PRINT May/June 2020


IN MY FORTHCOMING BOOK Weak Planet: Literature and Assisted Survival, I argue for a “risky symbiosis” with the microbes of the world, especially viruses. Sure, they can be deadly, but it doesn’t make sense to think of them only as pathogens, enemies. They’re a lot more interesting, with a lot more to offer. A planet without viruses is a dead planet. The best way to stay alive—and to keep the planet alive—is to come to terms with these microbes, coevolving with what we can’t eradicate.

I’m not kidding. That viruses are dangerous but indispensable agents of evolution is a scientific fact. In their introduction to Carl Zimmer’s A Planet of Viruses (2010), Judy Diamond and Charles Wood point out that these troublemakers are also “unseen but dynamic players in the ecology of Earth. They move DNA between species, provide new genetic material for evolution, and regulate vast populations of organisms. Every species, from tiny microbes to large mammals, is influenced by the actions of viruses.”1

That’s certainly the case with Covid-19. So far, we’ve tended to see the pandemic only as an existential threat. But what if this threat is also a test, an interim report on how Homo sapiens is doing, and a challenge to this hidebound species to get its act together, to coevolve into a new kind of animal? What would humans have to look like to keep up with this nonhuman companion?

What would humans have to look like to keep up with this nonhuman companion?

Well, thinking of ourselves as a species is a change, especially right now, when nation-states are walling themselves in, protecting only their own citizens and closing their borders to everyone else. Species solidarity can’t be said to be on the rise at this moment. And yet the idea isn’t so far out as to be unthinkable. Historian Dipesh Chakrabarty and philosopher Timothy Morton have made a persuasive case for it. Even at the beginning of the outbreak, a species-wide response wasn’t out of the question. On January 17, six days after Chinese scientists uploaded a copy of the virus’s genome to an online repository, the World Health Organization published a test protocol from German researchers, with instructions for other countries to develop their own diagnostics, while preparing to ship 250,000 test kits to seventy labs around the globe.2 As we now know too well, the failure of the United States to adopt that protocol led to a fatal delay in testing. That failure makes it clear that the WHO isn’t yet recognized for what it ought to be: a health agency responsible for all humanity, over and against the interests of nation-states.

Is there any chance “humanity” could become a meaningful concept, a crisis-honed and crisis-responsive actor, without returning to the abstractions of Enlightenment universalism? The odds aren’t good, but that doesn’t mean we should give up altogether. One tack we could try, paradoxically, is taking our chances with another nonhuman companion, one often seen as an existential threat itself: artificial intelligence. AI is nothing to take lightly, as even its staunchest advocates admit. Stephen Hawking famously told the BBC in 2014 that the “development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”3 In a pandemic, though, AI looks different, as do humans.

Just after midnight on December 30, 2019, ten days before the WHO identified the new virus, a Canadian AI start-up, BlueDot, had already noticed a cluster of unusual pneumonia cases in Wuhan and flagged it. It couldn’t have happened without big data. BlueDot uses natural language processing and machine learning to mine a vast array of sources, including medical records, online media, airline ticketing, livestock reports, and population demographics. These are processed every fifteen minutes, twenty-four hours a day. A team of epidemiologists and data scientists check the AI findings and send out alerts. “We don’t use artificial intelligence to replace human intelligence,” said Kamran Khan, founder and CEO of BlueDot. “We basically use it to find the needles in the haystack and present them to our team.”4

This disclaimer notwithstanding, the success of AI does say something about humans. As a species we are good at some things but not others. Big data, including world health data, is not our strong suit. Artificial intelligence will beat us every time. There’s nothing more important than being clear-eyed about our limitations in this crisis, for it’s not a given that we’ll be able to handle it on our own. What’s needed might be an AI global-health platform, something like the “planetary computer” proposed by Microsoft’s chief environmental officer Lucas Joppa several months before the coronavirus outbreak.5 Such a nonhuman actor poses all-too-tangible dangers, as intensified surveillance in China in the wake of the outbreak makes clear. Still, the danger of not using this technology is even greater.

John P. A. Ioannidis, a professor of epidemiology at Stanford University, says that Covid-19 might be “a once-in-a-century evidence fiasco.”6 Data is crucial to every step of an effective response: early prediction, mass testing, contact tracing, isolation of those infected, and precise calculation of mortality rates. Without such data, our vertiginous unpreparedness as a species is compounded by projections now being made in an evidentiary bubble. The dire lack of ICU beds and ventilators and surgical masks, coupled with our continued ignorance about the mechanisms of transmission, suggest that the future is anyone’s guess, and that the goal of returning to normalcy might need to be rethought.

Laurie Garrett, author of The Coming Plague (1994), warned in a March 18 interview that the virus, detected now in the Southern Hemisphere, might come back to the north in full force in the winter.7 If so, Covid-19 could be a cyclical fact of life for all humans as long as a vaccine isn’t universally available. Ongoing data collection would be crucial then, and not just epidemiological data. With the economy grinding to a halt and travel suspended, data about carbon emissions would be worth collecting as well. Could it be that the coronavirus is a blessing in disguise, ridding Homo sapiens of carbon addiction and saving us from a worse catastrophe? To celebrate the pandemic as the earth’s own immune response to the “virus” of humanity is dangerous, a cost-benefit analysis writing off the deaths of potentially millions of people, but to make informed decisions based on how this cataclysm is changing our ideas of what we can live with—or without—is politically and ethically necessary. One way or another, the twenty-first century is going to be a risky symbiosis between humans and nonhumans. We will need to coevolve with our adversary and kin on all fronts. That message from the virus is loud and clear. 

Wai Chee Dimock teaches at Yale University. Her book Weak Planet: Literature and Assisted Survival is forthcoming from University of Chicago Press. 


1. Judy Diamond and Charles Wood, introduction to A Planet of Viruses, by Carl Zimmer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), ix.

2. Arman Azad, “WHO and CDC Never Discussed Providing International Test Kits to the U.S., Global Health Agency Says,”, March 18, 2020,

3. Rory Cellan-Jones, “Stephen Hawking Warns Artificial Intelligence Could End Mankind,”, December 2, 2014,

4. Cory Stieg, “How This Canadian Start-Up Spotted Coronavirus Before Anyone Else Knew About It,”, March 3, 2020,

5. Lucas Joppa, “A Planetary Computer to Avert Environmental Disaster,” Scientific American, September 19, 2019,

6. John P. A. Ioannidis, “A Fiasco in the Making? As the Coronavirus Pandemic Takes Hold, We Are Making Decisions Without Reliable Data,” STAT, March 17, 2020,

7. Robin Young and Allison Hagan, “‘Every American Should Be Outraged,’ Says Pandemic Expert About Government Response,”, March 18, 2020,