Thinking about the coronavirus pandemic.
We will have a look at why thinking about the coronavirus pandemic is complex and why the best measures seem counterintuitive. We then will consider the difficulties of being surpassed and overwhelmed by the collectively acquired intellectual knowledge, and why when in danger we will fall back on our primordial instincts. Finally, we will move to the challenge of how to organize society in order to guide our instincts and intelligence together towards a collective global effort. To conclude we offer a short explanation about the nature and significance of viruses in general.
Is our vision lost between the statistics and the microscope?
Traditionally it has been a challenge for humans to get a sharp view of homo sapiens (that’s us). Considering the capacities of our senses, to get a sharp view of something is best done at a short distance. We can compare it with a painting on display in a museum. In order to be able to enjoy paintings to the fullest, a distance between one and a few meters from the painting is optimal for the museum visitor. But we can also go where our eyes can’t see. We can put a fragment of the paint under a microscope and dissect all kinds of interesting knowledge from it. We can also contemplate the painting in a broader cultural and art historical perspective after which we can talk about it in a very sensible way. The more knowledge we gain with these different perspectives, the more the experience of an average museum visitor to simply enjoy the painting can seem ignorant. Being able to see beyond one’s own senses has brought us a lot, but has also put our instinctive nature under considerable psychological pressure.
Knowledge about ourselves has benefitted from both a ‘closer look’, such as blood tests, X-rays, microbiology, DNA research and more ‘distant’ approaches such as statistics, microbiology, and epidemiology. From both perspectives strong and often contradicting arguments emerge on how to respond to a pandemic crisis. But our instincts are not that sophisticated, we still intuitively react only to the danger that is actually close and visible or is presented to us as such.
Can we deal with dangers that concern mainly others than ourselves and our loved ones?
Our thinking about the coronavirus epidemic shifts back and forth between a glance at a distance (the statistical data) and an ‘invisible’ microscopic knowledge about the effects of viruses on our bodies. The result is that we constantly surpass the natural distance for which our senses and our intuition are adapted, to wonder from afar about the size of the catastrophe worldwide on the one hand and on the other hand to realize that for most of us an infection constitutes a risk that shouldn’t be too big. It is a challenge in modern life to situate ourselves as individuals between these ‘extreme’ views while our instinctive feeling no longer has a say.
It seems as if the best measure for the corona pandemic is a synthesis between the statistical information (here an important article and update) and the microscopic knowledge, although this construct is counterintuitive. Because we are formulating guidelines that resemble a response to acute danger (closeby) but are in fact measures to give our elderly and our chronically ill a better chance of surviving the epidemic (further away). These guidelines are based on the often-heard statement “It’s not so bad” and the opposite “It’s a world disaster”. Both are true, but it is not easy to embrace these views simultaneously. It is therefore good to realize how entangled and interdependent we are as individuals all over the world for our well being and survival. No single point of view leads to a solution but the opposite views taken together in an intelligent way do provide the right strategy.
The probable progression.
These clashing opinions that slowly unite into an elevated, empathic action are positive social phenomena. It will ultimately help those of us who are dealing with the local conditions where the crisis is really taking place; retirement and nursing homes, the hospitals and the crisis centres now all suffering from material and personnel shortages. Hopefully, a joint effort will be made to ensure that staff and materials are always quickly available at first aid stations so that never again a relatively small group of people are overtaxed as is the case now. Furthermore, we will learn to formulate information in such a way as to make comprehensible for everyone why a temporary inconvenience that seems locally useless can make a huge contribution on a large scale.
A serious challenge remains in the near future.
Intelligence and knowledge have grown faster than our instincts can handle. Or better formulated; the instincts remain intact and although the intellect has grown as superimposed it is certainly not sovereign and considering our cerebral anatomy it will never be. Thus seems the modern human condition. And in view of these inevitable and uncontrollable surges of instinctive behavior in the realm of the thinking mind, the challenge remains how to organize society in such a way that our instincts can be guided towards common goals. The challenge for man does not seem to be to further enhance the intellect nor to fall back on stimulating the instincts but somehow to find common ground for the primordial driving instincts and the sophisticated intellect to reach out for each other. Maybe what we mysteriously used to call the soul, a thing never found by science, is just that, the moment when intellect and instinct are in a truce. Maybe ‘the soul’ helps us adjust in order to find the right ‘distance’ and to remain calm during transitions and transformations.
Where to start?
As of now the only universal common ground where this human soul seems to thrive is artistic, aesthetic and ethical expressions in its widest sense possible. That would mean that we should be prepared to steer our politics from economically driven towards artistic, aesthetic and ethical orientations. Our reaction to the coronavirus pandemic slowly evolves into that direction. From harsh and economically driven first reactions we turn towards the human side. Furthermore, we grow in the awareness that humanity is one undivided entity and nothing happens only on a local scale. Politicians ‘defending’ their ‘territory’ face the inevitable truth when dealing with coronavirus that Wuhan is everywhere and the better we all care for Wuhan, or any place, the more we thrive as a global community.
A little bit of science to finish
Viruses are small pieces of genetic information. Genetic info is ‘written’ in protein. So a virus is a small piece of protein that potentially can change cellular behavior. In order to do so, the virus has a few attributes around the protein to carry that information towards its goal; a living cell. A virus is barely alive itself but potentially the genetic information it carries will come to life once it reaches the inside of living cells. The viral transmission makes it possible to change genetic information very fast. Normally genetic adaptation to environmental change is too slow and only guided by chance (spontaneous mutation). So potentially viruses are survival aids for the species and for millions of years we have been incorporating viral information. Our bodies reject all intrusion (a good thing) and this reaction causes inflammation. When the body tries to reject a virus this leads to the symptoms that we know as a viral disease, mostly harmless but unfortunately sometimes fatal. In the field of genetic engineering, we use the properties of viruses to change genetic structures. As you can see, there is a mystery about life hidden in the virus and our inquisitive minds are searching there. Though I like to add that it might be a safer option, and still a great challenge, to adapt to our natural world as it is instead of changing it. Read the fascinating story of Lola to get inspired about genetic material.
Thinking about the coronavirus pandemic leads to thinking about ourselves as a global community and in the light of the suffering that at least will generate some progress and awareness that it does matter globally what we do locally.