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When will we ever learn?

“Shoot first, ask questions later.” That seems to be our standard approach to most threats, including COVID-19, in this case by accelerating the development and global mandating of a universal vaccine, as if that were the only possible defense.

Fear makes us impulsive and too impatient to weigh the inevitable unintended consequences of our actions, disinclined to seek out the real causes, and therefore doomed to repeat our mistakes of the past. Sixty years ago, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez sang, “When will they ever learn?” Maybe this global shutdown and navigating a reboot of the world economy will finally motivate us to consider more than one reactive strategy.

Viruses are not our enemies. In fact, scientists estimate that our bodies are inhabited by about 380 trillion viruses. What are they doing? Infecting and managing the health of the roughly 38 trillion bacteria that also live inside us.

But what about those viruses that can kill us?

Jim Collins, writing in the New York Times, reports that “most epidemics — AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more that have occurred over the last several decades — don’t just happen. They are a result of things people do to nature.”

He quotes Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist, as reporting: “Any emerging disease in the last 30 or 40 years has come about as a result of encroachment into wild lands and changes in demography.”

Scientists estimate that each milliliter of ocean water contains several million virus particles and that only 1% of wildlife viruses are currently known. Failing to address the cause of contagious human infections — contact with viruses alien to our bodies — and focusing instead on creating a weapon to kill them is like leaving the barn door open and developing elaborate ways to retrieve the horses. Why not just close the door?

Collins reports on one strategy: “In Bangladesh, where Nipah (an RNA virus) broke out several times, the disease was traced to bats that were raiding containers that collected date palm sap, which people drank. The disease source was eliminated by placing bamboo screens (which cost 8 cents each) over the collectors.” How many other simple, innovative precautions could be taken to minimize the possibility of another infectious outbreak, rather than putting all our eggs in one basket: inventing the perfect weapon?

Maybe we could finally examine our relationship with the natural world. We are conquering and domesticating more and more of the global landscape, disturbing wildlife, and then suffering the consequences. We usually plunder for profit, for instance, converting rainforests to farmland to grow beef to sell hamburgers, without thoughtfully considering the long-term consequences.

“Yeah, but look at how many jobs this new project will create!” Well, how many jobs are being lost right now, how much will this global shutdown and reboot cost, and what human suffering will result, short and long term? Worth it?

Ironically, nature is treating us exactly the way we have treated her. We’ve attacked with bulldozers, nature is responding with viruses.

Wearing masks, washing our hands, social distancing and quarantining is saving lives right now. This gives us time to reflect, if we choose, on our relationship with the natural world. The environment, for sure, but also that natural world inside our own bodies where trillions of viruses help us stay healthy.

We understand what it takes to maintain peace in our communities: treating each other with respect. That may turn out to be the most effective prescription for preventing or minimizing the destructive impact of possible future global pandemics. We humans live in a global neighborhood of unimaginable diversity. Until effective medicines are available (and even when they are) learning how to get along together may be our best defense.

Will Wilkinson can be reached at will@willtwilkinson.com. Email 600- to 700-word articles on all aspects of inner peace to Sally McKirgan innerpeaceforyou@outlook.com.