Since starting this blog I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid talking about the coronavirus too much. It is not good for me to immerse myself in the subject, and I want to use this blog to explore a range of pathways.
There’s one phrase which I’ve heard multiple variations on which I felt needed addressing from an autistic perspective: ‘humans are the real virus’
Despite being well intentioned – usually with an environmental message – the phrase to me, brings back thoughts of some of the most crass and harmful misunderstandings of how our planet is being damaged and who’s responsible. These tie into overpopulation myth and nastier ideas about who is deserving of the right to life.
This one was difficult to write in that the emotional way I experience the world around me meant that researching some of these subjects inspired a gambit of emotions including anger, sadness and worry. However, this is a subject I feel passionate about. I hope that the blog throws up some interesting concepts about how to approach the way we talk about pandemics and the environment, taking care to bear in mind who we’re talking about when we place blame.
We are not the Problem
“Corona is the Cure! Humans are the disease!”Hundred Hands, while impersonating extinction rebellion.
That’s what tweets from a group proposing to be affiliated with Extinction Rebellion read a few months ago. It later came out that behind the tweets were actually from an eco-fascist group called ‘Hundered hands’. One claim they made in XR’s name was that ‘Only white people care about the environment’.
They’re not the only ones spreading falsehood. The fake stories about Venetian dolphins returning to the canals with the caption We.Are.The.Virus have rightly been mocked and exposed as false…
Confession: early on in the coronavirus I shared an ‘infographic’ which cherry-picked stats to argue that the virus only kills very senior people with underlying health conditions. Although not strictly population related, in my ignorance I shared something that partaked in a subtly perverse bigotry in favour of young, healthy people.
This is the issue I have with the ‘We are the problem’ memes. They devalue the struggle lots of people are going through, sometimes just to stay alive. BAME communities are at higher risk. Some disabled people say lockdown has made them prisoners inside thier own homes. Older people and people with underlying health conditions are obviously very high risk.
With regard to autistic people, I’m lucky in a sense – I have quite a large degree of independence and mobility. As someone who used to be an outreach worker you get a sense of the claustrophobic atmosphere of group homes. Autistic people living in those environments are rarely seeing family or therapists at the moment, as those spaces too are vulnerable to Covid outbreaks. This is a particular issue in the US where just that problem has killed thousands.
Dealing with lockdown I have occasionally felt cut off and uncomfortable with adjusting to the changes in routine. This is an issue autistic people are suffering with to different extents – having little access to loved ones or services, support workers have attested to an epidemic of anxiety and depression suffered by individuals in community living settings.
Constantly repeating ‘We are the problem’ not only devalues the experiences of those who are genuinely suffering, but couches its messages in a nihilistic, cynical view of the world that has real life implications related to the value and worth we see human life…
In 2019 amid Greta Thunburgs speech to the UN, actor John Rees Davies appeared on Question Time, and blamed our climate problem on population. Years earlier he’d stated about the Muslim population: “There’s a demographic catastrophe happening that nobody wants to talk about”.
Remember when I described ‘Hundred hands’ as eco-fascist? Well, those ideas stem from Finnish thinker Pentti Linkola who once wrote, with comparison to refugees: “When the lifeboat is full, those who hate life will try to load it with more people and sink the lot. Those who love and respect life will take the ship’s axe and sever the extra hands that cling to the sides”
In March, a Telegraph journalist provoked controversy for writing “COVID-19 might prove mildly beneficial in the long run by disproportionately culling elderly dependents” – This applies the same logic, except rather than painting the virus as a saviour of the environment, he’s using his economic beliefs to argue that the virus will be beneficial in allowing us to save money on social security.
Most people sharing the ‘we are the virus’ meme would deny that they are advocating any of that. The point here isn’t what individuals believe but how statements about needing less people prove counterproductive and harmful in the face of actual threats to human life.
“Broad calls for limiting population, or rejoicing in the pollution-stunting effects of the world’s economy grinding to a halt, are indirect endorsements of mass suffering for people who are already most vulnerable. Blind applause for environmental progress without acknowledging who’s bearing the cost is simply a rebranding of white supremacist ideals. And as with most disasters, the effects of the novel coronavirus won’t be distributed equally. Experts say that older, sicker, and poorer people will disproportionately suffer and die from COVID-19 and its economic impacts”Garcia, The pandemic is bringing out environmentalism’s dark side
This is what the ‘We are the problem’ narrative does. Perpetuates an image of the human life as worthless. Who cares if they die? ‘we are the problem’ after all. Surely, anything done to help will cause the population to burst at the rafters and prolong human suffering in the long run…
I was thankfully not able to find any examples of the ‘we are the virus’ logic being used against autistics. However, it would be revealing to know what the Telegraph Journalist thinks about those ‘unproductive’ members of the neurodiverse population, or what Linkola thinks our reproductive rights should be. With any statement about humans being a disease, come questions about which humans are or are not deserving of life.
