I’m not a biological ‘fatalist’, but there are several reasons why epidemiologists were attempting to plan for a pandemic and why the Obama administration was empowering institutions, creating protocols and organizing resources that could be mobilized quickly, before the COViD-19 outbreak, not for this one specifically, but one of some kind. Viruses, bacteria, mycoplasma and other microbes fill the world at a microscopic level…they are everywhere, all of the time. Our own bodies contain far more of them than we do of our own some three trillion cells. Fortunately, most of them do not cause us disease, at least as long as we remain healthy. Many of them, in fact perform valuable functions in us, beneficial ones, without which our lives would be the poorer. Disease too is part of life’s ‘plan’. Its agents are dynamic. Today’s diseases are not those of the past. We evolved together. They mutate and sometimes ‘leap’ across species boundaries. A study of biology and disease reveals a function of disease or at least a consequence to the health and evolution of a species. It may sound heartless to put it this way, but disease is very much a part of living. With this new disease, COVID-19, as with others, it is selective, affecting those whose health is compromised in some way disproportionately, killing those most susceptible, the weak and those may include those surprising to us. As in most things concerning life, nothing is so simple as our concept of strong and weak. Disease is a part of the process of natural selection that has always been in effect in the world.
Not All Viruses Cause Disease…Why not?
As of 2012 over 210 different viruses had been found to infect humans with more being discovered every year. There are over 110 million different viruses estimated to be capable of infecting the multi-celled forms of life on Earth. Many others can infect single celled organisms including bacteria themselves. All are very specific and vary widely in their virulency, their ability to infect and cause serious disease. We have actually only studied a few thousand and selected those because of their ability to cause human disease or significant economic damage to species and crops important to us.
Viruses are by and large very host specific. A great many are relatively benign. Very few are immediately fatal to their hosts. Such a high degree of virulency will lead to a virus’ failure, because if it kill most of its hosts quickly it will rapidly run out of susceptible hosts and itself potentially cease to exist. All viruses are obligate parasites, they require living host cells to continue and will relatively rapidly degrade/become non-infectious if left outside of a host cell too long. Many microbiologists view successful viruses as those that are best able to persist, long term in the host. Killing or significantly compromising the health of the host then is counterproductive to the virus’ success. An ideal virus/parasite would share its ‘strength’ with its host while assuring that they host would continue to replicate it…it would persist in its relationship. Many suggest that particularly virulent viral diseases are relatively ‘new’, attempts by viruses to infect ‘new’ species, viruses such as this one that has leaped from bats to humans, species that don’t likely have sufficient immunity to resist them or the resistance to ‘fight’ them off, unless previous, related viruses have ‘contributed’ such capacity to a potential new host, a process known to happen which serves both the host and the previously infective virus. Anyway, the first requirement for viral infection, is the availability of a virulent virus. Next is a susceptible host.
Viral Diseases Require a Host to Spread
If diseases and their agents have always been with us, why a pandemic, why now? Isn’t this just a random, unpredictable event? SARS-CoV-2, the virus at the center of this pandemic, is host specific, having crossed the species barrier to now include us, specifically the cells and tissues of our respiratory system…not other cells or tissues, not other species. Virologists are beginning to understand that when an established host species comes under increasing stress, as its health and numbers decline, the virus can become more capable of adapting to another host species, perhaps especially if the immunity and resistance of the ‘new’ host is compromised. Viruses are adaptable at their core possessing the ability to copy and modify the host DNA and RNA to some degree, back and forth, in a dance of adaptation, to assure its success. Bacterial diseases do not function within host cells at this kind of genetic level. The disease first appeared in Wuhan, Hubei province, a large, modernizing, dense city. Epidemiologists, will talk about ‘patient zero’, the first human patient and then, through testing and contact tracing, begin to uncover the spread of the disease, as it expands out from that first patient. Spread of disease requires an agent and a susceptible host. If patient zero lived in isolation, the disease may have ‘died’ with him as viruses are obligate parasites, they can exist outside of a living host cell for only a limited time. This first case appeared in a dense city with many hosts at hand.
