COVID 19 - Can We Have Winners?

March 31, 2020

“The more fragmented, the more specialised we become in terms of problem solving, the more problems we create and the less we solve. I have a need to address my life-threatening illness with alternative techniques, but the caveat there is that the treatment of symptoms can pre-empt the search for the ultimate cause of this illness. If we see ourselves as manifestations of this organism that’s called Earth, and we, as a manifestation, are developing absolutely outrageous levels of this illness called cancer, the only thing this can mean is that the organism called Earth has cancer. If we don’t address this from humanity’s perspective, we can never escape from the abyss of this horrid disease. It’s not just bad luck, bad lifestyle or genetics. It’s a fact that the whole planet is sick on multiple levels, including the environment, including our disregard for the sacredness of food, including the fact that we are so disconnected from nature.”

Jerry Brunetti, 2002


Dear Family,

In war there are always a lot of losers.

And right now, after practicing Social Distancing (while residing in a loving, bustling household full of social interaction and fun to distract myself from The News) for almost three weeks, I feel kind of like a loser. A privileged, blessed, wealthy loser. Perhaps, as Charles Eisenstein explains in his brilliant essay , this is just a bit of the “normalized trauma of living in a monetized society.” I am angry a lot these days, even when I don’t know who or what I’m angry at, and when I consider the folks who are facing this unusual situation without the resources I have, the anger dissolves into a great blanket of sadness.

Our current war includes lots of invisible enemies and a whole lot of fear, embodied in about three zillion news headlines that explain how we can keep ourselves and our families safe, and how we as a society can ward off The Enemy Virus until a vaccine comes to vanquish COVID 19.

The flu of 1918 did not just Go Away in 1920. Nobody really knows what its case fatality rate was at the beginning of the pandemic, just like nobody knows what the true CFR is for COVID 19. It is very likely that the spike of deaths at the onset of flu season that year marked the quick spread of a highly contagious virus that all-at-once infected a lot of people who had never developed resistance to it before. Coronavirus is not the flu, but we look to past pandemics for clues about what might happen this time. For a few months, back in 1918, social distancing measures were implemented in some US cities.

As the virus made its way through the population over the next two years (not-killing most of the folks who contracted it, even while hundreds of thousands died), the death rate from the infections gradually became...acceptable. Which is the level where it generally remains today, even with widespread use of flu vaccines (which are somewhat ineffective at reducing illness: this year’s vaccine provides a 50% reduced risk of getting infected by one strain of influenza, for instance, and a 37% reduced rate of contracting another). Up to 62,000 Americans will die this season from the flu, according to CDC projections. It is very hard to define an acceptable death rate, and the level of panic surrounding a situation like COVID 19 can make it even more tricky to decide. But we have generally accepted that flu kills a lot of people every year, and that many other things do too, such as automobile accidents (1.3 million deaths per year) and air pollution (7 million deaths per year). This is the first time in most of our lives that potential deaths have so mobilized world leaders to urge us to wage war AND shut down our economy.

Here is a truth: picking on those most vulnerable is what viruses do, and they have been doing this since before there were human populations to speak of. It’s not nice, it’s not moral, and it doesn’t have anything to do with how much we love and treasure humans who are at greatest risk of dying from an infection like COVID 19. Viruses are literally embedded in our DNA. Most people get mild symptoms from infection due to certain strains, from which they recover. Many people get no symptoms at all. And a very few persons eventually die due to complications from their infections. Same virus; vastly different outcomes. New ones come along constantly. It’s likely that ever-increasing human encroachment on the habitat of other animals is speeding the rate at which we will encounter viruses even more deadly and contagious than this coronavirus.

In one of the few studies to examine the health of a cohort of Italian patients who died from COVID 19, less than 1% of the deaths occurred in people who _didn’t_ have either cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, hypertension, or cancer.

War on Illness has already given us superbugs and antibiotic resistance; drugs that are ever stronger and more expensive; vaccines that often suppress symptoms of illnesses (which had generally been most deadly and virulent during those times when humans lived in cities that resembled giant cesspools of filth and starvation; meanwhile, those same vaccines often worked “miracles” of symptom suppression at times when the same diseases had already stopped killing many people - while coincidentally, the decline in death rate had coincided with cities gaining such amenities as sewage systems and running water, or with the definitions of specific disease diagnoses becoming narrower). And meanwhile, during our War on infectious disease, we have experienced a gigantic increase, in only a few decades, of diseases which used to be virtually unknown.

