One of the most conspicuous effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is its mediatized production of an informed citizenry. Public life has quickly become populated with new, ever-changing regulations, protocols, and prohibitions which are delivered on a daily basis through televised addresses by prominent politicians and public health officials. Being correctly informed is now an essential prerequisite for going about one’s daily life.
In a post-mass media era where conspiracy theories and intentional disinformation go viral, further fanning the flames of populist movements, the case for strengthening the legitimacy and accessibility of information is certainly legitimate.[i] The pandemic has also displayed governments’ willingness to misrepresent or even censor vital statistics related to the virus, underlining the need for the political independence of scientific researchers.[ii]
Nevertheless, the media culture which has developed around the pandemic, with its inculcation of obligatory deference to paternalistic public health experts, has proven particularly disabling. It has intensified a liberal governmentality of control, based on the readiness of the population to take orders and execute them in the minutia of daily life: whether or not masks are required, how many people may gather together, where travel is permitted, what stores can open, etc. While it could be argued that all of these directions are in the best interest of public health and are entirely appropriate given the extenuating circumstances, they are also topical remedies geared towards containment rather than grasping the underlying problem by its roots.
What has gotten lost in the cacophony of state-sanctioned order-words, is the brute fact that all of the deadliest pandemics of the 20th and 21st Centuries have animal origins, and not only that, but specifically animal-for-food origins.[iii] This actionable fact has somehow fallen out of the discourse of mediatized government experts in charge of managing the pandemic. Amidst the constant and often contradictory pronouncement of new public health regulations, infection statistics and geopolitical analyses, the human-animal relations at the origins of the novel coronavirus remain largely obfuscated and underexamined.
It is reasonable to believe that COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic, and that the next pandemic could prove to be significantly more fatal. For example, the H5N1 disease which is prevalent in bird farming has a mortality rate of about 50% in humans (WHO 2006). In light of this very real risk, can close to 8 billion people survive on planet Earth without a universal reappraisal of the role of animals in culinary and medical practice? What modern pandemics have shown is that the global balance of lifeways can be dramatically upended by caged animals, out of sight and out of mind – whether that be an Asian wildlife market, a North American pig farm, a Middle Eastern camel barn, or anywhere else animals are domesticated and kept in close proximity.
Companion animals, farm animals, therapy animals, wild animals, zoo animals: Humans are in the habit of categorizing animals based on their socio-cultural function. What I would like to propose here is that the task of preventing the next pandemic will depend on the attitude which is adopted towards a type of animal which striates the categories just mentioned – that being “transference animals.”
Transference animals are animals with whom humans enter into affective relationships of introjection and projection.
The projection of human attributes onto animals is very common, especially with animals who in one way or another are on display, such as pets in the home, animals in zoos, as well as in literature and cinema. We can easily invoke the image of the heroic dog, brave lion or peaceful dove thanks to the role that these animals have been granted in the cultural imaginary. Animals whose lives are deemed expendable for food tend to suffer from humans projecting their own worst qualities onto them. One need only think of the “lazy” pig, the “stupid” cow and the “cowardly” chicken – all prominent characters in the slaughterhouse and unwilling protagonists in modern health crises such as the UK Bovine spongiform encephalopathy outbreak in the 1980s and 1990s, the avian bird flu outbreak in 2005 and the 2009 swine flu pandemic.
At the origins of this latest pandemic lies the process of incorporative introjection. The most likely source of COVID-19 is a hybrid of ingredients from traditional folk medicine: bats, civet cats and/or pangolins (Zhang 2020). All three of these animals are consumed on the belief that the animal’s species characteristics can be introjected. Bats are valued for their longevity and night-vision, resulting in their meat being consumed and their feces being placed on the eyes. “Dragon-Tiger-Phoenix” soup mixes snake, civet cat and chicken meat together into a regional delicacy dish. Cat tonics such as this are used as treatments for arthritis, with some variations even distilling the civet penis in rice wine to supposedly increase potency in the consumer (Bell 2004: 1111). The chasing of virility also leads to Pangolin fetuses being eaten in soup (National Geographic 2018). Pangolins are highly coveted animals because their scales are believed to contain medicinal properties. They are the most trafficked mammal in the world and are now an endangered species.
The common thread linking these quasi-medicinal practices is the human desire for self-enhancement through the introjection of an animal’s unique qualities: a bat’s night-vision, a cat’s tiger-like strength and agility, a Pangolin’s calm, protective demeanour, or a fetus’ procreative associations.
Between folk medicines which seek to introject the positive attributes of wild animals into humans and widespread agricultural practices which project negative human attributes onto farm animals, humanity finds itself in a whirlwind of transspecies psychic transferences beckoning forth future pandemics.
