What if we Listened to the Virus?
What if, instead of panic buying toilet paper, we brought an ecological perspective to the coronavirus outbreak? What if we removed this crisis from the arena of team-sport politics, and instead of distorting it for the sake of a clever meme, we asked ourselves what we have to learn from this disease? Herbalists and holistic healers often say that diseases may draw attention to some deficiency or imbalance in our bodies and so offer information and opportunity to become more healthy and whole. Why shouldn't we transfer this approach to a pandemic in society at large? Perhaps, in a moment of quiet quarantine, we consider this an opportunity to move our unhealthy culture toward balance.
Coming as it does in the midst of a particularly toxic election year, COVID-19 in the United States has started off as an epidemic of viral information. In our already divided political culture, we are quick to maneuver this crisis for advantage over the "other side," and the story of the virus is quickly subsumed in political narratives that try to wield and distort it to fit their own terms. Perhaps it's more enlightening to turn the tables—to use this viral outbreak as the lens through which we examine our political and cultural dysfunction.
In less than three months since the first reported case of COVID-19 on the other side of the planet, universities in the U.S. are cancelling semesters and sending students home even before a case of the virus is reported on campus—or even in the county. Stock markets are dropping precipitously only to partially recover the next day and then tank again, erasing trillions of dollars in wealth. Political talking heads point fingers at each other, and Facebook junkies share analysis (labelling it "clear and well-stated" or "irresponsible mis-information" depending on who said it, even if they said the same thing). Meanwhile we don't know what to expect or what to do, but we apparently don't want to do it without toilet paper.
All of this rather frantic energy is occurring before very many people have actually gotten sick. I'm not down-playing the potential severity of this outbreak whose endgame we can't predict, but this is not public reaction to our family and neighbors falling ill. Thus far, our decisions aren't based on what is happening here, nor even on what has already happened in China and Italy where the death tolls at this writing are still far less than for this year's flu. But it's too early to tell how the virus will play out, and this not-knowing is terrifying. Millions of people face draconian travel restrictions for fear of not-knowing.
Perhaps the fear is justified. Only time will tell.
For the moment though, let us use this occasion to shed light upon our fear of the unknown—the wild and uncontained. What is this fear of a wild thing? What does it say about us? Is it lack of trust in our own immune systems? Or, if we are healthy, perhaps we fear for the elderly and infirm. Is it for their sake that so many are now living in lockdown (with more to come), and is that what they would want?
Perhaps there is something even more profound in our fear of this wild unknown thing. Perhaps we perceive an existential threat that dispels even our fears of tyranny so that we will submit with docility to the protective measures of government quarantine. But what might come from that submission later—what will we have lost? Will there be a victory to claim, and which team will claim it?
Only time will tell.
We cannot know how this virus will develop, but our preoccupation with rising coronavirus death tolls—like a stock ticker on futures trading of Western Civilization—highlights our reductive approach to knowing and measuring this disease, and possibly the need for a less reductive and more holistic vision. Because we know that people suffering from chronic conditions have much higher risk of dying when infected with this virus, why do we reduce the cause of death to COVID-19? Mightn't it also be reasonable to attribute causality to the chronic condition? In fact, for the more common flu, Chinese mortality rates don't include cases where the flu causes other illnesses to worsen and lead to death, although the U.S.—where we have a much less holistic health tradition—does include these cases in mortality rates. Reported flu mortality rates are, of course, much lower in China.
The word virus has its origin in Latin and Proto-Indo-European words that mean a venomous or poisonous fluid. Only with recent scientific progress has the word come to be associated with the parasitic agents that we now perceive as causing disease, but attributing the cause of illness to parasitic microbes is just as reductive as attributing death to that illness when other conditions are present. Certainly many people are exposed to the virus without becoming ill (for instance, very few children become infected).
I think this word virus remains as tautological (self-affirming) is it was in the Latin. When we say a disease is caused by a virus, we are still blankly stating that the disease is caused by the source of the disease, for we only indicate a single cause among many—something necessary but not sufficient to describe our ailment. We can trace the source of this virus back to the Wuhan province in China, even to a single seafood and animal market, and before that an "animal reservoir" of viral agents where it appears to have its origin in bats (although I've also read snakes).* Are we so much more enlightened to know all of this—to know that it comes from the wild? And if the wild serves up more sources of disease—antibiotic resistant bacteria and freshly mutated viruses that we can't control—will our words lose their meaning with their utility? There may still be organisms that we call virus, but if this knowledge does not enable us to control them, does that word retain more meaning than its origin in poisonous substance? How so?
We are infatuated with the specter of this unrealized pandemic, intent on defining it, measuring it, and if possible spinning it to serve our own political agendas. We want to domesticate it and use it for our own purposes as we have every other wild thing. Can we see this in ourselves now? Can this crisis shed light upon another pathology?—upon that manic drive toward reduction, conquest, and control that threatens ecological collapse?
It's worth noting that even without measures in place to control spread of this disease, the virus itself has prompted substantial changes in our behavior and that these changes are almost perfectly tailored to relieve the pressure of human activity on collapsing ecological systems.
Indeed, exempting terrorism or sabotage, I can imagine no more effective means to target and disrupt harmful economic activity. Fear of travel has seriously hit aviation and energy companies, two targets whose disruption seems non-negotiable to any effort that would address climate change. Simultaneously, the shutdown in China has left supply chains for the automobile and technology sectors short of parts. Much of this disruption (though not all) has resulted from voluntary avoidance of travel and spending.
I suppose that the resulting instability in the markets and the downshifting of our economy is mostly perceived as a bad and scary thing, but further downshifting is probably going to be required by ecological limits—especially in those sectors of the economy that have been hardest hit by coronavirus fears (aviation, energy, manufacturing, and finance). We may not want to downshift, and most of us will probably fight it, but it's not a fight we're likely to win. Perhaps this virus can show us how to do it a bit more gracefully than we otherwise would.
In fact—though you can call it what you will—this virus is effectively manipulating our group behavior to be much more green, and it is doing so without rules and regulations that are as complicated as they are corruptible. It is doing so without becoming embroiled in the toxic partisanship that so shapes our policymaking. We are voluntarily doing bits and pieces of what must be done to face ecological collapse—but not in reaction to that existential threat, though it may be more serious than the virus. Rather oddly, we are most effectively addressing the ecological threat by reacting to a different threat that may or may not be real.
What can we learn from this? From a holistic perspective, viewing this disease as an imbalance in the culture at large, and as an opportunity to bring our culture back into balance—how does this pandemic shed light on our deeper ecological crisis and the measures we might take to address the murder of our planet? Perhaps we are foolish to tackle such a crisis head-on; perhaps it is too big, and we'd be better off adopting a more oblique approach as this virus has caused us to do. If climate change doesn't evoke the fear of a looming unknown, are there other issues that might prompt us to downshift? If we fail to do so, how will the Earth respond—can continued globalization lead to anything other than more pandemics, economic disruption, panic buying of Clorox, bullets, and other things that make us feel safe? Only time will tell, for the Earth is wild, and we do not know what she will do.
* I'm also willing to consider the claims that this virus is engineered, but I will answer them by asking if we're sure who is engineering who?