The Spread of Viral Diseases Accelerates With Host Mobility
In organisms infection tends to travel from one infected host cell to the next, typically those that are adjacent to it. Distance prevents the transmission of the virus, unless, as in plants and animals, the virus can get into their vascular systems and then be spread throughout the organism to more distant uninfected cells. The same holds for separate individual organisms, disease spread requires some way of moving across the intervening space. The virus moves between those in close proximity, such as under those conditions common to dense urban living, who share ‘intimate’ space or somehow come into direct physical contact, or by contact of contaminated surfaces. Under these conditions a disease can spread quickly if the population fails to observe good sanitary practice and/or fails to maintain effective social distancing. Additionally, if the population is mobile, the infected and uninfected increase their opportunity to pass on the infection, leap frogging, to new, previously unimpacted populations. Human transportation networks are effective vectors for disease spread as they can move them around a region, country and the world in a matter of a few hours. Under previously much slower and much more costly forms of transportation, people travelled much less and, if they contracted a serious disease, may have died before they could have completed the voyage across the ocean. Our modern/global society is defined by a kind of hyper-mobility, we move simply because we can, often for little other purpose, and we have ‘shaped’ the world to adapt to this capacity shipping resources and goods, the manner in which we conduct business. Business has commodified everything and has successfully marketed the idea of vacationing enabling millions, eliminating barriers to travel. Mobility accelerates the spread of disease.
Personal Hygiene and Sanitation Practices of the Individual
In the 14th century the bubonic plague, Europe’s Black Death, killed an estimated 20 million, about 1/3 of the population. Though this was a bacterial disease, there was no treatment or understanding of how it spread. Fleas, rats and the air, contaminated clothing, all common, without even the basic idea of germs and what could be done, the disease spread rapidly. People were ignorant of how the disease spread and what could be done to stop or slow it. Today we understand the causal agents of disease, but we can still be very slow to respond with those activities that can reduce our exposure. For many ignorance is still a factor, while for many others today there is an economic element, a refusal to accept one’s role and responsibility in its spread.
Today, too we have an especially vulnerable large section of the population who are poor and/or homeless, often despite their status as employed, who may lack the ability to fully implement good personal hygiene, families and housemates all crowded, living in close proximity, likely also suffering from poor diet because of economic circumstances and without access to healthcare. These people form an especially large and dangerous pool, ignored and denied by society, who because of this can serve as sources of infection for the more privileged. The poor serve the privileged at some point. Contact is inevitable. Large vulnerable populations are like tinder to fire.
Viruses, in general, must be delivered to susceptible host cells and they do this either directly by being carried by particular vectors, by our own contact with contaminated surfaces and, in this case, via tiny droplets that we breathe in or get transferred to our tissues which are connected to our respiratory system. People unable to properly care for themselves, unable to practice good hygiene are at greater risk. A disease can become a great leveler, which should serve to emphasize our duty and responsibility to one another, not as a call for its opposite, the practice of a ‘lifeboat’ mentality.
The Overall Health of a Susceptible Population
A relatively healthy individual will possess greater physical ‘resources’ to resist the spread of the disease in their own body with less severe consequence. Chemists will talk about how the poison is in the dose. That a relatively benign compound can be poisonous if we ingest too much. Disease is a bit like that as well. If our initial exposure is massive the assault on our system can be overwhelming before our various systems can be marshaled into response, where had the exposure been minimal, our bodies can be better prepared to soften the blow by signaling/preparing other cells and tissues for the onslaught. Healthy individuals will have a greater ability to produce antibodies to help ward off the disease, organizing and marshaling their own defenses to limit the disease’s damage. The healthier a population overall is the less severe will be the number and damage suffered by that population. The more members of a population there are that compromised the more devastating the disease can be. There is a certain degree of this that will naturally occur in a given population which can be supported with effective treatment, anti-virals and vaccine. A healthier population will reduce the likelihood of a pandemic as the infection and disease will be less likely to attain the level which can erupt explosively.
A Healthier Overall Environment with Healthy, Intact, Biotic Communities Will be Less Likely to Produce Virulent Viruses Capable of Jumping Species Boundaries
Nature is not just a pool of potential human diseases biding their time to make the leap. Viruses have been in existence form many more millions of years than our species which some trace back only as far as 2 million years. Many who study evolution are beginning to understand the link between host cells, viral genetic material and the evolution of the modern cell, DNA and the incredible complexity that comprises life. They argue that it was essential in evolution and likely continues to be. Geneticists have are able to utilize some of their methods to produce genetically modified organisms. Other research shows how many of millions of different viruses, of which we have only studied a very few thousand, play integral roles in the cells of higher organisms, aiding their function, persisting without doing damage to the host and in fact may help them ward off the damaging effects of other more virulent viruses. Viruses, like forms of life, are driven to reproduce, multiply and persist, and, to do this, must develop persistent, longer term relationships with their hosts, killing their hosts, especially very quickly, is a dead end for them as much as it is the host organism. Viruses exist only in direct relationship with their host. A damaged, declining, population of hosts, threatens them. Many scientist believe today that when particular biotic communities are threatened, when they are in a state of decline, the health of their many individuals compromised that the viruses will exhibit a stronger tendency to jump species boundaries to ensure their won survival. While healthy, vital, biotic communities are more defined by the concept of homeostasis, of dynamic balance, and in fact a kind of supportive symbiotic state.
