We’ve got Hand Foot and Mouth disease running through our household right now. For those unfamiliar, it’s a syndrome caused usually by one of several variants of Coxsackie virus or Enterovirus, and it appears to be a relatively new addition to the human inventory of diseases, dating to the mid-20th century. It prefers infants and toddlers.
The disease begins with a low fever, loss of appetite, and a sore throat or mouth. Then come the sores: little itchy blisters around the mouth, the hands and feet, the legs and arms, then the groin and backside. It lasts for about a week, during which time (a) your child will be miserable (b) not eat or drink without persuasion and painkillers and (c) they are highly contagious. A sneeze, a slobber, a bit of juice from one of the sores is all it takes, and it’s contagious before the visible symptoms appear.
Unsuprisingly it moves through nurseries and playgroups very fast indeed, let alone families. The scale of epidemics is impressive; that ever-useful tool Wikipedia reports epidemics of well over a million cases in East Asia in 2012, 2011, and 1998. Although the usually agent is, I think, Coxsackie A16, there are other variants emerging. Earlier this year in Edinburgh a form of HFM caused by Coxsackie A6 surfaced, and this strain can lead to the shedding of fingernails.
Well, that’s what we’ve got. I slept next to Archie all week last week; he writhed in his sleep and every so often woke up wailing. ‘दक्व चा सुला!’ — ‘everything itches!’. I’d hold him for a while until he’d slump back to sleep. Now Hugh’s got it, though not so very badly; and even Eleanor, who is 10 and should have escaped, has a low fever and sore throat and a very few rather stealthy sores. And what would anyone do under the circumstances? Such a misery. But of course we are a Contagious Household just now, and have to ask quite carefully if it’s okay to visit schools or invite teachers around to the house. HFM disease can get nasty for vulnerable folks—it’s a rare possibility, but it’s well publicised.
But this got me thinking about the connections, epidemiological and affective, between how we live and the resurgence of disease as a feature of ordinary life. It isn’t just that those of us born into the developed world after the Baby Boom know we won’t be as rich, as comfortable, as well-off as our parents. It is also that we cannot extricate ourselves, as they perhaps could, from the shared diseases of the planet. Mobility, the rapid growth in human population, and the speed at which microbe evolve mean that our experience of disease is more like the 19th century than the late 20th century. Antibiotics don’t necessarily work, and anyway, little worries like HFM and big ones like Ebola are viruses.
How far is it from here to the experience of Ebola? In the middle of the night, holding Archie and hearing Bhāvanā settling Hugh, I wondered what it would take for me to be so frightened of a disease that I would not hold my own family members if they howled in their sleep. No wonder there are conspiracy theories. What would it mean, if I thought the government was going to invade my home and take my children, let them die, throw their bodies in the street? I dutifully notified Eleanor’s appointments: we’ve got HFM. Is it okay to come round? At various aeroports around the UK, passengers who might have arrived from West Africa are pulled out of the line and subjected to tests. HFM only spreads by snot, drool, and pus from blisters—at least there’s no haemorrhaging, and it almost never kills you. Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year came to mind.
We live in a changing time. It’s called the anthropocene, sure, but actually there are so many of us that we have become a rapidly expanding and wonderful ecosystem for our many, many inhabitants. We live in great crowds and there are more of us all the time. Perhaps it should be the anthrogastrocene, the age of the human gut. Our sewage rewrites the genetic map of estuaries and oceans, our appetite leads us to eat forests and savannahs, the expanding ecosystem in our guts is a thriving metropolis, and we, thin self-conscious shells wrapped around our numerous guts, experience all this as HFM, as Ebola, as irritable bowel syndrome, as a vague sense of guilt at the new border checks and the remarkable variety of meat on offer at the supermarket.
In Buddhist cosmology one of the undesirable rebirths is as a hungry ghost: the greedy, the stingy, the mean find their next birth as miserable creatures with tiny mouths, narrow throats, and vast stomachs that burn with hunger and thirst. Who needs demythologization! We’re already there. Humans are expected to perform rituals for the hungry ghosts: offer them solace, food, drink—but what can we do for ourselves if we are all already hungry ghosts? How could we hope to achieve compassion, calm, insight if we have collectively, as greedy consumers, as marketing professionals and business process optimisers, as social network analysts and automotive engineers, as ordinary folks who damn well deserve a holiday in Ibiza, as humans who are obviously better than animals—what if we have already transformed our world into the world of hungry ghosts?
In Mahāyāna Buddhism, there are many practices that are designed to visualise and actualise the Pure Lands. Perhaps what is needed now are collective, inspiring, wise and compassionate conspiracies simply to resist actually transforming this world into the realm of the hungry ghosts.
There are plenty of rituals out there that actively seek to transform this world, and us, into hungry ghosts. Consider the advert breaks that are written into every single television show, or the assumption that you can finance the present economy on debt because economies always grow. The antidote must begin with dāna—generosity, skilful generosity, and we must I think approach our efforts to rewrite Buddhist ethics and to revision how we live with radical and brave generosity. It is, for example, ungenerous to propose that the realm of the animals is not our realm; to assume that we are not hungry ghosts; to propose, as traditional Buddhist metaphysics does, that plants and microbes are not also sentient beings. It is ungenerous to ask students to take out loans to pay for their education, ungenerous to stigmatise immigrants in order to cling to power, ungenerous to commodify indigenous knowledge. Generosity would mean setting up genuinely free universities; it is finding resources that allow indigenous activists to become authoritative scholars, it is sharing tricks to reuse broken machines, it is having sewing circles in which you swap and mend clothes for the kids so that they get amazing things to wear without labels. Radical, playful, collective generosity—after which we can move on to the rest of the Perfections.
(For example: śīla, often translated as ‘morality’, could perhaps in this context be translated as discipline—the ordinary asceticism of repairing, renewing, re-using, of being seen to wear simple old things in public, of being seen to take public transport, of never, ever, letting a bigoted comment that connects Ebola, poverty and being African pass un-remarked…but we’ll tackle that later.)