Introducing: The Human, the Animal and the Prehistory of Covid-19

by the Past & Present editorial team

In response to the ongoing Covid-19 public health emergency, Past & Present worked with Prof. Sujit Sivasundaram (Gonville and Caius, Cambridge) to produce a piece exploring the very roots of the crisis, by exploring humans’ millenia long relationship with the pangolin. In doing so, the article has much to say about our complex and often fraught relationship with the natural world, other species and each other.

COVID-19 and the interspecies frontier

How our long history with pangolins reveals the preconditions of both the pandemic and environmental crisis.

“The origins of the COVID-19 pandemic go far beyond China and much further back than 2019. The long history of the current crisis lies in human interactions with animals, not least pangolins, in a variety of settings, including in Europe. This global, increasingly capitalised and geographically-evolving story is one historical context that has allowed the virus to jump across the species barrier.

Zoonotic transfer occurs where relations between humans and animals have been unstable or where they are entering a new phase of contact. Such transfer is linked with the climate emergency because life on the planet is being radically changed by accelerating extinctions caused partly by humans entering biodiverse areas and using land in new ways. This is altering the interspecies frontier.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, historians have been asked to provide lessons from past epidemics to provide solace and cultural nourishment. The role of the historian is as critical as ever, but it does not lie primarily in ‘compare and contrast’ exercises. It is necessary to track the environmental past of the virus; it is urgent to understand the relationship between the planet’s illness and human illness. Such a history might include the intensifying structures of colonisation, capitalism and settlement as they impact interspecies relations.

Historians may also respond to the inequalities brought to light by the pandemic, by challenging the racialisation of differing human engagements with nature and animals. There is a global history of animal-human engagement that needs to be written in the light of COVID-19. This global history has set the preconditions for the pandemic and is revealing of the pathway to environmental crisis.”

A full, interactive, summary of Prof. Sivasundaram’s article has been produced by the University of Cambridge and can be read here. “The Human, the Animal and the Prehistory of Covid-19” will be online soon at our publishers Oxford University Press.

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