We pandemic-weary humans are ready to be done with COVID-19. But apparently, it is not done with us. Our conversation with a coronavirus, as I dubbed it last year, continues as a growing number of variants of COVID-19 appear across the world.
Preliminary data suggest that some of the variants may evade the protections of existing vaccines and lessen the effectiveness of various treatments. So concerning are these variants that one of the world’s leading epidemiologists is recommending a reversal of the recent re-opening steps being taken in the United States and elsewhere across the world.
Whether that advice will turn out to be warranted is likely to be tested in the next several weeks as U.S. states and foreign countries move forward with re-opening despite the rapid rise of new variants. This is all happening against the backdrop of Italy returning to a lockdown for much of the country due to the rapid spread of these COVID-19 variants.
Of even greater concern is the possibility that COVID-19 is here to stay and may continue churning out variants that defy our attempts to vanquish the virus. No one knows for certain what that might look like. It could be that COVID-19 becomes a seasonal disease returning each year like the flu. It could become milder in its effects. That would be an adaptive evolutionary strategy for the virus since killing one’s host is not a good way to spread. COVID-19 could be banished in some places, only to pop up periodically.
Rather than recognizing that we are part of nature, we continue to do the equivalent of mobilizing for war against nature. We want to stamp out COVID-19 and finish it for good. But it never occurs to us that COVID-19 might not yield to our warlike brigades now dressed in lab coats and nurse’s uniforms.
In other words, we have no fallback plan for coexistence which is the alternative to a fruitless state of war. I am reminded of American philosopher William James who called for a national service program to replace military service. James was an ardent pacifist and yet believed that society needs some way to inculcate devotion to country in its young citizens. He suggested that the young be put to work subduing nature in what he called “the moral equivalent of war.”
Since James coined that phrase, we have taken the metaphor of war and projected it on every problem, believing it is the right way to rally people and resources to any important task. But the “War on Poverty” and the “War on Cancer” and the myriad other nonwar wars which we have undertaken have shown decidedly mixed results.
A more organic approach might have worked better. But cemented in our war mentality, we have mistaken a more wholistic path for surrender.
As a humble beginning to a less martial approach to public health, I include here what I wrote last year in my piece cited above. Keep in mind that there will be no ready-made vaccine when the next pandemic arrives:
We already know that healthy diet, exercise, control of mental stress and strong, positive relationships with friends, co-workers and family will make people more robust when challenged by infectious diseases. Our diet, of course, has in the past been largely a product of nature with a little help from us through selective breeding. Humans are born to move, and movement used to be part of practically every occupation. The tight-knit extended families and kinship networks of the past were double-edged as they provided social and emotional support, but could also be a stifling source of conformism and even harsh treatment. Nevertheless, we humans are made for tight social bonds.
Today, we eat large amounts of dangerously unhealthy processed foods derived from crops grown in depleted soils and animals poisoned by chemicals and drugs. Many of us in wealthy countries lead a sedentary lifestyle. The tight-knit families of the past have largely disappeared, and we are now faced with an epidemic of loneliness. Is it any wonder then that the general health of the population is degraded?
Would it be possible to move toward more robust health, not by going backwards, but by going forward with an eye toward benefits that arise naturally from an agriculture based on creating healthy soil and chemical-free food and from our instinctual need for physical activity and close social bonds? Could we acknowledge that there is a role not just for the individual but for government and other collective institutions to make a healthy life possible for everyone?
To move in this direction would require a substantial restructuring of our various societies. My feeling is that we can either move in the more wholistic direction suggested by my short policy brief above or we can wait to see what continued war with COVID-19 and its successors will bring, a war that is likely to be an endless one.
As I wrote last year, “We will not learn how to live with the reality of a pandemic-prone world by simply assuming that an army of scientists and drug companies will keep us safe.”
Photo: Lieutenant (junior grade) Natasha McClinton, a surgical nurse, prepares a patient for a procedure in the intensive care unit aboard the U.S. the hospital ship USNS Comfort (23 April 2020). By Sara Eshleman of the US Navy via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:COVID-19_Nurse.jpg