A Tale of Two Viruses

The lesson of COVID-19 is that nature demands respect. If we continue trying to dominate and commodify nature, we will pay dearly. “Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people.” So says the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Aside from ecosystem destruction freeing up viruses to jump to human hosts, we’re breeding dangerous pathogens by confining farm animals to unsanitary facilities. Instead of giving them the natural ingredients of health – sunlight, fresh air, clean water and nutrient-dense food – industrial agribusiness pumps them full of antibiotics so they can still function as four-legged meat factories despite failing health.

To avoid unleashing more pandemics possibly far deadlier than this one, we must let nature thrive in both the wilds and our farms and stop treating technology as a kind of all-purpose modern savior. But how can we expect this lesson to sink in when our response to the coronavirus, far from letting it take its natural course, is to apply every tool at our disposal to contain and neutralize it?

SARS-CoV-2 is a novel virus. We have no immunity. On top of that, it’s far more contagious than other novel viruses we’ve recently midwifed, such as the SARS virus of 2002 and the MERS virus of 2012. The combination of novelty and high transmissibility means it will continue its march until at least 70% of us have been infected and we gain “herd immunity.” The value of general quarantine is not to prevent infection and save lives but only to slow down the contagion so as to protect medical workers and preserve a functional healthcare system. In the end the virus is going to take its cut regardless of what we do.

But technology, like religion, has an answer for everything. Instead of standing in awe before the merciless power of nature, we simply develop a vaccine. Problem solved! Granted, a vaccine would be great, but we have no reason to believe it will arrive any time soon. Though Ebola appeared in 1976, a vaccine wasn’t ready until last year. We’re still waiting on vaccines for SARS and MERS. In the absence of a vaccine or cure, our only option is to build natural immunity, and that means exposure to the virus. The only thing standing in the way of herd immunity is the fear-driven “herd mentality” that equates social interaction with murder. We are confronted with the false dichotomy of continuing the isolation or sacrificing human lives for profit-making economic activity. Yet the real reason to let the virus run its course is the humble recognition that nature is in command and we must play by its rules.

Has Trump’s slow response to the pandemic actually added to the death toll or merely accelerated the timeline? Depends on whether we apply human logic or nature’s logic. Labeling a portion of the death count “Trump’s death clock,” as in the Times Square electronic billboard, sheds heat without casting light.

The USS Roosevelt was in the news last month for the huge number of its infected crew: 1156 by the last count. Yet we’ve heard nothing about this apparent catastrophe in the last few weeks, which is strange, almost an indicator that the mass media prefer feeding our panic to simply reporting the news. It turns out only one of those sailors died. While this is terrible for that person and his family, it also means 1155 people have developed a degree of immunity and can serve as natural barriers to subsequent transmission. This may not seem like a logical or efficient way of defending against the virus, but then nature is nothing if not messy.

Those of us who regard the reaction to COVID-19 as a form of mass panic or hysteria – much like the anti-Russia hysteria following the 2016 election – are well aware of the impulse to self-censor in these circumstances. The imperative to bow down before the new moralism is visceral. You can feel it in the tightening of your throat before you say something that might turn the herd against you.

Writing for the venerable Anderson Valley Advertiser, Laura Cooskey shares her observations of a social transformation that’s taken place in the 30 years since she moved into her modest house in the wilds of Mendocino, California. No more does anyone give birth at home or sunbathe nude on the sandbar or even go around barefoot. No more is there talk of tripping in the forest. Now the drug of choice is a pharmaceutical, a pill you swallow behind the locked doors of your house.

If you could tell a distant ancestor about your life, you might boast that you travel effortlessly on land and even take to the sky to visit faraway places, that you can hold conversations or watch events at any distance, that all the water you need is available with the turn of a knob and that light and warmth and music are yours at the push of a button. After hearing all this, your forebear might think you’re a visitor from heaven. Indeed, to the unconscious that’s exactly what our techno-paradise is. But there’s a downside. Having come to feel entitled to a long life of comfort and security, more and more we retreat from anything wild, anything that might pop our bubble of perfect safety.

Cooskey went to Facebook to share her thoughts. She pointed out that we can’t get natural resistance to the virus without catching it. Since the size of the viral load upon infection can impact the severity of the disease, we could develop antibodies even from small exposure and mild illness. Since stopping the virus will require widespread immunity, only the vulnerable should avoid exposure at all costs. She added that the virus isn’t nearly as deadly as the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. If we could develop natural immunity to that, why not this?

She was blindsided by the reaction she got from her Facebook friends. “You would think I was promoting genocide.” She says she was accused of being “cruel, malicious, selfish, uncaring, etc.” Why? Because any deviation from the shelter in place order could kill thousands of people. She was told to delete her posts before she had the blood of innocents on her hands.

I suspect the source of this hostility is repressed fear that our technotopia isn’t for real, that our attempt to seal ourselves off from nature is futile. We’ve banked everything on the transformation of nature into a utility servicing our needs and a receptacle for our waste. As our population expands, other species get squeezed out. Yet we never seem to have enough to meet our needs and must continue increasing our share of environmental inputs while spoiling ever more land and ocean. Unwilling to face the possibility that we’re on the wrong track – and that the virus is a direct consequence of this madness – many people seek to silence those brave enough to voice dissent. This also explains much of the hostility toward the new film, Planet of the Humans, which tells us there are no simple techno-fixes to the climate crisis and that ultimately we must consume less and live in accord with nature’s limits.

The real threat isn’t so much the novel coronavirus as the viral belief that our advanced technologies make us the master of nature and not the other way around. Only harsh experience seems to confer immunity to this insidious disease.

Ted Dace is a philosopher and the author of Escape from Quantopia (Iff Books). His peer reviewed articles are available at philpapers.org. He can be reached through his website, escapefromquantopia.wordpress.com.