Miasma Theory, Bad Smells and Fragile Lives

Miasma Theory, Bad Smells and Fragile Lives

María do Mar Castro Varela

“At the root of every pandemic is an encounter between a
disease-causing microorganism and a human being.”
(Spinney 2018: 5)


Miasmas are disgusting exhalations; bad smells; contaminated air. For centuries, bad smells were blamed for the spread of disease. People believed that the bubonic plague, cholera and chlamydia spread due to ‘bad air’. Diseases such as lung cancer and tuberculosis caused ideas about a connection between air quality and health to be formulated. To open the window became an act of self-defense.

Tuberculosis was believed to be a disease of cities, stemming from damp, cool air. Moving somewhere with drier and cleaner air, such as the mountains or even the desert, was said to help sufferers. Sontag notes that, unlike cancer, which was associated with “embarrassing parts of the body” (such as the colon, prostate, breast, rectum), lung diseases were seen as attacking the soul (Sontag 1990: 16ff.). In literature and film, we find countless romantic and poetic descriptions of sensitive, tender people seeking to be healed in the mountains – think of Hans Castorp, the protagonist in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (orig. Der Zauberberg, 1924), who spent seven years in a sanatorium in Davos. Mann actually originally conceived of the novel as a witty comment on his own novella Death in Venice (orig. Der Tod in Venedig, 1912) – in which the protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach, falls in love with the young Polish boy Tadzio on a trip to Venice, only to die of cholera. The description of the breathtaking humidity in Venice and the smells of disinfectant herald the tragedy’s end. 

In a rather tragic way, COVID-19 has brought the miasma theory back to life. ‘Bad air’ is now again associated with disease and death; ventilation has become an important strategy to avoid infection. Meanwhile, the fear of being infected by simply breathing has become intertwined with the fear of breathing the air of others. 

Breathing connects us to the environment in which we move, to the people with whom we share space, and also to the plants, trees and oceans that produce the oxygen without which we humans cannot exist. In The Force of Nonviolence (2020), Judith Butler interprets violence as a disruption of these existential connections. Assemblies are “multifaceted, for it is not only other human lives but also other sensory creatures, environments, and infrastructures: we depend on them, and they in turn depend on us, to sustain a livable world” (Butler 2020: 16). The interdependence of humans on the one hand and other living beings on the other makes life livable and fragile at the same time. When our social and ecological structures falter, become damaged, each singular life is in danger. If the state fails, if the health system collapses, it’s not just my life, but life as such that is at risk. 

At the same time, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have observed the spread of conspiracy theories. “Conspiracy” derives from the Latin “con” (with, together) and “spirare” (to breathe). Thus, the word refers to breathing together. It points to the fact that the formation of communities is based on the exclusion of others: those with whom the air is not to be shared; from whom breathing is to be taken away. This is evidenced by the recent circulation in right-wing circles of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which alleges the existence of a secret plot to gradually repopulate Europe with communities that are supposedly incommensurable with ‘European values’ (such as Arab, Jewish, Muslim, Asian or African communities). The core questions that Renaud Camus, the theory’s originator, addresses in Le Grand Remplacement (2011) are: Who gets to inhabit what territory? Who is allowed to breathe our air? Whose presence is perceived as suffocating? The right to share space, to be allowed to breathe the same air, is withheld from others. Racism is a suffocating ideology, because it literally makes it impossible for racialized people to breathe. 

During the pandemic, the violent consequences of racism were once again thrust to the surface. The murder of 46-year-old African American George Floyd on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, sparked protest movements against everyday and structural racism that shook the entire Western world. Derek Chauvin, a white police officer who suspected Floyd of having used a counterfeit bill, arrested and then immobilized him, holding his knee on his neck for so long that the Black man choked to death. More than 20 times, Floyd frantically said, “I can’t breathe.” The scene, captured via smartphone video, appalled millions, spurring them to vent their outrage.  The seismic reaction is explicable as a product of the convergence of the seemingly hopeless global health crisis with endemic police violence and and centuries-old racism. There’s a sense in which both racism and the pandemic could be said to rob certain people of their breath – both register as trepidation in their chests, while others continue to breathe and have no idea what they are talking about. Butler points out that the right to be able to breathe without fear and in peace is not granted to all. 