Viruses will always be a part of our world. They will continue to adapt and mutate in response to the world around them. There is not a lot we can or should do about that. Many argue that viruses play an essential role to life…but we can effect the host species, us, our numbers and state of health which goes to determining any infections rate and extent of spread. We also are a large determiner in the speed of its spread because we can effect our own mobility and that of some of the other vectors.
These five factors are aligned today as to create conditions for the perfect viral storm. Life is in an exaggerated state of ever more chaotic flux. We, the host species are in unprecedented numbers across the planet, often living in dense cities and communities with extremes of sanitation, health and wealth defining the degree of risk. We are highly mobile when compared to any other time in history. Many of our supportive social networks have disintegrated along with our sense of community. We live in a time of unprecedented skepticism in which we doubt almost everything from science to the word and experiences of others. Our leaders, in an attempt to seize more power from their opponents have so fragment and polarized the process that government is crippled and with this loss we have lost the ability to effectively act. We have lost faith in the basic decency and value of each other and act accordingly. We are failing and flailing. Whatever the outcome of the current pandemic is…it will not be the last one. Until we address all of these issues positively, in a manner that is supportive of life in general, this will continue. It is not just a matter of putting a better equipped medical system in place, the creation of this or that vaccine and anti-viral, though that and more ethical and fair access to it for all would go far in limiting the damage. No segment of the population will be beyond the suffering. All are intricately connected. We must address ‘how’ we live in this world and our relationship with it, with each other as people and with all of the organisms we inhabit the planet with.
A huge piece of the problem is our economic system which defines and controls so much of our relationship with the rest of the world, other people’s, other countries and other species. We are consumptive and our population is endlessly growing on a planet that is ultimately limited and closed. We are consuming its natural capital at an accelerating rate and despoiling what remains with the spoils of our production and consumption. It is entirely within our ability to change this to a system that is much more supportive of life and health, a world that reflects an understanding of the necessity that we live in relationship with, mutually supportive and sustainable…all of our activities.
We cannot simultaneously degrade the planet and maintain our health. The polluted world within which we live extends to within our bodies as we accumulate toxins, which we allow because of the level of economically acceptable thresholds. Profit first. Health second. We are living a worldwide biochemical experiment blind to it because we refuse to see the connections. The world is not a composite of discrete removable pieces, not an aggregation of individual parts, but a coherent, integrated system with intricately overlapping networks and feedback loops, of systems within systems. Whether you accept the Gaia hypothesis of the Earth as a kind of meta-organism or not, it is no longer possible for us to continue on our historic path. Collapse and extinction are distinct possibilities if we continue to ignore and deny the world and life around us. Blind insistence on an unsupported belief, the simple bullheadedness that things are other than the facts before us, is no defense and cannot soften the blow of the consequences that will inevitably follow. This pandemic is a call for a change, not a one time event. We are desperately in need of a positive vision. Continuing on our present path of reverting to some idealized time in the past, which never existed, are not viable options. We live in a time that demands courage, compassion and creative thinking, not a retreat into fear, indifference and blind insistence on failing present practice.
What can we do?
Reduce the human population. Assure that the living are healthy. Reduce our overall mobility. Change our business practices to promote health. Repair the environmental damage done and end its acceptance.
It took all of our history, up to 1820, to push the Earth’s living human population to 1 billion. Since then, in only 200 years, it has increased almost 8-fold. The world’s human population reached 7.8 billion at the end of March 2020. This is important in two ways regarding the issue of pandemics. In terms of shear numbers alone we now place an unprecedented and unsustainable burden on the rest of the planet. We are literally consuming all of the space many species require simply to live healthy lives, transforming the landscape across the globe to meet our ‘needs’, leaving far less than others require. Other species are dying out at a rate that can be compared only to a handful of ‘extinction events’ in the distant past, events that both transformed the face of the planet, and forever altered the future to follow.
It is not just our numbers though that present a threat, it is our pattern of consumption, which increases with both our technological abilities and the growth and domination of our economy. If our lives could be compared to fire, our economy would be the ‘rate’ at which we burn and the heat is threatening to be all consuming in that the natural systems required to sustain us all, are in great danger of becoming so compromised that they collapse on their own. We have nearly passed the critical point the species and communities all require for healthy life. At that point a massive ‘correction’ will occur to ‘reboot’ the system and we will have little to no say about how that proceeds and what role if any we will play in it. The supportive cycles will have been ‘broken’.
