights unbothered. One day, the parasite—an ancestor of the coronavirus, sars-CoV-2—had an opportunity to expand its realm. Perhaps it was a pangolin, the scaly anteater, an endangered species that is a victim of incessant wildlife trafficking and sold, often secretly, in live-animal markets throughout Southeast Asia and China. Or not. The genetic pathway remains unclear. But to survive in a new species, whatever it was, the virus had to mutate dramatically. It might even have taken a segment of a different coronavirus strain that already inhabited its new host, and morphed into a hybrid—a better, stronger version of itself, a pathogenic Everyman capable of thriving in diverse species. More recently, the coronavirus found a new species: ours. Perhaps a weary traveller rubbed his eyes, or scratched his nose, or was anxiously, unconsciously, biting his fingernails. One tiny, invisible blob of virus. One human face. And here we are, battling a global pandemic.
The first time I read that, it knocked me right out. Mind explosion emoji! Everything comes back to one horseshoe bat that passed the virus to one other thing that passed it to us and now the bottom has dropped out of the world and I’ll be wearing a mask for the rest of eternity. (Note: Before you start talking about the Wuhan lab, no.)
On one bat’s wings do worlds turn. Fuck the butterfly effect, why are we not talking about the batterfly effect?
It’s unclear to me whether the bat that passed the virus along is still alive; Wikipedia, which is about as deep into science as I can muster, says that horseshoe bats typically live about six to seven years, though some have lived as long as 30, but how are we ever to know whether this bat spread COVID-19 to a pangolin and died three days later or whether it is still happily occupying a Chinese cave to this day? Whatever the truth, it seems safe to presume that the bat never spent too much time contemplating all that it has wrought. But I have had so, so much time to mull this over. Sometimes the sheer weight of what has occurred is overwhelming—how are we really living through this?—and I think about the bat, and what came next, and it is wild to me all over again.
We are just about the most dominant, sophisticated, destructive species that has ever existed on this planet (I suppose you could make a case for the dinosaurs in terms of dominance, but I think we’d beat them in the end), and yet the society we have constructed for ourselves was no match for a mere speck of a virus from an ancient creature. (Bats, meanwhile, are out here living healthy lives with tons of different viruses at once.) One chance encounter, one grain of sand, and the whole thing collapsed. We are too greedy, too selfish, too cruel to have built something that could outwit a bat. The mind reels.
At least, that is the case for the United States. Many other countries have mostly worked their way out of this, but we remain in the quagmire, sinking into the tar pit. We are no match for the bat. To be a match for the bat, you have to have a functioning public health system, an actual safety net, governments that care, an anti-racist society. Instead, we have America. It is a humbling and damning thing.