A Vaccine Will Not Be Enough
SAPIENS host Jen Shannon speaks with Agustín Fuentes, a professor of anthropology at Princeton University, to unpack his insight that the COVID-19 pandemic is a “biosocial” phenomenon. They also discuss his recent suggestion that the virus “is not the only hazard to human health and well-being” right now.
Recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Fuentes is a decorated anthropologist and an author of many books. His latest is Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being.
Jen Shannon: On May 15, a little over two months after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, U.S. President Donald Trump walked out of the White House to address a gaggle of reporters in the Rose Garden.
Donald Trump: Thank you very much. It’s very hot today. Please, sit down. This is going to be a very hot one, and we apologize to everybody out there that’s going to suffer through it. But you know what? It’s better than bad weather.
Jen: Flanked by a number of his top advisers, Trump was eager to make an announcement about his administration’s effort to address the COVID-19 crisis.
Trump: Today I want to update you on the next stage of this momentous medical initiative. It’s called Operation Warp Speed. That means big and that means fast. A massive scientific, industrial, and logistical endeavor unlike anything our country has seen since the Manhattan Project.
Jen: Named for the faster than lightspeed technology from Star Trek, Operation Warp Speed was meant to marshal America’s economic, scientific, and engineering prowess to develop, manufacture, and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine. Or, as Trump said, to “vanquish” the virus as fast as possible.
Trump: …as fast as possible. Again, we’d love to see if we could do it prior to the end of the year.
Agustín Fuentes: But if everyone is, as they many are, focuses their hopes on a vaccine, thinking if we can just stop the virus, everything will be fine, that’s a completely incorrect assumption.
Jen: Agustín Fuentes is an anthropologist whose voice may sound familiar to longtime SAPIENS listeners. We had him on the show last year to answer a listener question about evolution.
Agustín [from Sapiens Season 2 Episode 10]: It’s not like all of a sudden something living in the trees fell to the ground, stood up, and started walking and that was the first person and from then on all the descendants of that one creature have become humans. That’s not the way it works.
Jen: We invited Agustín back onto the show to help us slow down and reorient our thinking. He’s a professor of anthropology at Princeton University and has published on a wide range of topics, from monogamy to imagination, and each time he takes on something new, he reveals some new dimension of what it means to be human. Agustín, welcome back to the show.
Agustín: Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be back here.
Jen: We started the episode with a clip of President Trump talking about his efforts to, as he put it, “vanquish” COVID-19. And whatever you think about him, I imagine a lot of people think about the pandemic that same way. You know, as a spiky little blob that’s attacking us and needs to be defeated. And that’s why I really wanted to talk to you today. You insist instead that it’s a biosocial phenomenon: the biological and the social stuck together in one word! So, please, if you could help me and our listeners: Can you paint a picture for us that helps us see this pandemic differently?
Agustín: Absolutely. So, when we think about this term “biocultural” or “biosocial,” what are we talking about? Right. It’s complicated because it’s in interaction with everything. So, let me just give you an example, an example that is related, let’s say, to the risks and the problems of understanding the COVID-19 landscape. Let me give you an example of me going on a trip, right? And I’m going to describe the patterns and processes. And I want you to join me just briefly for a multispecies journey that will show just how complicated, fascinating, and intense our relationships with a diverse array of other species and other humans and different landscapes are.
So, I wake up in the morning, get up out of bed, and at that point, I am going to begin a series of bodily restructurings. I’m going to wash my face. I may scrape hair from my face in that portion, I’m taking skin cells off and reassociating them. I’m going to shower, so I’m going to rub off all of this dead skin. I hit myself with soap, and then I’m going to freshen up with deodorant and change the way I smell. All of these things, right, will readjust culturally my body to a particular perspective that I’m going to then take on this trip, that I’m going to go outside with.
