Our Biggest Weakness Is To Think We Are Invincible


Weakness, is thinking of oneself as invincible. – Roberto Saviano


Exactly one month ago, I started cancelling appointments at my dental practice, following advice from the Dutch dental association to only treat acute emergencies, and avoid patients who have been tested positive for the coronavirus or who present symptoms, like the plague.

We are lucky in the Netherlands. We can still go for walks, ride a bike, and go to the supermarkets without a certificate. On the whole, the Dutch population has heeded the governmental restrictions and applied the social distancing measures that are needed to combat the virus. It seems that the measures are working to “flatten the curve,” to the satisfaction of the Dutch government.

But deep down, I have changed. My practice will re-open, of course, but I ask myself how. How can my relationship with my patients go back to the way it was before the outbreak? Will I have to register body temperatures as they pass through the doorway? Even that, is full of uncertainties since studies have shown that coronavirus patients do not necessarily have a fever.

Surely if I can get tested, I should have nothing to worry about? The answer is no – again. The DNA test will only tell me if I have the virus at the time of the test.  I will never be sure if the test I carried out last Wednesday is still valid. Yet another uncertainty.

And there lies the problem that we all face – uncertainty. 

The Age of Enlightenment was supposed to push away, for good, the last boundaries of religious beliefs and popular superstitions. We took it as scientific fact that the sky would not fall on our heads. We have now conquered and mastered nature, by understanding fundamental biological principles, and using our knowledge to shape the outside world as it suits us.

But despite microchips and lasers, pesticides and genetically modified tomatoes, we remain more fragile than ever. Our biggest fragility is to think that we are invincible. We are not, and our finitude in an infinite universe is what characterises us as a species. The quicker we realise that, the quicker we can change things.

The change begins with humility and respect. We need to be humble and understand  our relationship with nature. We must also respect the value of human lives, the importance of health systems and, above all, we must tear ourselves away from the obsession we have with profits.

In many ways, the bats that live in China, and whose unwilling contribution to the present pandemic, is more than probable, have done better than we have – much better. Ironically, it is these very same bats that might be part of the solution, if we manage to understand why and how they can live in harmony with so many viruses in their midst.

Contrary to what happens in humans, where an excessive immune reaction causes acute respiratory inflammation and distress, the bat’s immune system reaction to a viral attack is remarkably controlled, thanks to a rapid suppression of the immune response, once the virus threat has been dampened. 

At best, if we cannot understand what happens in bats, let us at least leave them alone to live in their virus-rich world. Bats don’t have much contact with humans, unless we do our best to find them and seek unwanted contact ourselves. The bad news is that humans tend to excel at doing their best.

The second lesson to be learned from the pandemic, is that we must radically change our attitude to, and love of, money. Whereas a policy of overspending is ill-advised and dangerous, our constant crave for making profits is no less advisable, and equally harmful.

Just take a look what has gone on in Italy. The country’s most prosperous region, Lombardy, has been decimated by the pandemic, with over 11,000 deaths. It might well be that a whole generation has been lost. In comparison, its neighbour, the equally prosperous Veneto, reports less than 1000 victims. For Italian author, Roberto Saviano, the reason for such discrepancies lies with the way the two regions tackled the outbreak – a direct consequence of the macchiavelic relationship between money and power, where money and power take precedence over health and human lives.

Be that as it may, from a purely scientific point of view, Lombardy’s approach to the pandemic was wrong. But Lombardy is not alone in having chosen a wrong course of action. Identification of asymptomatic individuals, carried out to a much greater extent in Veneto, was the key to identifying and isolating pockets of infection, no matter what the financial consequences of massive testing and isolating a large number of people, early in the infection.

Global identification of individuals with or without symptoms, and tracing all their contacts, remains the only viable option to get us out of lockdown, in the absence of a proven vaccine. Test kits could have been manufactured and made available long before the pandemic got out of hand. The responses of South Korea and Germany underscore the importance of such testing carried out on a massive scale.

Unpreparedness  for a pandemic in Western countries is just another symptom of our acute weakness. It is a weakness that stems from human conceit, combined with a misplaced sense of superiority. We were all under the impression that pandemics only took place on foreign soil, that we all got an acute bout of gastric flu only whilst on holiday. Some of us might even have had a precautionary jab, before jetting off to some unpronounceable place under the sun.

Let this be a lesson to all of us, a lesson that has cost – dare I say it – money, but more importantly, lives.