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Rethinking Human Ecology in the Age of COVID-19: Lessons from a Fish Market

Three years ago, a young virologist named Jemma Geoghegan purchased 48 whole fish from a market in Sydney, Australia—12 each of Eastern Sea Garfish, Australasian Snapper, Eastern Red Scorpionfish and Large-tooth Flounder. The fish ended up in a freezer. And over the next few months, Geoghegan and her colleagues sent bits of their gills and livers to the Australian Genome Research Facility for DNA sequencing. Their goal was to better understand the assortment of viruses—collectively known as the “virome”—contained within seemingly healthy fish, a topic with obvious relevance to modern aquaculture.

The four species that Geoghegan sampled exhibit radically different appearances and behaviours. The Eastern Sea Garfish is thin and silvery. The Australasian Snapper is a hump-headed fish that looks like it’s wearing a helmet. The Eastern Red Scorpionfish is a spiky crevice-dwelling ambush predator with an enormous mouth, into which prey disappear whole. The Large-tooth Flounder is a wide, thin, asymmetrical fish that spends its life lying in sand or mud—always on its right side, so that it may behold the world above through the two eyes mounted on the left side of its body.

But all four species are alike in one respect: They harbour a wide array of viruses. And this isn’t unusual. As Geoghegan notes in her 2018 Virus Evolution paper on the subject, research suggests that fish may play host to more viruses than any other class of vertebrate. Unlike us, even healthy fish typically contain a “reservoir” virome that exists throughout the host’s life cycle.

Twelve of the viruses that Geoghegan and her co-authors detected are potentially novel strains. And her paper details the fabulously complex process by which they identified them, tracing their closest known genetic matches to such exotic pathogens as the “Guangdong spotted longbarbel catfish picornavirus” and the “White sucker hepatitis B virus polymerase.” As Geoghegan told me in a recent Quillette podcast interview, this is still an understudied area of virology, though one that is due for rapid growth: Given the likely origins of COVID-19 in bats (possibly transmitted through pangolins), a better understanding of how viruses cross species boundaries can help us deal with this pandemic and prevent its successor.

But Geoghegan also had a broader research goal. She wanted to study how an animal’s virome relates to its ecology—i.e., the way the animal interacts with other members of its species, other creatures, and the broader environment. Many of us probably haven’t thought about ecology since high school. But it’s a hugely important subject when it comes to analyzing viruses and their hosts.

Eastern Sea Garfish and Australasian Snapper are both shoaling fish that travel in schools. Eastern Red Scorpionfish and Large-tooth Flounder, by contrast, are solitary creatures that embed themselves in (respectively) coral crags and the sandy ocean floor. As a layperson might intuitively expect, Geoghegan found that, of the four studied species, the Eastern Sea Garfish, whose schools are known for especially dense aggregation, contained the highest number of distinct viruses. The Large-tooth Flounder, the most solitary of the group, had by far the fewest: Living apart from other fish, they simply have less exposure.

The sample size here is small. And we don’t yet know whether a statistical relationship between fish ecology and virome size holds up on a large scale. Even so, Geoghegan’s focus on ecology strikes me as crucial. Over the last month, I’ve read numerous scientific articles about the epidemiology of COVID-19, and followed the (often contentious) debates about the best way to model its spread. Yet even in the space of weeks, these models typically have proven themselves unreliable. And one reason for this is that the ecology of the host population—which is to say, us—is operating in a completely novel and uncharted manner. Within just a few days in mid-March, hundreds of millions of people in dozens of countries around the world suddenly transformed themselves from human garfish to human flounder.

Even in ancient times, plagues sent people into their homes. But the speed and extent of the current transformation is unprecedented for at least two reasons. First, our physical ecology is now overlaid by a parallel, richly networked system of digital ecology that we access though our phones. This communications web allows whole countries to be instantly updated on public-health protocols that, in the era of the Spanish Flu, would have taken weeks or months to implement. Second, this is the first time in human history that such an enormous chunk of the planet has been rich enough to live comfortably for months on end without working, through a combination of stored wealth and government largesse, all the while being served daily by semi-automated retail supply chains that can deliver every imaginable product to our isolated coral crags and sandy holes.