So, I’ve already begun this biocultural day, this biosocial day by having a bunch of social and cultural ideas about how I want to shape and draft and reconstruct my body. I haven’t even left the house yet. So, I’m going to step out of the house into a rideshare, right, that I call through the contemporary economic system and this incredible piece of technology called my smartphone, which I’m touching all day long, which I’m putting in my pocket, which I’m putting on tables. So, in fact, that smartphone, because I don’t clean it, wipe it down with alcohol, as much as I should, that smartphone is teeming with bacteria and a variety of other forms that I’m constantly touching, putting on my fingers, which I frequently put near my nose, my eyes, my mouth, and thus transferring bacteria all over my face. So, I get into this rideshare where many other people have been. And even though you don’t see what they’ve left behind, they’ve sat down and probably left behind some bacteria, lots of dead skin cells, things like that. I don’t notice that because it’s microscopic, and it isn’t on average going to bother me. So, I have a conversation with the driver as he takes me to the airport. I get to the airport. I check my luggage in. I interact with 50, 60 different people walking through as they pass me. And as they pass me, their aspirations, their breaths hang in the air as I move through. Now, most of this is innocuous. It’s just breaths, you know, bits of moisture and mucus, but it could be carrying viruses, right, those viruses, which I might inhale because this is pre–COVID-19 and I’m not wearing a mask. And then I inhale those, let’s say. And then I, you know, get through the waiting room. I’m sitting there with a bunch of other people also sharing the same air in the sharing space and the same context. And then I get onto a plane where I sit in a much more enclosed environment. And here’s where most people get planes wrong. Everyone thinks that sitting on a plane puts you at a very high risk because of the air. In fact, the planes have much better circulation systems. But when I’m sitting there, I’m sitting right next to someone. I’m sharing close space with them. And in that close space, both of our bodies are near each other. The warmth from each other might be affecting our own physiological processes. We may be eating and drinking. We’re inhaling and exhaling, and those breaths and drops come in and out. And so, we’re exchanging interior fluids just by being close to one another.
Now, I can end right there. And you’d probably be freaked out thinking I’m about to start a horror show, right? But in most cases, 99.999 percent of the time, that’s just normal interaction. That is the norm. That level of interaction. I haven’t even gotten to my end point, right? Which may be 10,000 miles away from where I started into a whole new ecology, into a whole new landscape with whole different groups of humans and other animals and foods. And the same process starts again. So, when we say biosocial or biocultural, this is the kind of stuff we’re talking about at even the most basic level. And so, you can imagine this always happens, usually without danger. But you put something like SARS-CoV-2 into there without us taking precautions, you can see right away how the biology and the culture all melt together and put us in the situation that we are in right now.
Jen: Yeah, and I think part of what’s so valuable about your perspective is that you do take that sort of long view, that evolutionary perspective. And I’m wondering what you think an evolutionary perspective provides us as we think about how to wrap our minds around what’s happening right now?
Agustín: Well, part of the center of an evolutionary perspective is to point out that there is nothing usually truly new, right? There’s nothing totally novel because everything that’s here right now has been built from things of the past, right? Our bodies, our minds, our societies, all of those things have been constructed or are in the process of being constructed over time. So, an evolutionary perspective forces you to say what’s happening right now is connected to the past in some, possibly many, ways. And so, understanding the processes of the past, they set you up for understanding the processes now. An evolutionary view helps us understand, you know, why do coronaviruses do what they do when they hit humans, when they get into our systems? Why does our immune system respond in that way? We need to understand the evolution of the human immune response system. You have to understand the evolution of coronaviruses and their movement through different kinds of mammals. So, evolution and understanding the human past, which is really exciting and quite deep, sets us up for the processes of today.
Jen: OK, so looking at the processes of today, as you put it, is there anything new about this pandemic we’re living through right now?
Agustín: I think there’s so much novel about this pandemic relative to previous pandemics. But we have to first think about what we’re talking about, right? This wave of infection. So, this relationship between a virus and a couple of species. But we’re only interested in the humans at the moment, right? Of which species it is interacting with. This virus enters bodies, and it does stuff. It challenges the bodies. The bodies respond. And in some cases, those bodies sort of fall apart. They break down. The responses aren’t working. You get very, very ill and potentially die. So, that’s what everyone’s focusing on when we talk about COVID-19. And that’s old, there have been viruses interacting with humans in exactly that way for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years. In the past, though, the human groups were smaller or not as many were connected. And there’s a variety of different other things. But in the contemporary context, when we think of the COVID-19 landscape, we’re going to think of this relationship between the virus and the humans andinternational travel and economic and political systems that structure and create gaps between access and health care and movement and requirements of moving and being together and nutrition and all of these kinds of things. So, what’s new about this pandemic is where humans are in the world and how we’ve shaped the world to be a certain way. It opened up the opportunity. We created the landscape that SARS-CoV-2 walked into, and together humans and SARS-CoV-2 made COVID-19. That’s what’s really novel.
Jen: And are there any specific examples you could give us to kind of think more concretely about what those relationships in that situation look like?
Agustín: Yeah, I mean, when we think about the sort of biosocial reality, in a broad sense, look at how fast this virus spread around the planet. That would not be possible without airplanes, without automobiles, without cars, and without economic and political systems that allow the movement of people in that way, right? So, this virus could never have done what it did without our contemporary communication and economic systems. So, that’s a very broad example.
Jen: What about, like, human-animal relationships? I know that’s something you’ve written about, and it also seems really relevant here, given the early spread of the virus in the animal markets of Wuhan.
