A Study on Flow in The Time of Covid-19

I decided to write on this topic as I was intrigued with the significance of flow in our current moment, but struggled articulate it. Philosophically, experientially, aesthetically. In the process of writing, did I then find the expression for it: the simple act of noticing flow, of shifting to a relational paradigm of looking (try it!), where transmissions of power and infectious agents ebb and swell, can we hope to muster a more differentiated and kinder response-ability to help other humans and nonhumans alike. "It matters what ideas we use to think other ideas with." Using flow to think, what kind of world can we become?

The current pandemic draws our attention to the ontology of flow and interconnectedness. It is continua all the way down, up, beyond and back around; the transmission of the virus, messages, affects, behaviors, circulates in strange feedback loops.

Jussi Parikka and Tony Simpson note the workings of a viral logics that criss-crosses from biological to cultural, technological and economic contexts. Contagion of all kinds leak out of bodies, social media, reactive emergency policies — its emergence swells across micro and macro scales. Social contagion dimensions make this a distinctly information-age pandemic, as psychological fear, anxiety, mistrust or performances of resilience ride on the circulation of behaviors and affects across various mediums, e.g. social messaging apps, public health communications. Furthermore, as the virus dominates glo-cal discourses, the dangers of converging to a memetic monoculture looms. The clash of narratives is more pronounced, and a question lingering, then, is whose will preside over?

Author Sophie Lewis talked of our "wateriness". In the current context, precarity lies in porousness that allows for contagious flows. Risk of contagion abounds not only in contiguous bodies and breath, but also within containers that societies use to conceptualise others. For some, those in crowded worker dormitories, the workplace with no sick leave, essential services workers, porousness cannot be escaped. And yet, porousness is only revealed insomuch as power allows for its visibility, and in extension, the shaping of its associated risk and policies to mitigate them. What does it take for us to trace the ebbs and swells of flows, and understand the conditions that made its rhythms felt? How can we put in place ethico-political mechanisms so that State bodies, grassroot efforts and individuals meander through flows appropriate to their response-abilities?

Zoonosis, Spacetimes, Entanglements

COVID-19 being a zoonotic disease also makes a strong case for humans' interconnectedness to a multispecies world. Zoonoses are infectious diseases that jump from non-human animals to humans, its vice versa being called reverse zoonosis. The virus, having infected over 1 million humans (and nonhumans) worldwide, has ignited the string figures entangling humans and nonhuman critters alike.

String figures, commonly known as the object of “cat’s cradle”, is a game where a string is weaved around the fingers of different people — or animals, fungi, bacteria, conceptually — constantly overlapping and intersecting with itself. Donna Haraway famously co-opted this term to conjure a symbol of the relations between different worlds on terra, highlighting the need to produce new connections and alliances for a multispecies flourishing.


Multispecies Cat’s Cradle. Drawing by Nasser Mufti, 2011.

Bat to human. Human to human. Human to cat, to tiger, to dog.

Does the virus not, then, bring to light a multispecies game of string figures? (Working in parallel, the transmission of affects follow similar routes, flowing along the distributaries of media multiplexity.) In epidemiological terms, COVID-19 operates on density-dependent transmission, meaning that the higher the density of people, the higher the chances of transmission. This compounds with mobility in a globalized age. With such properties, declared states of emergencies regulate the movement of bodies in lieu of the spatial risks.

So while we know of COVID-19 transmissibility in space, what of its temporal elements?

I take cues from Haraway's book Staying with the Trouble, which tells of a world, our world, being a polytemporal one. With this, I turn to the field of complexity science, to a short piece by Andrew Dobson, an epidemiologist.

Fuzzy Timescales

… “Complex time” [is] how temporal phenomena play out across the scales of the complexity of the earth. And what evolution has done is it's created this interesting coupling of all of these clocks. You can think of every species as being a little clock that ticks away at its own rate and we interact at some level, but we're not strongly coupled.

— David Krakauer, Complexity podcast, Transmission Series, Episode 2

As with every pathogen, the host species interacting with the pathogen will exhibit their own epidemic cycles. The species with smaller body size will have higher birth and death rates and population density, while the larger species will have the opposite. This falls under within-species transmissions, where the epidemic cycles of COVID-19 within the bat population runs on a different temporal scale than the human population — large and frequent outbreaks in hosts with low body mass, and slow, less dramatic cycles in larger hosts.

However, Dobson warns that if different host species increase their couplings, then the epidemic in a smaller organism can drive disease dynamics in a larger organism. With the increase of between-species transmission to levels where it matches within-species transmissions, strange synchronisations of time will appear — in this case, the synchronisation will be dominated by the fastest clock. Humans will be running on the epidemic cycle of a bat population. This would mean a lethal synchronisation, as smaller species are abundant and recover quickly from outbreaks, while larger species cannot recover from frequent epidemics.

If spatial logics inform transmissibility and shapes our response to risk, then temporal phenomena might deliver the final reckoning. Complex time shows us; that in our current world order of extraction and exploitation of nature, higher frequencies of multispecies co-mingling can produce newer set of relations and conditions for a pandemic like COVID-19 to emerge, that might potentially pose existential risks.

While within-species transmissions far exceeds between-species transmissions now, this exercise shows that spacetime fuzziness in zoonotic flows bring a glaring light to our entanglements, adding weight to the spiel on decentering anthropocentric thinking.


Beyond the metaphorical, I advocate for new flowy modes of being, to adapt our eyes to see and act on complex string figures.

Haraway mentions that bodily ethical and political obligations are also infectious. In a time of flow, how can we "intensely inhabit specific bodies and places as the means to cultivate the capacity to respond to worldly urgencies with each other"?