Indeed, I think a lot of us have been shocked by just how quickly we’ve been able to adapt to this new, isolated kind of life. But our adaptation has been a matter of logistics, not temperament. And it isn’t sustainable indefinitely because humans are social creatures. Even putting aside the question of how we will restart our economies, we need to give serious thought to the basic question of how people will relate to one another as friends, neighbours, clients, and colleagues. In effect, we are building a new kind of human ecology.

When the COVID-19 pandemic was still in its earliest, most acute phase, the policy discussion was understandably dominated by experts in infectious disease, virology, epidemiology, and related disciplines. Their prescriptions often boiled down to simple rules and slogans, since simple rules and slogans are the usual building tools of public-health campaigns. In the short run, this was necessary—and perhaps even desirable—since it gave everyone an easily processed sense of duty and purpose. As the weeks have passed, however, it’s become obvious that some of these rules don’t make technical sense. (The case of masks is just the most obvious example.) And if we’re going to create a new kind of ecology based on a new kind of threat—one that forces us to defy our nature as social creatures for the sake of public health—our sacrifices should be based on actual science, not empty rituals.

In this regard, the most serious problem is that the basic rule of social distancing that everyone’s been taught—stay six feet (or two meters) away from others—is neither sufficient nor always necessary to protect oneself.

In outdoor environments, where airborne pathogen concentrations are quickly dissipated, it’s extremely unlikely that glancing proximity with others will result in infection. But in poorly ventilated indoor environments, being six feet apart from an infected individual won’t necessarily help you, since airborne diffusion of small particles follows the physics of diffusion, not Newtonian ballistics. All of this is compellingly depicted in the computer modelling highlighted by this outstanding NHK documentary.

There are two threats here. Large droplets that emit from an infected person’s sneeze can travel at roughly 50 meters per second but fall to the ground, while small droplets can remain suspended in the air for minutes or even hours. A mask can protect you from large droplets. If you’re going to spend extended periods indoors with others, however, some kind of ventilation system—or even just open windows at opposite ends of a room—is necessary to sweep away the finer particles.

Unfortunately, many of the public-health measures being implemented actually are counterproductive. In much of Canada, for instance, people are now forbidden from using public parks and other outdoor recreation areas, despite the fact that such spaces are completely safe so long as one avoids extended close proximity to others. Meanwhile, provincial governments are keeping their liquor and marijuana stores open. So the same parents who are forbidden from teaching their kids to ride a bike in an unused schoolyard are perfectly free to queue up with strangers indoors to buy booze and drugs.

Such policy contradictions are not only an insult to science, but reek of hypocrisy. During a brief car trip to a neighbouring suburb, where my family delivered holiday snacks to the doorstep of my in-laws, we earnestly deliberated whether this was “non-essential” travel. Yet upon returning home, we learned that the same government that’s been telling people to avoid any kind of non-essential travel is led by a prime minister who spent Easter weekend at his cottage.

Needless restrictions also drive a wedge between haves and have-nots. As spring approaches, privileged people can play with their children and pets in backyards. That option is unavailable to those who live in more constrained circumstances, most of whom are now prevented from accessing recreational spaces by the same elites who spent Easter taking selfies at their country homes.

Businesses, too, are implementing incoherent policies. Last week, I found myself in a high-end Toronto grocery store that, social media had informed me, was one of the few places in the city you could buy yeast. (There’s a baking craze going on.) Before entering, customers were instructed by an attendant to wash their hands at an outdoor fountain. Then a second attendant dolloped their hands with sanitizer. Inside, there were elaborate protocols governing the handling of carts and baskets. All of this was completely for show, because there was little evident air circulation and, by COVID-19-era standards, the place was packed. Direct face-to-face contact, not hand-borne germs that could be washed off, was by far the main threat, and felt difficult to avoid.

