Online Lecture 1 "COVID-19 beyond Borders"

Monika Class and Kerstin Weich

Tuesday, 1 June 2021, 4:30 pm

Monika Class (Johannes-Gutenberg-Universität Mainz)

"In the shadows of human health?: The relevance of the 'one health' approach for the medical humanities in light of the Covid-19 pandemic"


Monika Class


A crucial but sometimes underestimated fact about the pandemic is that Covid-19 is a zoonotic infectious disease. Since the mid-twentieth century global health organisations have registered roughly thirteen other outbreaks of zoonotic pathogens including the swine flu (2009), SARS (2003), West Nile (1999), and Nipah (1998) (Quammen 39). In order to shed light on this interdependence, experts have developed the "one health" approach in order to better understand "how social, economic, and environmental changes are altering the landscape of infectious disease risks for both animals and humans, and how future emerging risks may be mitigated" (Yamada 23). The interconnectivity of human health with that of animals and the environment has been known since well before the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2. Despite such efforts, the threat of emerging zoonoses were not prioritized enough: we have been unprepared, as medical historians, scientists and public intellectuals observe (Snowden; Marchant-Forde and Boyle; Bhabha and Rothenberg).

In the rapid evolution of current pandemic, widespread vaccine nationalism currently suggests a certain disregard for transnational vaccination initiative (Middleton and al.). The Director of the WHO urges us to recognise that "this pandemic is one of humanities great races, and whether we like it or not, we will win or lose this race together" (Adhanom Ghebreyesus). Compared to these enormous issues, the interconnectivity of human, animal and environmental health has received little attention in the public responses to Covid-19 (Tworek, Beacock and Oja). The media coverage of the outbreaks among workers in meat processing plants, for instance, has ceased while the welfare problem for workers and animal remains (Marchant-Forde and Boyle). At the same time, expanding human populations continue to move into remote habitats and thus overstep the boundaries with wild animal life. The interconnectedness of human health with animal and environmental welfare needs to be part of considerations of being unprepared as well as prepared.

In light of these developments, this paper evaluates the one-health approach from within cultural studies (Wolf), traces its relevance for existing delimitations of medical humanities as a holistic field of study (e.g. Bleakley; Hurwitz; Whitehead, Woods and Atkinson) and then compares it to other trends in the humanities. There arguably exists in the interdisciplinary studies of the humanities a risk to erect unhelpful borders that separate medical humanities from environmental humanities and veterinary humanities. Hence this paper will make a case for medical humanities to extend its theorisations of zoonotic infectious diseases and thus to animal studies and the Anthropocene.


Monika Class is Junior-Professor in English Literature and Culture at the University of Mainz. She is Principal Investigator of the funded project "The Visceral Novel Reader." Before that, she held the Marie-Curie Research Fellowship at the interdisciplinary and multi-lingual Centre for Advanced Studies for Early-career Researchers, 'Zukunftskolleg', at the University of Konstanz and, before that, a Marie-Curie IEF Research Fellowship and Lectureship in Medical Humanities at the English Department of King's College London. She earned her doctoral degree from the English Faculty of the University of Oxford and authored articles on topics such as illness narratives, phenomenology, the history of medicine and philosophy of science. She is the editor of the special issue "Medical case histories as genre" in Literature and Medicine (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014) and the co-editor of Home and Abroad: Transnational England 1780-1860 (with Terry F. Robinson Cambridge Scholars, 2009). Her monograph Coleridge and Kantian Ideas in England, 1796-1817 (Bloomsbury Academic) appeared in 2012.


Kerstin Weich (Messerli Research Institute, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna)

"From Spillover to Multispecies Medicine"


Kerstin Weich


One of the most crucial borders that has been put into play by COVID-19 reaches back to the origin of the pandemic: the border between humans and animals. Like SARS, Avian Flu and Ebola, Covid-19 is a zoonosis. Zoonotic pathogens do not respect species boundaries and make both animals and humans ill. If one goes a step further, zoonoses appear as experiences of vulnerability and mortality shared by humans and animals alike.

Nevertheless, since modern times health has been accepted as an exclusively human good. When dealing with zoonoses, this becomes problematic. Thus, the synergy of human and veterinary medicine is being promoted under the label of "One Health". Contrary to first impressions, however, this concept does not turn away from anthropocentrism but often refers to the optimization of human health by incorporating medical knowledge about other species. It does not live up to the invitation to revise the concept of health from a species-bound, biological fact to a diverse and political question.

My contribution will explore the far-reaching implications of the zoonotic origin for translational medical humanities. For this purpose, the human-animal border that bifurcates the origin of the pandemic is brought into resonance with the institutional divide into human and veterinary medicine that pervades the field of modern medicine. Covid-19 demands from the medical humanities to critically reflect the separation of the medical field into one medicine for humans and another one for (certain) animals. Tracing the infectious potential of bats and pangolins, I will contour main trajectories of a medical philosophy that operates below the human-animal divide – as a major challenge, that COVID 19 poses to us today.


Kerstin Weich is both a philosopher and a veterinarian, which has helped her in thinking through the philosophical, epistemological and ontological challenges, implications and specificities of veterinary practice. She received her PhD in philosophy from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna. Her doctoral project explored the potential of a multispecies medical philosophy, e.g. for questioning/complicating/resituating the notion of the 'patient'. The project investigated the veterinary practice of "putting down" in its various effects on the construction of animality, humanness and mortality as well as the critical impact of these concepts on larger contemporary structures of death and dying.
As a Senior Scholar at the Unit of Ethics and Human-Animal-Studies in the Messerli Research Institute, she teaches the foundations of veterinary ethics as well as applied ethics in equine medicine, companion animal medicine and in animal experimentation. In 2018 she qualified as a veterinarian specializing in animal welfare. Her research interests include veterinary ethics, philosophy of medicine, animal studies, biopolitics and feminist STS.