Population Control and Eugenics
Thomas Malthus was a demographer, known for his 1789 essay On The Principal of Population in which he argued that the population would grow every twenty-five years, outstripping resources and leaving future generations in turmoil. He was writing against a background of colonialism. As professor of history and political economy at the East India Company’s college, he justified the starvation of Indians in famine on the basis that it was caused by thier ‘compulsion to breed’.
Through a Malthusian lens, diseases such as Covid-19 are ‘positive checks’ – useful in regulating the swelling ranks of population. Ideas such as lockdown and social security would have been seen as ridiculous. Looking back the examples I gave earlier we see this logic being applied – the idea that refugees will place a greater burden on resources, that we should sacrifice older sections of the population for the sake of the economy. At the heart of the Malthusian obsession with resources is the idea that some lives are disposable, while others are not.
This ignores the fact that despite everyone being responsible for climate change in some small degree, human beings are far from being equally responsible. A study in 2017 showed that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. While birth rates in poverty stricken areas of the world tend to be higher, environmental death does not correspond to people in the third world having more children – rather, western consumers are contributing to tens of thousands of pollution-related deaths in the countries where the goods are produced. While coronavirus has resulted in environmental ‘benefits’ this has been down to a slowing down in the global economy brought on my lower productivity, not the millions of deaths.
I’ve talked before about how Hans Asperger played a role in selecting so called ‘high functioning’ autistics who could contribute to Nazi society, and sending others to thier deaths. That’s an extreme example of what I’m talking about. Before the categorization of autism they were labelled schizophrenic and would probably be institutionalized. Throughout the 60s’ and 70s’ methods such as Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) utilised electric shocks, starvation and corporal punishment with a look towards curing autism.
This is the principle behind Malthusian idea. They point to disadvantaged subsets of society and argue that we just do not have the resources to support them. Individuals within that subset then face a choice – either change your lot in life, which is for many impossible, or die.
“scant aid is being sent to formerly colonised countries to help the economies we asset-stripped combat the spread of the virus. Borders are closing. Millions are being suddenly turfed onto the scrapheap of unemployment and homelessness, exposing them to greater risks of COVID-19.The sham nihilist universality of claiming ‘We are the virus’ means in practice that the usual suspects are skewered on the sharp end of ruthless cronyist politics keen to shore up resources among the already powerful”Elanor Penny, We are not the virus
You are unlikely to see Malthusian ideas overtly referenced today, in the same way as the British government employed them in defending its lack of intervention during the Irish Potato Famine (yes, really). However, they are still influential. They manifest when a newspaper column argues for the ‘culling’ of elderly residents. When its argued that disabled people should lock themselves up indefinitely so abled people can “get back to normal”. When people in community living settings and claustrophobic communities are placed at increased risk. And yes, when people say ‘we are the virus’
An Atypical Perspective…
‘We are the virus’ devalues life: By categorizing humans and nature as somehow separate, statements like ‘We are the virus’ and the sinister ‘coronavirus is the cure’ assign less importance to the increased risk certain groups are at. I argue that preserving any environmental benefits we witness as a positive side effect to the world being on lockdown, must be considered in tandem with how we save as many lives as possible. Humans are part of the natural world. So, rather than devaluing one or the other, the question should be how we operate in harmony with the rest of the environment, post lockdown.
The logic behind the idea is dangerous: With the statement ‘we’re a virus’ and the devaluing of life that comes from that, the inevitable assumption is that we should be doing less to help those in higher risk categories such as the disabled and elderly, to stay alive. By this logic, we’re marking able bodied and healthy people out as significantly more deserving of life than those who are perhaps more ‘capable’ or ‘useful’. I hardly need to explain further why this idea is dangerous, but needless to say that any movement which claims to respect life should respect and value the lives of everybody.
The idea achieves nothing in the face of actual threats to the environment: While the people sharing ‘we are the virus’ might genuinely believe that they have noble aims, what does the statement actually do in the face of ecological and natural-born catastrophe other than devalue the importance of the humans who suffer the effects of environmental catastrophe? If anything, the mantra promotes inaction in the face of pandemics and natural disasters, and defends those who have the most to lose from shutting down the economy – coincidentally the same ones who are doing most of the polluting. Whichever way you consider the issue, the concern should not be about the amount people on the planet but how we choose to interact with the world around us.