Most of us now know that we need to avoid touching our faces, and that we should wash our hands after going out to shop. Some people I know even put their arriving packages in vestibule quarantine for days before bringing them inside their house, as they believe that merely washing these items down with a diluted bleach solution (my own practice) is inadequate. Given the minimal threat at play here (zero seems a good estimate), these seem more like religious rituals than real public-health measures. Yes, tiny shards of COVID-19 RNA can be detected on all sorts of fomites, as the media breathlessly informs us. But the risk of some culturable mass of germs jumping from an infected human to a delivered package and then making a second jump to a third party, even in the face of bleach and other precautions, is non-existent compared to the real threat presented by inadequately ventilated public areas.

What we need to make our public areas safe isn’t just an endless parade of hand sanitizer and spaced-out floor dots, but also an intensive drive to modify our day-to-day environments through improved air flow and purification. During spring and summer, we can rely somewhat on open windows (to repeat: at both ends of a room, if at all possible). But when the next wave hits in the Fall, the weather will be colder and that old-school fix will no longer be practical. So we need to start finding mechanical solutions now.

Thankfully, our economy is now bursting with all sorts of unused contracting capacity. And I can’t think of a more useful and morally justifiable way to get people back to work. The more work we do on our physical environment, the less distortion will be imposed on our ecology.

This decidedly un-glamorous side of the campaign against COVID-19 will be led by mechanical engineers, construction experts and HVAC specialists who prowl basements and rooftops, not infectious-disease superstars who preside at press conferences. But it will save many lives—as opposed to, say, handcuffing people caught throwing a ball with their six-year-old.

* * *

In early March, I competed at a boardgame tournament in Copenhagen that, in hindsight, could easily have become one of those notorious COVID-19 “superspreader” events we’ve been reading about. There were about three dozen of us at the Scandinavian Open Advanced Squad Leader tournament, from all over North America and Europe, spending three 16-hour gaming days in the same airless conference room. These were long face-to-face games, four to six hours apiece, involving continuous dialogue and sometimes even arguments. Most of us played at least five opponents, thereby giving a single infected person the chance to unwittingly infect everyone in the room many times over. Thankfully, I have not heard bad news from any of the attendees. We got lucky.

I am, by nature, something of an Eastern Red Scorpionfish. Even before the pandemic struck, I spent most of my time at home, telecommuting, reading, writing, and taking care of my children. But I treasured those occasional moments when we board-gaming flounder would get the chance to travel in schools. For the foreseeable future, alas, those moments will remain memories, because my whole hobby is built on exactly the sort of behaviour—persistent face-to-face, short-range, dialogue-intensive contact in an indoor setting—that can turbocharge the pandemic. I am resigned to the fact that, until a vaccine is found, tournaments and weekly meet-ups will be canceled and boardgame cafés will be closed. Physical fixes have their limits.

The same is true of all hobbies, sports, social rituals, and professional practices that institutionalize this kind of human interaction—including business networking events, singing groups, traditional funerals, prayer meetings, bar mitzvahs, and après-ski parties. In fact, every single one of those activities has been linked to super-spreader events in (respectively) Massachusetts, Singapore, Georgia, France, New York, and Austria. The toolkit of masks, ventilation, hand-washing and social distancing will allow stores, offices, classrooms and (some) restaurants to return to normal activity in coming months, because the nature of human interaction therein can be controlled within tolerable risk thresholds. But large group activities of the type I listed will cease because, as with boardgames, their structure prevents them from being practiced safely. Many of us haven’t processed that fact.