And that is it, a giant elephant in the living room: we in the industrialized world currently and collectively carry a burden of illness that is quite staggeringly enormous. Saying that “age” makes people more susceptible to dying from COVID 19 is, I believe, disingenuous. Only in our modern world, where Growing Up is synonymous with developing multiple chronic disease diagnoses that require dependency on more and more prescription drugs to treat symptoms of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, metabolic problems, digestive disorders, mental health and behavioral disorders, arthritis, and autoimmunity, among many other issues, does Old Age equate to the level of disease we see all around us today.

This is common throughout the industrial world, but it’s not normal. How many people can you actually name who are thriving and healthy and Do Not Have a Modern Chronic Disease??

I find that the very few Healthy Adults I have met were blessed with either an incredibly lucky genetic role of the dice, or they spend their lives daily fending off the effects of our modern lifestyle, exhaustively questioning the foods they eat, the sources of pollution they encounter, the personal care and cleaning products they use, the ways they move their body and sleep, etc etc etc. It is very telling in our Market Driven economy, that “health conscious” humans are regarded as strange creatures who pursue a fringe hobby, rather than people who are prioritizing the most important asset a person can have.

And this means that our healthcare system, which ranks approximately #37 in the developed world in terms of outcomes, is already broken, and as it strains under the COVID 19 crisis we have a chance to talk about the ways that human health could be prioritized instead of focusing most financial efforts on developing new drugs, vaccines, and treatments that don’t address the cause of human disease, and the imbalance we currently face in our interactions with the rest of the natural world.

I have been told by several people that all this is not super relevant right now, because Right Now we are dealing with a crisis. But is that really the best time to wage war? Is it a good strategy for public health advocates to scare an entire population with Death From Coronavirus fear statistics when the most at-risk populations by far are those who are already sick? Should we also hide in our homes and wear masks to avoid getting the regular flu, which also kills at-risk populations in fairly high numbers? It certainly is hard to face the fact that sometimes, people who are NOT at risk will die too. Should we really attempt to prevent EVERYBODY from being infected by a highly contagious virus in order to protect our most vulnerable citizens? Some say yes; the difficulties and costs inherent in quarantining the most vulnerable are too great. But isn’t it incredibly difficult and costly to implement society-wide lockdowns, which are essentially a mandate for rich and able citizens to isolate themselves in their homes, while the majority of the population - too poor to stop working - must try to fend for themselves and figure out the money/food/housing/childcare thing on the fly (maybe once that $1200 stimulus check arrives??)?

I do believe it’s a bit late to ask a fractured society to magically come together to Fight an amorphous enemy.

To instill fear into an entire population is a natural reaction for the news media and many politicians, in order to get people to Do What They’re Told with a Simple Message: War on the Enemy Virus. But it ignores the intelligence of each of us, and as the message becomes simplified and repeated 24/7, more fear and disconnection follow.

It is a shameful fact that illness is often blamed on the individual who got the illness, rather than treated as the public health crisis that it is. Any society is only as healthy as its least healthy residents, and I have been saying for years (until my children and others want to cover their ears when I speak) that the human body is so capable of healing itself, when given the right tools - good food to eat, good air to breath, good water to drink, clean (but not too clean) places to live, lots of time spent outdoors and sleeping. Ensuring that every citizen has a chance to meet these basic needs should have been our priority for many decades already, and since it’s too late for that, this should become our priority right now.

If we can flatten the curve for a few more weeks, great - but let’s recognize that we are behind the curve in creating a social safety net for ourselves, and while some of us are Sheltering in Place, many millions of us have been laid off, are now dealing with mental and other health problems while living under the additional stress of social isolation, and we as a society are spectacularly unprepared to bounce back to “normal” at the end of April. We should be spending at least as much time studying the people who recover from this coronavirus without dying (since after all, this is the goal for most of us!) as we are spending on studying those who die. We should be striving to create a future wherein we coexist with this virus as we do with so many, many others. While we’re at it, let’s talk about coexisting with a lot of other living creatures who inhabit Organism Earth along with us. COVID 19 has emigrated into ourselves. How will we welcome it?