A few weeks into the coronavirus outbreak, and I’m affected. No, I haven’t caught the damn thing – luckily – but I’ll have to face the prospect, sooner or later, of running out of facemasks for my dental practice. Thanks to panic buying – even colleagues have been stocking up, it seems – my dental retailers have run out of facemasks. The net result is that if things don’t get back to normal, I will no longer be in a position to use a clean facemask for every patient. Starting on Monday, I’m going to have to make sure my stock lasts.
Despite the absence of a cell, a brain, and free-will, viruses in general, and the coronavirus in particular, have issued us all with a moral challenge, and have managed to make us question the very nature of our profit-orientated societies, and whether humans and viruses will be able to live together in a peaceful world.
In a strange way, it is the simplistic nature of viruses that we don’t understand. It disturbs us, and provokes short-term misplaced human reactions, like walking down the high-street wearing a facemask.
Believe it or not, the coronavirus is not here to kill you. Its sole purpose in life is to replicate. Viruses are the prime example of what French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre meant when he stated that “essence precedes existence.” In the same way that a spoon can be nothing other than a spoon, the coronavirus can only be what it is – a lump of genetic material that can do nothing else but replicate.
In order to replicate, a virus needs you to be alive, it needs your suffering to be discrete. And when you are no longer in a position to cater for its needs, the virus will leave your body, irrespective of whether you subsequently die. Such is the harsh truth that the morality of a virus represents. The life-cycle of a virus comprises a constant trade-off between virulence and spreadability. Coughing and sneezing caused by the coronavirus may go unnoticed, or be misinterpreted. Bleeding out of your eyes during an attack, will certainly not. The latter will trigger such an acute response from us all, that the virus has little chance of spreading.
The crux of the problem we all face lies in the delicate equilibrium between our complex bodies and psyches, and lumps of genetic material roaming through the air in water droplets. Contrary to our disrespect of nature, that is not evolving, the genes of a virus is constantly mutating. I am convinced that there will come a time when one particular virus will not be so morally inclined to respect the virulence/spreadability trade-off that we have agreed.
South of Wuhan, where the present coronavirus outbreak started, a largely unnoticed avian influenza (bird flu) infection is taking place in overpopulated chicken farms. The infection is caused by the avian flu virus, H5N1. In 1997, a mutation in the virus genome enabled it to cross the species barrier, and infect humans. In Hong-Kong, 1 of 9 infected children, and 5 of 9 infected adults, died. Up to now, the virus has not been able to spread between humans. If it does, we can expect a mortality rate of 60%.
There is a stark lesson to be learned from the present situation – we must not take for granted the equilibrium that is so widespread in nature. We must maintain the status quo, by respecting ecosystems. Feeding animals with human diets, for example, or stuffing them with antibiotics, is just asking for trouble. We must not tamper with the basic laws of nature, where every living creature and plant, depends on every other living creature and plant.
We must also learn to invest much more heavily in scientific research that will lead to a better understanding of how nature works and of what we can do to protect it and ourselves. We are all part of the same world.
The greatest danger we face, is forgetting about this crisis once it has passed, and letting the acrid truths of economic greed take over science and morality. If we do, there is more than a chance that somewhere in the world, in an unknown cave, a bird carrying an unknown virus is ready to fly away from its nest, and head towards our cities.