Nor have we dealt conclusively with decisions involving the old and frail. Inspect traditional advertisements for old-age homes, and you will find images that highlight close social and therapeutic interactions among residents and staff: Playing cards, telling stories, crafting sessions, singalongs, group meals, a tender visit with the grandkids, hugs and handshakes. This is the kind of life residents crave. Yet every single one of these activities—which for many old people, comprise the only reason to get up in the morning and ward off the slide into the grave—is now verboten. Several of my friends with elderly parents in such homes tell me they are barred from visiting under any circumstances.

For now, such lockdown policies seem justifiable. (In Canada, deaths at these facilities now account for a shocking 50 percent of all COVID-19 deaths.) But these arrangements eventually will have to be renegotiated, because it is cruel to tell a 90-year-old that his whole reason for existing needs to be eliminated in perpetuity so that such existence may be extended.

I have spent time in a variety of nursing homes with my own (now deceased) grandparents, and it is impossible to overstate the hunger for human contact that many of these people feel—especially since, either by disability or generational disposition, many of them aren’t capable of navigating digital communication. For every elderly person who succumbs to COVID-19, many more will die of other causes without seeing their family members during the last weeks or even months of their lives. As the acute phase of this pandemic recedes, we will need to respect their wishes about what risks they and their family members wish to take. Much of the content I see on social media casts the elderly as mere victims in all of this. We need to respect their agency when it comes to navigating their own (already constrained) social ecology.

* * *

By the standards of the natural kingdom, human beings are fantastically adaptable and idiosyncratic creatures. There is no such thing as an Eastern Sea Garfish that lives alone in a hole, just as Eastern Red Scorpionfish do not travel in large schools. Yet depending on their personalities and circumstances, humans can survive—and even thrive—in vast crowds or in splendid isolation, as lifelong bon vivants or hermits. In recent years, these extremes of behaviour have become even more pronounced, in fact, as digital culture allows introverts to stay connected without leaving their rooms (sometimes for years), while the wealth and social liberalism of our societies allow even middle-class extroverts to inhabit a permanently restless adolescence. This is the first time any of these people have been told that there are now real limits on the permitted forms of human ecology. And in the long run, the crushing social effects of that realization may be even more profound than COVID-19’s economic fallout.

I am one of the lucky ones—not only because I have my own backyard, but also because I am solitary by nature. The last month hasn’t been a big deal for me. But the same isn’t true of my children, whose growing isolation and loneliness provide me with a daily reminder that humans are not infinitely malleable. Although our species exhibits a unique ability to accommodate itself to new circumstances, human nature itself doesn’t change. The appetite for real, in-the-flesh social interaction can be suppressed for only so long. One can already detect murmurs of opposition to heavy-handed policies, especially those that are applied inflexibly without scientific justification.

Before things get ugly, we need to transition from high-minded moralizing and wartime-style sloganeering, which already are wearing thin, to a more technical dialogue about the structure of our new ecology. This will require difficult conversations, since some activities—I’ve listed a few above—simply can’t be salvaged with technical or behavioural fixes. In the age of unvaccinated COVID-19, there is simply no safe bricks-and-mortar way to, say, send your kid to gymnastics class, do seven-minute dating, stage a corporate retreat, pray in a crowded church, or invite the neighbourhood into your kitchen for a weekend potluck.

But there are many other things we can do safely—including some that are now banned. And we need to start applying the unsentimental science of respiration, fluid flow, and droplet ballistics in lieu of hectoring public-health absolutism. Otherwise, citizens will simply start making important decisions on their own initiative, and the current mood of tense but good-humored isolation will fray into something resembling open conflict between Flounder and Garfish.

Jonathan Kay is Canadian Editor of Quillette. He tweets at @jonkay. If you believe this article contains information about COVID-19 that requires correction, or if you would like to suggest content for future updates, please email jon@quillette.com.

Featured image: Clockwise from top left, Eastern Sea Garfish, Australasian Snapper, Large-tooth Flounder and Eastern Red Scorpionfish.