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The bat and the invisible hand

Luca Foschi

In January 2014, the vast screen of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, usually used to spread regime propaganda to tourists and citizens, exhibited fiery sunsets and clear blue skies crossed by the crests of the mountains. The long luminous strip was embedded, incongruous and disturbing, in the dense poisoned atmosphere, an ashy blanket capable of devouring the figures of men and things. In those days, the World Health Organization warned the Chinese government with the pollution data, twenty times higher than the recommended threshold. Large white letters on a red background advised people to use protective masks, reminded them that "protecting the atmosphere is everyone's responsibility". War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, death is life.

The delay in the sharing process, both internally and internationally, is only one of the fundamental moments in the circularity that generated the Covid-19 virus, and has allowed him to stretch out with his lethal and invisible hand on over 150 countries of the globalized present. History provoked nature and disseminated its ferocious response. The near future, after the tragedy is over, will guarantee us numerous scientific studies on the birth, identity and behavior of SARS-CoV-2 (Acute Severe Respiratory Syndrome - Coronavirus 2). We already know the essentials, however. Covid-19 is a perfect example of "spillover", a term used by the American journalist David Quammen to describe the "interspecific leap".

Various researches have shown that SARS-CoV-2 has a strong resemblance to other coronaviruses that proliferate in some bat species belonging to the Rhinolophus genus, present in many areas of Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia. The Covid-19 genome, sequenced in China as early as January, finds strong correspondence in that of a coronavirus found in Yunnan province. The differences would mainly lie in the DNA traits that encode the receptors used by the virus to penetrate the human cells. The variation suggests an intermediate host, identified by the South China Agricultural University researchers in pangolins, small insectivorous mammals threatened with extinction by ancient, unjustified beliefs about the thaumaturgical power of their scales. Studies by virologist Shi Zenghli have identified in the bats that populate the caves of Shitou, a suburb of Kunming, capital of Yunnan, dozens of coronaviruses potentially capable of making the leap and infecting humans. In many Chinese markets bats are sold, butchered or alive.

In "Spillover" (2012) Quammen analyzes the relationship between the destruction of ecosystems and epidemics. Forests, in particular, are home to 80% of Earth's biodiversity, millions of species (including bacteria and viruses), still largely unknown to science. The villages built where forests first rose, the new roads that cross them, the hunting and the trade in wild animals break the ecosystem balance, exposing man to contact with unknown pathogens. Thus was Ebola born, thus was HIV born. To date, half of the forest area that covered the planet has been wiped out. The great lung of the Earth is in trouble, it risks collapse, just like that of men.

In the days when homo sapiens rediscovers its extreme fragility, and the paradigm of an economic model based on unlimited exploitation and movement finds itself contemplating yet another abyss, satellite images show the dissipation of the carbon dioxide domes that suffocate the industrialized regions of the planet. Among these, the Po Valley, the most polluted area on the European continent. Already in 2003, a study conducted on the first coronavirus SARS in China showed an 84% increase in mortality in areas characterized by a low air quality index.

In metropolises that have suddenly become deserts of asphalt and concrete, fawns and monkeys, fish and wild boars roam freely through the streets, timid or brazen. The dystopia, so much investigated and trivialized by mass culture, conquers the space around in a silent, piercing representation of the cupio dissolvi that generated it.

It is highly probable that the global economy engine, kept to a minimum by a quarantine involving almost two billion people, will resume powerful and heedless as soon as the emergency is over. The denial that has delayed the implementation of health protocols in many states, nourished by anthropocentric arrogance, will become an unquestionable necessity, burying for the umpteenth time in the collective unconscious the request for a cultural upheaval that crosses every aspect of life. The one unleashed by Covid-19 is much more than a war: its end must not only lead to a drastic reformulation of the relationships between individuals, states and geopolitical blocs. Man, a greaser of soil, sky and water, is called to reconsider his role in the delicate balance of the planet, to turn, from destroyer and parasite, into attentive, courageous sentinel of harmony. Weapons are useless in the battle against one's being. Every economic and intellectual resource extracted from the renewed assemblies of men must be invested in science, in the environment, in education, in the reconstruction of the lost harmony. The time for a new modernity has come. Care must replace predation.

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