This Virus and its Lessons

We have all been subjected to a trial of the will in the last few months. The Covid-19 disease is far from the worst that has ever assailed mankind. The Black Plague took half of the population of China and one third of the population of Europe in the fourteenth century. Yet with our vastly more efficient communication abilities we are nearly infinitely more aware than the people of the fourteenth century. We will learn the “habits” of this coronavirus; we will learn how to combat it; we will find a vaccine or some other way to obviate the terrible punishment the disease has visited upon us.

That said, while fully acknowledging the brutal toll Covid-19 is exacting, and in no way trying to minimize the disastrous nature of this twenty-first century pandemic, I would like to offer a few thoughts about some social and economic lessons we could learn from the experience.

The Earth is facing an imminent calamity more lasting and more serious than the attack of the virus, if one can imagine such a thing. That calamity emanates from the Technological Revolution and the resulting capitalism leading to the ruination of the environment, and the depletion of the “resources” we think we cannot live without. If permitted to continue to flourish, this  mode of living will without doubt lead to making the planet unlivable to humans, and perhaps to most other living things as well. The scourge of the coronavirus provides us some clear object lessons as to how we might escape this dilemma. I present a few ideas of the nature of some of those lessons.

Thanks to the pandemic, the number of vehicles on the roads has been drastically reduced. This means a lot less carbon emissions into the atmosphere, which means cleaner, healthier air. As the pandemic has progressed, the number of vehicles on the roads has increased concurrently. But at least for a while, the air was much clearer. Satellite photos of Beijing were actually of Beijing, rather than of a smoggy cloud of some of the worst air on the planet. I visited Beijing in 1980, and even then the air was almost unbreathable. This was the first time in decades Beijing air was clear of smog. Having a persistent pandemic of a contagious, lethal virus is no way to clear the air. But it does show that air pollution can be reduced enough to make breathable air.

We all know that many of the waters of the world are polluted, and more often than not one cannot see more than a few centimeters below the surface. During this pandemic, imagine the astonishment of many television news viewers to see a video of a large jellyfish swimming regally through the clear waters of a Venice canal. Italy was one of the nations hit hardest by Covid-19, yet in just a couple of months, this canal had been cleared of mud, sewage, and other pollutants.

We also know that the coronavirus pandemic will eventually come to a close. The great pandemic known as the Spanish Flu that occurred at the end of World War I took millions of victims. Horse-drawn carts went about in European cities collecting bodies, and dumping them in mass graves. Suicides were common, and many thought the end of the world, Armageddon, was at hand. October of 1918 was the worst, yet by the Armistice in November, the epidemic had for the most part disappeared. Amazingly, in short order, the ghastly disease was forgotten, unlike the War to End All War, which is still remembered vividly. We don’t know how the current pandemic will end. Perhaps the virus will sort of fade away. More likely it will become endemic, returning every year less intensely than at present.

So, what are some of the lessons to be learned from the experience of suffering through Covid-19? I can only deal with one or two of the phenomena revealed by the viral onslaught. I do not bring these to the fore because I want to trivialize the pandemic or, even worse, try to assert that it is beneficial. No, clearly the pandemic is an unmitigated disaster for humanity, and for that matter, for many other species as well. Think, for example, of the hordes of hogs that may have to be slaughtered with no way to process them into edible pork. Let’s all pray to whatever we believe in that this virus and others like it can be brought under control.

Yet we have seen some physical phenomena resulting from the situation that would be desirable if they could be brought to bear without having thousands dying from a terrible epidemic. I cannot offer a path to achieving this, but observations show us that things we might have thought virtually impossible are quite feasible, if only we can figure out a path. First, we have seen how the air can be rapidly cleared to give us healthier lives. Also, we have seen how once polluted waters can be made clear and clean. The big question is how to get it done. The only thing I can offer here is an opinion that to reach these goals requires a fundamental structural change in how our society operates globally. That opinion contains a belief that capitalism must go. It is predicated on the proposition that we must have more, more, more to survive. I’m not sure how we can get around that, but we must develop the attitude that enough is plenty.

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