These transference relationships are organized around a fundamental fragility. Struggle as they may to repress troubling thoughts of impending death, the person who consumes wild animals to introject their medicinal properties must already be acutely aware of their health’s precarity. Could this awareness of fragility become an opportunity for trans-species sympathy? It could, if only the narcissistic injury that arises from the body’s deterioration was brought under analysis, breaking the overcompensation for this injury which is habitually expressed through an incorporative exercise in animal domination.
What has come to the fore during the news media’s bombardment of psychic life in recent months is the pandemic’s ability to confound representation. Images of empty public spaces, face masks, protests and politicians don’t seem to capture the will to introjection at its origins, nor the strife of those who have been most intimately affected – either dying themselves or witnessing the passing of loved ones. If there is an image of the pandemic which does seem fitting, it is a mirror image: the image of transference animals, caged, frightened, or slaughtered who in a cruel turn of irony mirror the fate of so many people right now who are isolated, agitated and infected. If we could see the pandemic through the eyes of a bat whose family members were lost to the wet market, the suffering of so many of the world’s humans right now might startlingly appear as poetic justice. The shared fragility of human and animal life is a testament to how, for better and for worse, our destinies are mutually intertwined.
If the lay analysis of collective transferences towards animals were to become a global phenomenon, and the collective will was summoned to act on such transferences differently, humans might be struck with a spontaneous urge: to let the animals out of their cages, and invite them into a new shared destiny – one where we mirror each other’s health and freedom instead of each other’s illness and containment.
About the Author
Adam Szymanski is Postdoctoral Fellow in Film and Media Studies at McGill University. Between September 2019 and August 2020, he was Junior Fellow at FRIAS where he worked on his project “The Production of Subjectivity in Psychotherapeutic Uses of Film”.
Photo: © Rachel MacKnight
“Avian influenza – epidemiology of human H5N1 cases reported to WHO.” World Health Organization. June 30, 2006. https://www.who.int/csr/don/2006_06_30/en/
Barnes, Julian E. “C.I.A. Hunts for Authentic Virus Totals in China, Dismissing Government Tallies.” New York Times. April 2, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/02/us/politics/cia-coronavirus-china.html
Bell, Diana, Scott Roberton, and Paul R. Hunter. “Animal origins of SARS coronavirus: possible links with the international trade in small carnivores.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences 359.1447 (2004): 1107-1114.
“Coronavirus: Hard-hit Brazil removes data amid rising death toll.” BBC News. June 7, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-52952686
Graham, Megan. “Facebook, YouTube and other platforms are struggling to remove new pandemic conspiracy video.” CNBC. May 7, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/07/facebook-youtube-struggling-to-remove-plandemic-conspiracy-video.html
Hemida, M. G., et al. “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus seroprevalence in domestic livestock in Saudi Arabia, 2010 to 2013.” Eurosurveillance 18.50 (2013): 20659.
National Geographic. “Pangolins: The Most Trafficked Mammal You’ve Never Heard Of | National Geographic.” Youtube. May 28, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqC3ieJJlFM
Mackenzie, Deborah. “Bird flu may soon land in Europe and Australia.” New Scientist. July 6, 2005. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg18725074-100-bird-flu-may-soon-land-in-europe-and-australia/
Trifonov, V., et al. “The origin of the recent swine influenza A (H1N1) virus infecting humans.” Eurosurveillance 14.17 (2009): 19193.
Worobey, Michael, Guan-Zhu Han, and Andrew Rambaut. “A synchronized global sweep of the internal genes of modern avian influenza virus.” Nature 508.7495 (2014): 254-257.
Zhang, Tao, Qunfu Wu, and Zhigang Zhang. “Probable pangolin origin of SARS-CoV-2 associated with the COVID-19 outbreak.” Current Biology 30 (April 6, 2020): 1346–1351
[i] The 26 minute conspiratorial video Plandemic was released on May 4, 2020 and went on to reach over a million views in only a few days on Youtube before it was removed from all major social media platforms (Graham).
[ii] On June 6th, Brazil removed months of COVID-19 data from its official website. President Bolsonaro justified the saying “the cumulative data… does not reflect the moment the country is in” (BBC News). The legitimacy of China’s coronavirus figures have been called into question by a number of sources, including the American Central Intelligence Agency. Its intelligence officers have said that “Midlevel bureaucrats in the city of Wuhan, where the virus originated, and elsewhere in China have been lying about infection rates, testing and death counts, fearful that if they report numbers that are too high they will be punished, lose their position or worse” (Barnes)
[iii] The swine flu pandemic of 2009 (farmed pigs) (Trifonov et al.), the avian bird flu outbreak of 2005 (farmed chickens) (Mackenzie), Middle East respiratory syndrome (camels) (Hemida), and the 1918 “Spanish” flu pandemic (domestic and wild birds) all have animal for food origins (Worobey).