The COVID-19 Arrow: Striking at the Heart of American Life and Culture
Finally, I wish to acknowledge that effective personal coping is important not just for our own physical and mental wellbeing, but also for the wellbeing of our society. I have spent considerable time in this essay addressing the issue of the “other” as it spins out in American society (and in many other societies in somewhat different ways). Without effective attention to our own fears and stress, we will direct our attention to those people in our society (or other societies) who are in some way different from ourselves. We begin to fear them rather than the virus. We shift our stress to these other undeserving men, women and children. We encourage our representatives in government to direct their attention (and our money) to combating the “other” rather than our real enemies: the virus, our ignorance about the virus, our collective anxiety and resultant regression to a more primitive way of thinking, feelings and acting. We must care for ourselves, so that we might effectively care for those people who are often most vulnerable to the VUCA-Plus challenges of COVID-19 (and other pandemics in the future).
Humans Versus the Virus
We can now turn to the second question. What is likely to be the future status of the virus as it impacts on our personal and collective lives? What is the current score card and what do we think the score card will be two or three years from now? Who is likely to win: human beings or the virus? I turn again to the insights offered by Christakis (2020, p. 297-298). His initial appraisal is not very favorable regarding the human team:
. . . it was not clear why human beings should be favored to win against microbes in an evolutionary arms race. Microbes have been around a lot longer than humans, are more numerous, do not mind dying, and can mutate rapidly, evading our defenses. How could we truly bring about their end? As molecular biologist Joshua Lederberg observed, “Pitted against microbial genes, we have mainly our wits.” And often, as we have seen, these wits are deployed not so much in the development of sophisticated pharmaceutical armaments but rather in the very basic implementation of the simples of tools to fight our enemy—namely, staying six feet apart. While we can use our wits to win, perhaps, against a pathogen causing a particular outbreak, and while we can occasionally eliminate a pathogen like smallpox altogether, it is extremely doubtful we can win against all pathogens. Infectious disease care and control seem more realistic objectives than eradication.
Christakis (2020, p. 307) offers his own 2020 predictions about what will happen over the short term. He makes an important point. It is not just about the potency of the virus. It is also about its capacity to move from one human being to another (transmissibility):
It is still too early to know how SARS-2 might mutate and over what time frame. Over the short term, it’s possible that the virus could change to be either better or worse for us (in terms of its transmissibility, lethality, or both)-even though any long-term changes are likely to be positive for us, the unfortunate hosts. Many thousands of mutations in SARS-2 have already emerged naturally, but most of those mutations do not affect the action of the virus. As of the summer of 2020, there is not much evidence that the virus has mutated to be less severe, and there is some possible suggestion that one circulating variant might have become more transmissible . . .
From the perspective of mid-2021, Christakis’s concerns seem to be justified. Both potency and transmissibility are fully present. Mutations seem to be at the heart of the matter. The adaptive capacity of viruses gives them a decided edge regarding the heath of human beings.
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