Agustín: So, when we think about animal markets, many people in the United States, for example, where we’re sitting right now talking about this, many people don’t have a familiarity with the fact that in much of the world, there’s still this connection between free-ranging wild animals and the consumption of those animals. Here in the United States, people go hunt every now and then, and people get animals that way. But in much of the world, everyday tables, right, are set with animals that have been brought from the wild or raised in wild situations, then brought into urban context, and in many cases, you see incredibly dense open-air markets with many, many different species of animals, some from the forests, some raised on farms, some brought from factory farms all crammed together, which creates this giant multispecies virus breeding pool where things can jump around.
And then you’ve got people pulling out animals and butchering them, and so the smells of the blood and the guts—and the sanitation is not that great. In those contexts, we can see lots of opportunities for these viral jumps, and we know historically that this has happened, and it is very likely that SARS-CoV-2’s jump to humans may have been facilitated by these kinds of animal markets. They’re incredible. The experience of walking through an animal market is amazing, right? The sights, the smells, the sounds. But if you think of it from a virus’ perspective, it’s like a gold mine, right? Because the transmission opportunities from handling the animals to chopping them up, to taking their guts out, to wrapping them up, and to handing them to other people who then go into the city or go on a train and go to another city or even get on a plane and go to another country, creates these incredible opportunities for the movement of viruses and infections. Now, I don’t want to go on at length, but let me also point out that in the United States, we have many similar risky environments. We’ve just been really lucky so far. But if you think about it, we have frequent outbreaks of bacteria like E. coli and other things because of our large-scale factory farms and factory agriculture. We put all of this density of processing and people together, and we expect nothing to jump ship from one species to the other. And we’re actually wrong in those expectations. What we understand from animal markets, from factory farming, from the way humans are currently processing other animals and distributing them, we know that there will be more virus-jump events. And I’m just worried that the next ones are going to be even more serious.
Jen: Are there other things that you’re seeing people maybe are getting wrong about the pandemic by thinking in too short a term?
Agustín: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s take vaccines. Now don’t get me wrong. Developing a vaccine is critical to our ability to engage with this virus and to, you know, lessen the negative impacts of this COVID-19 landscape, right? Vaccines are really important. But if everyone is, as they many are, focuses their hopes on a vaccine, thinking if we can just stop the virus, everything will be fine. That’s a completely incorrect assumption. The vaccine will help and first of all, most people think vaccines do much more than they actually do. But the vaccine will help many bodies become less hospitable for the virus. But the vaccine will not change our global systems of trade and movement and economics. The vaccine will not change the incredible inequality in access to quality health care and to nutrition and housing. The vaccine might not even be accepted by a large percentage of the people who need it. So, just focusing on a vaccine as sort of this biological solution to a biological problem really undercuts our chance of success of getting past COVID-19 and into a new and better future.
Jen: Are you seeing any reasons to be optimistic that we’ll be able to do that?
Agustín: So, I mean, it’s hard to be optimistic right now. It’s hard to be optimistic for a number of reasons, but yet I do retain hope. And part of my hope rests in the fact that I have an evolutionary view of humanity, right? I understand that in the longue durée of human existence, we’ve encountered an incredibly complex range of problems. And many of them, we’ve overcome. How have we overcome them? We’ve overcome them by coming together, by creating, by imagining new alternatives, by looking at the world around us, seeing the way it is and imagining an alternative and at least trying to make that alternative happen. And so, my optimism, my hope for getting through this is in the everyday things that I see.
When I was going shopping the other day, it was in a supermarket, sort of wandering around and everyone’s masked up, which was great. People selecting things from the aisles. And I saw things like an older woman was sort of struggling to get some bags into her car. Someone else, well, you know, they’re both wearing masks, went up and helped her. In another place, there was a dog sort of tethered outside the grocery store. And as people walked in, they sort of looked at it and smiled, and the dog wags his tail. I give these examples because the day-to-day capacities for compassion, for caring, for collaboration in humans are there. Those haven’t gone anywhere, right? Just because we’re wearing masks and standing 6 feet away from everyone else, that doesn’t mean our drive and our capacity to work together is gone. So, what we have to do is harness that. We have to figure out a way, how do we in this contemporary COVID-19 landscape turn our collaboration up to 11 to overcome all of the challenges that we have. And that’s my optimism is that we have the capacity to do it. My pessimism is that I’m not seeing enough of it, especially in the leadership in many countries, particularly here in the United States.
Jen: Speaking of turning collaboration up to 11, you wrote in a recent essay about how the effect on our health and well-being isn’t just the virus, it’s also isolation and the connection between being social and being healthy and having greater well-being in our lives. Can you explain what you meant by that?
