It is a capricious little virus with a funny crown and a flimsy protein coat, zipping across the planet, leaving behind a trail of utter confusion, death and destruction.
And as nations rush to prevent exposure to COVID-19’s deadly effects, the virus is in turn exposing each one of them for whatever they are – good, bad or ugly. Depending on their responses to the deadly pandemic – humane or cruel, systematic or clumsy – the very innards of their systems are today open for everyone to see – like in a public autopsy.
At another level altogether, COVID-19 is stripping the human species itself of its various pretensions- of being in command of Planet Earth, muscular enough to beat any foe or clever enough to manage any crisis. Or for that matter even being ‘human’, as societies respond to the crisis with a mix of panic, prejudice and quest for self-preservation over others.
Sure, this is not the first time our world has faced a pandemic – the history of deadly infectious diseases like small pox or the plague going back several millennia. Despite all the devastation wrought, humans have not just survived such microbial assaults, but also developed clever ways to prevent or overcome them repeatedly – and will perhaps do so in future too.
However, COVID-19 has arrived when, more than any time before in history, technological prowess has created the illusion, that our species is immune to the laws of nature itself. From captains of industry to the politicians who front their cause and even among large sections of the general population, hubris about human achievements has been the dominant sentiment for a long time now.
A good example is the sheer arrogance with which anyone trying to mobilize global action to deal with the problem of climate change -potentially an even bigger crisis than the current pandemic – was being dismissed by those in power for the last decade or more.
‘Don’t you dare interrupt my orgasm!’ was the refrain of climate-change deniers along with those who benefit from the way industrial capitalism is set up in the world today – of a tiny minority of humans consuming endless amounts of energy while destroying the ecology and very future of the planet. (Thanks to COVID-19 much of the globe is today in lockdown mode, which is what may be needed to mitigate climate change!)
The malaise in the modern human mindset stems from the belief they are above all evolutionary and ecological processes, which stretch back millions of years. While this is true of those who deny Darwin’s ideas on how life arose on Earth, even those who endorse it in theory, seem to believe ‘Yes, evolution happened in the distant past, but today we are in the driver’s seat’. This is due to their almost blind conviction, that tomorrow’s science can always overcome every problem created by the one from yesterday.
What COVID-19 is really telling us in a spectacular and scary way is – the story of evolution – a non-linear process driven by many chance events – is not over yet and never will be. To understand why not, one needs to consider that for much of its existence, our planet, formed 4.7 billion years ago, has been essentially run by microbes like bacteria and viruses. Homo Sapiens, our species, emerged just 200,000 years ago and while we seem to dominate the visible world, we are nobodies compared to the invisible one, which is stupendous in antiquity, diversity and sheer scale.
Bacteria are better known and recognised for their role in a very wide range of essential phenomenon from fertilizing the soil, recycling waste, regulating atmospheric gases and even running critical functions within the human body. Viruses, poorly understood and studied till recently and not even considered a form of ‘life’, are as important as bacteria, if not more, and the most abundant biological entities on Earth.
The best current estimate is that there are a whopping 1031 virus particles in the biosphere. If all the viruses on Earth were laid end to end, they would stretch for 100 million light years. And in every adult human body, while there are 30 trillion human cells and also around 39 trillion bacterial cells, that is nothing compared to the 380 trillion viruses that live inside us (COVID-19 has come to visit its in-laws).
More significantly, their huge population, combined with rapid rates of replication and mutation, make viruses the world’s leading source of genetic innovation and key drivers of the evolutionary process. They are the ones who have since time immemorial ‘invented’ new genes that find their way into other organisms, affecting all life on Earth and often determining what will survive.
In other words, what we face in COVID-19 is essentially a force of nature – like an invisible tsunami- that cannot be stopped. Yes, ‘infection control’ or ‘lockdowns’ can buy some time to prepare better, but in the absence of a vaccine the virus will find a way to infect a very large section of the human population. The only thing we can do now is deal with the consequences (still not clear in the fog of media-driven panic), to the best of our abilities and wait till much of the global population acquires herd immunity, as part of a natural ebb and tide of all viral pandemics in history.
Ultimately, COVID-19 is also reiterating something that all humans know very well, but don’t like to acknowledge because they lack humility – we are just perishable biological creatures, like any other plant or animal. In the larger context of our planet and certainly the universe, we are so minuscule as to be just like microbes themselves (one more reason to treat bacteria and viruses with greater respect).
Even more fundamentally, we are products of nature and not ‘above’ it in any way. We will be again and again subject to both its creative, productive cycles as its sometimes whimsical, destructive ways. That is why preservation and enabling of life in all its forms – using mutual cooperation, human solidarity and all resources at our command – can be the only meaningful goal for societies, instead of chasing GDP growth or accumulation of wealth and military might.
Nowhere is this more tragically clear, than from the current plight of the United States, the planet’s ‘top dog’, being ferociously wagged by its tail in the ongoing pandemic. The world’s only Superpower is painfully learning, that natural phenomenon like climate change or pandemics, cannot be fought by fighter aircraft or nuclear weapons or with all the money in the world.
And though POTUS will never acknowledge this, he surely understands today, it is not he but COVID-19 that wears a crown, because in fact, the virus is the real ‘king’ of the planetary jungle.
Satya Sagar is a journalist and public health activist who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org