Life is not a simple, linear, model. We cannot take and take what we want without consequence to the health of the whole…but we can change our course and reduce our consumptive pattern of linear growth. We could act on our ever expanding understanding of the systems and lives of the many thousands of species we ‘share’ the planet with and modify the way that we live. We are an ‘intelligent’ species, technologically gifted, instead of allowing the economy to drive us blindly into ever increasing consumption, we could change it in ways that begin to return it to a state of balance with….We need not revert to some primitive state, living in caves, we could instead look to the accumulated wisdom of our experience and use it to retool and restructure our lives, placing health, security and personal fulfillment ahead of the production of ever more wealth and the disparity in its distribution we now have. We could work with, rather than against, end turning everything into a competition with the goal of dominance and control. We could instead place greater value on others, treat them with respect and out of that build a society that practiced reciprocity, which asks itself continuously, what does the world need, which as a member of said world, will benefit us all and myself as a member? What can I give? not just take! and, view the world as a gift, not a birthright! and show it gratitude.
Whatever you may think of what I’ve written here, the fact remains, that we as a species are living not just out of balance with the rest of life, but in direct conflict with it and, that if we continue in this same way we are dooming ourselves, our children and the many thousands of uncounted species. We as a ‘modern’ society have taken one aspect of ourselves, our necessity to consume in order to live, and largely chosen to ignore any requirement that we also work to insure that the life on this planet remains vital. We scoff at the idea of cooperation, even though nothing truly desirable is possible without it, we view altruistic acts as stupid and naive, we see others, those different than us, as of less value, as a threat…and far too many of us have not just lost hope in humanity, but in ourselves and we ascribe to others and ourselves the worst of motives and intent. We attempt to live ‘bunkered’ lives and trust very few. We deny connection and too often accept the futility of our own action. We see ourselves as threatened and alone and, because of all of this, see no other course of action, so we allow our fear and hate to determine what we do. That is a path that can only take us into ever darker and lonely corners. As much as we may attempt to deny our own responsibility for this, casting all of the ‘blame’ on to others, we still possess the power to change this. In fact , ultimately, the power to do this lies within each of us and always has. It is because we have yielded that power to others, who use it for their own purposes, that we are in this situation today.
As I said earlier there are links everywhere. Homeostasis is the dynamic stability within a healthy organism. A healthy society, a healthy world, require that same kind of homeostasis to operate between and within all of its ‘members’. Such a system operates in agreement with itself and builds on its success, as a system, not of isolated individuals. A system pushed out of such balance is unhealthy by definition and the members of such a society are also unhealthy. The species that make up the communities of an unhealthy world are themselves unhealthy. This is a biological imperative. Whatever else we may claim for ourselves we are biological organisms linked to all others. It should be no surprise that under such conditions disease and decline are also pushed out of balance as biotic communities ‘work’ to come back into balance. Checks and balances. Feedback loops. All of life requires others whether we understand the need and the relationship or not. Allowing our fear to drive our actions will only accelerate the decline of the entire world community. Instead we should be working to move back into ‘homeostasis’, into a healthy balance, in which each plays its role, in which consumption is not a role to be celebrated, just a necessity to be acknowledged, balanced out against the health and security of the entire larger community. Biology is not fickle. It does not follow political expediency. It measures itself consistently in terms of the health of its many parts and through the vitality of its almost countless relationships. One never dominates…or at least, not for long. The cycle of life and death continues seamlessly. Within those limits is the space for any species, including ours, to live, while also taking advantage of what we’ve accomplished and learned, as long as we continue to observe and practice life’s imperatives. Ultimately ‘fitness’ is determined by our active participation, our role in the health of the whole. A ‘fit’ individual whose success comes at the expense of others, who does not give back at least what they have taken, is a perversion of the word, is false. Right is not claimed by access, volume or even overt power. Rightness is a reflection of the health of our relationship with. Honesty and integrity cannot exist outside of this.
Viruses are a part of the living world. They are integral ‘players’ with a history at least a thousands times longer than our own. We could and should attempt to cure the diseases that plague us, but we should always keep in mind that we have become powerful players in our own health and that we have radically altered/disrupted the conditions every species must face and we have done so for singularly selfish and poorly examined reasons. That can’t stand. As long as it continues there will be corrections coming our way, like the current pandemic, COVID-19.