Will the coronavirus epidemic change the relationship of Westerners to emerging diseases, long associated with distant countries?
Erik Orsenna: We first imagined that the coronavirus was a Chinese problem. As long as it was not present on our territory, it did not concern us, and even it did not exist. If we sometimes have the impression today that we are doing too much, it is therefore because at first we under-reacted. The same denial occurred during the appearance of AIDS, which was believed to affect only homosexuals. This is what I call the Chernobyl effect: it is said that the cloud will spare us, that it will magically stop at our borders.
With this epidemic, we are realizing that the emerging disease is not a disease of distant or disadvantaged countries, but a disease that affects and will increasingly affect rich countries. It is a reality that our society has a hard time accepting because it no longer sees itself as being vulnerable. This fragility, this element of surprise and uncertainty are nevertheless the very definition of life in the sense understood by physiologist Claude Bernard.
Can this reminder of our vulnerability be good?
E. O.: He grows in humility, which is not a bad thing. We thought we were the kings of the world and here we are. In fact, the epidemic reminds us of a fundamental principle that we tend to forget: that of the unity of life. Clearly, everything is linked. If the environment is wrong, animals cannot go, and if animals do not go, human beings – who are somewhat special animals but animals anyway – cannot go. Like it or not, there is in fact a solidarity between the living kingdoms and the countries.
Think of the Zika, which arrived in Texas through small mosquito eggs nestled in used tires, which had been bought in Asia… It is nevertheless extraordinary to think that such small elements, which are the smallest part of the whole chain of life, sowing discord on the entire planet. Before, we had traders, now we have viruses!
By forcing us to postpone certain trips, even for some to live confined, the epidemic also requires us to slow down …
E. O.: That is true. This gives thickness to time and space, two fundamentals that we wanted to kill with globalization. But we can clearly see this with the migration crisis: the notion of border is extraordinarily fragile, because nothing that happens in one country is of no consequence elsewhere.
Basically, this epidemic reminds us of our obsession with “everything, immediately”, like a boomerang. Speed, however, is not always bad news. In two months, the Institut Pasteur did as much for scientific research on the coronavirus as it did in four years for AIDS, even though it had been at the forefront of the fight against HIV.
Should we prepare for other epidemic episodes?
E. O.: Absolutely, especially for diseases carried by mosquitoes. Under the effect of global warming, these insects thrive in all latitudes. So we are going to seriously have to ask ourselves the question of water, their preferred field and, according to Pasteur, the element responsible for 80% of our diseases.
Is there not a risk, with each new epidemic, of looking for the culprits, even if it means falling into stigma?
E. O.: All epidemics are factories of scapegoats. This is no exception to the rule, when we see what the Chinese community has been going through for the past few weeks. But we will be mistaken as an adversary until we understand that the entire human species is primarily responsible, precisely because it obscures this unity of life.
This is evidenced by our relationship to food, which I believe is one of the fundamental questions raised by this health crisis. We don’t pay enough attention to what we eat, when what we eat is what makes us up. How can we hope to be in good health when we continue to consume live animals sold on Asian markets in defiance of all hygiene, and even when we know that these animals are at the origin of previous epidemics like Sras? This contradiction is found here in France, where the share of food in the budget has gone from 30% to 10% in a short time. We always want to pay less, but what is cheaper is also more dangerous. You cannot ask farmers to make low prices while demanding that they do not use phytosanitary, harmful to health. Let’s try to invest a little more in food, and a little less in Netflix, which has seen its shares jump since the start of the epidemic. Obviously, since people are confined to their homes. Yet it’s the opposite of what we should all be moving towards: a connected, fraternal, open life.
Can we hope that this epidemic, and perhaps the following ones, feed a collective awareness?
E. O.: Each crisis, whether economic or health, represents an opportunity. My wish would be that this epidemic be an opportunity to reconnect with this unity of life, but also with brotherhood and knowledge. Brotherhood because the coronavirus, by forcing us to limit contact with the other, shows us how much we need religion in the first sense, that is to say, links. And know it, because without it, you fall into anything. There is only to see the number of fake news circulating since the emergence of Covid-19, like that claiming that the hydroalcoholic gel is carcinogenic.
Alas, when you see who is running our world today, from Trump to Erdogan, from Johnson to Bolsonaro, there is nothing to be optimistic about. The more the alerts multiply, the more the denial of reality seems to prevail.
Remember, though, that Trump claimed that the coronavirus was nothing at all, and that it would disappear on its own in the spring! Irresponsible people continue to utter implausible things without ever suffering. This bonus to non-knowledge, to stupidity, is frightening. There it is, my terror: that the pact with knowledge is broken, because then we will switch to the darkest part of history …
A permanent reflection on globalization
March 22, 1947. Eric Arnoult is born in Paris. After studying philosophy and political science, he chose economics and became a teacher in international finance and development economics.
1974. Loyola’s blues, first novel under the pseudonym of Orsenna.
1980. A French comedy.
nineteen eighty one. Enter the cabinet of Jean-Pierre Cot, Minister of Cooperation.
1983. Cultural advisor to François Mitterrand.
1988. The Colonial Exhibition, Goncourt Prize.
May 28, 1998. Elected to the French Academy in the chair of Jacques-Yves Cousteau.
2006 to 2018. Publish five essays devoted to cotton, water, paper, mosquito and cities and subtitled Small summary of globalization.
2017. Supports the candidate Emmanuel Macron who, elected president, names him “reading ambassador”.
2020. Novel Break the frozen sea in us.
Erik Orsenna occupies at the French Academy on the 17the armchair, which was at the end of the XIXe century that of the chemist Louis Pasteur. After devoting a biography to the scientist in 2015,
Life, death, life (Fayard), he became an “ambassador” for the Institut Pasteur and the international network of Instituts Pasteur.