Agustín: So, being social, being with other people, around other people, interacting with them, talking with them, touching them, hanging out with them, doing events together or even just sitting without saying anything but in the presence of others, it’s actually very central, not just to sort of making us feel good, right? But to the development of our neurobiological and endocrine systems, right? Our brain and hormones, our bodies, our muscles, our bones, the sort of how we walk, how we move. All of that is actually relational. It develops as part of, as a community, as part of a society, as part of a culture. And so, it turns out that this being social, it’s not just the sort of, hey, what’s up? And hanging out and talking to people. It’s the whole way in which our bodies, minds, and selves develop. And in these mutual relationships with our parents, with their siblings, with their friends, with our community members, with our church brethren, with the kids in our classes, with our coworkers, et cetera, et cetera.
And as we distance ourselves, as we spend more time alone, as we spend less time touching people, there’s actual side effects and real effects in our body. Depression. So, depression is not just sort of, I feel bad. Real neurobiological and physiological changes are happening with many people, digestive issues. People have trouble digesting food. People with predispositions for ulcers or other stomach components because of the heightened physiological stress they’re under have heightened risks of digestive problems. People are, in many cases, their diets are getting out of whack because they don’t have access to the sort of regular kinds of food or because of financial stress. So, you can see there’s just a whole litany of things that are sort of side effects from our attempts to suppress the virus risk. It’s also having really negative impacts on our bodies and our lives. And I think about children especially here. The fact that kids aren’t running around with a bunch of other kids, rough and tumble play, or playing in the mud or just running around and hanging out. That’s such an important part of the physiological and neurobiological development. The negative impacts of that are pretty substantial.
Jen: I know you’ve also thought about ways that people can address the concerns over social distancing. How might people think about trying to do something about that as part of how we respond to the pandemic?
Agustín: Yeah, I think that’s really important. And this should be sort of standard knowledge, right? What I want to lay out right here. The first thing and I think most important thing is: It’s OK to be freaked out and depressed. So, for whatever reason, if you as an individual under this COVID-19 landscape are starting to feel bad and just, it’s hard to find the joy and gumption, that’s actually being shared by so many other people. And I think understanding that and realizing that it’s going to be harder to be happy right now is a starting point. Now. If that’s your starting point, then you can say, Well, what can I do? Yes. OK. I might be more depressed and bummed out more regularly, but what can I do to bring some joy to my life and to the lives of others, right? And there’s so much one can do. One of the most important things is: Everyone’s wearing masks or should be, you know, smile. You can smile. The body smiles. The eyes smile. The face smiles. When you pass people say hello to them, wave to them, right? Sort of interact with folks, even with a little distance. You will find that that little interaction goes a long way. Another thing people can do that will not only make them feel better but will make the people they’re saying this to feel better is: Thank our frontline workers and thank the cashiers and thank the people working at gas stations. And I was just renewing my license. And I was so appreciative of all the workers in that license bureau really putting themselves at risk for the rest of us. And I think an expression of gratitude in those kinds of context is really important. And there’s good data to show that expressions of gratitude don’t just benefit those who are receiving the expression. Actually, giving gratitude, it does something for your body physically. It really does something for your body. So, all of those things are really important. Making sure your neighbors are OK as best you can. Really, exhibiting compassion for others. And if you have an ability to bubble with one, two, three, four, or five other people or family members or friends, if you have a chance to spend some time safely with people, do it. Do it, even if it’s cold outside, and you guys got to stand out, you know, social distancing. Have a coffee or some drinks in the backyard. Do it. You can do these things safely. Don’t underplay that social connection.
Compassion is central right now. So is social. So just sit back and think: How can I maximize the social safely? And how can I be compassionate to others? And I think you’ll find that your body and your mind benefit from these kinds of actions.
Jen: Agustín Fuentes, I am very grateful for your time today and your perspective. Thank you.
Agustín: Oh, thank you. And thank you for doing these podcasts. They’re great to listen to. I enjoyed it very much.
Jen: For more from Agustín, there is an excerpt from his new book Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being at SAPIENS.org. You can find a link to it in the description of this episode.
This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Paul Karolyi, mixed, audio edited, and sound designed by Jason Paton, and it was hosted by me, Jen Shannon. SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod, with contributions from executive producer Cat Jaffee.
SAPIENS is an editorially independent magazine funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and published in partnership with the University of Chicago Press. Thanks to Danilyn Rutherford, Maugha Kenny, and all the staff at the Wenner-Gren Foundation and SAPIENS.org.
SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. Until next time, we wish you well, fellow sapiens.