The politics of breathing takes us directly to the center of necro-capitalist violence; to territories rife with diverse historical traumas. Consider, for example, the cold-blooded murder of environmental activists across the globe who sought to protect rainforests – the ‘lungs of the earth’ – from further deforestation. The names of these murdered activists, their faces and stories, have rarely appeared in the media. The number of murdered activists in just Brazil, Bolivia, the Philippines and Mexico is outrageous: it was reported in July 2020 that there were more than 200 activists murdered in the space of one year. The actual number of victims is most probably many times higher, but as their deaths are hardly mentioned it seems as if these people never existed anyway – as if they never shared the air with us.

The denial and downplaying of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the collapse of many national healthcare systems, have left people literally out of breath, especially in the countries of the Global South. Hospitals in India, Brazil, Peru, Mexico and Ecuador were not only overcrowded, but literally ran out of oxygen. In Peru, the lack of oxygen cylinders led to hospitals demanding that relatives of the sick buy their own on the black market: such illegal trade in oxygen cylinders was reported in several countries. There were also repeated cases of oxygen theft in clinics. In Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon region, new mutations of the virus caused the situation to worsen dramatically in the space of just a few days. Friends and relatives of those suffering from COVID-19 eventually gave up even trying to get their loved ones into a hospital, because there were neither beds nor oxygen available. When Venezuela sent oxygen cylinders to Brazil in an act of emergency aid, many had to wait in line for hours to get them. These family members, lovers and friends of COVID-19 sufferers then carried the heavy oxygen tanks home on their backs. Most of the afflicted who had no money or did not know people willing to make the long journey suffered a bitter death. The corresponding images will remain in the post/pandemic collective memory of many countries. The consequences of this trauma will psychologically occupy many people for a long time to come. 

Life is fragile. The tense, deadly interconnectedness of a post/pandemic life and its fragility can be observed in very different facets of life. Through the pandemic, as the health systems in many countries went bust, we became painfully aware of how quickly key infrastructure can collapse after being neglected for decades. . Normality before the pandemic encompassed neglect of the care sector, the exclusion of lives marked by perceived differences, and the exploitation of the people who perform much of the labour that keeps society running. This policy, characterized by social myopia, is what we (Bayramoğlu/Castro Varela 2021) call the politics of the strong. It is based on a distorted representation of reality as well as the deliberate production of ignorance. It is a policy that is destructive and murderous: for the sake of one’s own immediate sense of well-being, real dangers are externalized and denied. Necro-politics is directly intertwined with practices of subjugation and the expropriation of life as well as natural resources, which are understood to be unlimited. Furthermore, the states of emergency and the ensuing lockdowns and other restrictions put into effect during the pandemic point to other areas of fragility: our need to touch each other, to caress each other, to kiss each other proved potentially lethal. Desires and intimacy can be simultaneously necessary and hurtful. 

It is precisely the fragility of life, as well as the evolving nature of the epistemologies that call for new theories, that make uncertainty, ambivalence and contradictions livable. A politics of the strong that lashes out with cold statistics will hardly be able to save us. Riding the waves of the pandemic, we should look for ways to hone skills and reflexes that keep alive our gift for solidarity, empathy and caring, as well as our gift for seeing the other and feeling their suffering. Following Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (2012), we should advocate for the training of our ethical reflexes. Conscience, moral judgment and the critical mind must function. This is not feasible without learning that enables us to grasp complexity.

Let us smell carefully: is the next pandemic coming soon or is life maybe pandemic anyway? 



Bayramoğlu, Yener/Castro Varela, María do Mar (2021). Post/pandemisches Leben. Eine neue Theorie der Fragilität. Bielefeld: transcript.

Butler, Judith (2020): The Force of Nonviolence. London: Verso.

Camus, Renaud (2011): Le Grande Remplacement. Paris: David Reinharc.

Sontag, Susan (1990): lllness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. New York: Picador.

Spinney, Laura (2018): Pale Rider. The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, London: Vintage.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (2012): The Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.