Fragile People on a Fragile Planet: A Reflection on the Coronavirus, COVID-19, Challenge
As I write this, the world is shut down. People are at home. I just talked by email with a student in Iran. He referred to what is happening as “chaos.” I have communicated with a professor in Israel and much of that country is now having the people work from home. I was going to present a series of lectures in Southeast Asia, but the people are prohibited from gathering in an auditorium. The doors to my own office building at the university in the United States now are locked.
The coronavirus has altered everyday life……all across the globe.
So many are wondering: How did this happen? When will this end? Will there be a mutated resurgence of this virus, as happened with the flu pandemic of 1918-1919? Will people continue to die? Will the economy die?
Prior to this pandemic, people were gathering, going about their lives, thinking that all they have to do to get the next cheeseburger is drive or walk to the nearest fast-food chain and there it will be. Now I hear that gun sales are skyrocketing and it is difficult to buy ammunition because people are awaiting food shortages and so others may break into their homes looking for sustenance.
The world is fragile, more fragile than we had thought. In reflecting on this, I think the collective ideas in so many areas of the world were centered on a logical fallacy that I will call modern-protection-through-science. Here is what I mean: As we look back on some of the pandemics throughout history, we see them occurring in the pre-scientific, pre-technological age. For example, consider:
- The Plague of Justinian which occurred between 541 and 542 AD. The claim is that about 100 million people died in China, parts of Africa, and Europe.
- The Leprosy pandemic of the 11th century spread throughout Europe.
- The Black Plague emerged between 1346 and 1351. An estimated 50 – 200 million people perished, wiping out about 60% of the European population.
- The First Cholera Pandemic of 1817 started in Russia, killing 100 million people, and spread to Great Britain, Spain, India, Africa, Asia, and the United States.
We now know through science that leprosy is a bacterial infection treated with antibiotics. Cholera, we know through science, is treated with rehydration and electrolytes. We are protected for the most part because of scientific knowledge. Yet, I wonder……have people become so reliant on science that they overdo it, thinking that pandemics are tragedies of the past and could never, ever visit us now?
It is this kind of thinking that I am calling the modern-protection-through-science logical fallacy. We go about our business as if the world is a rock-steady, protected place and we are the ones in control. If anything, this new pandemic, which continues to intensify as I write this, may be sufficient to teach us that, indeed, this planet is fragile, perhaps more fragile than we had thought. “Chaos” as the student from Iran put it in the email to me, is now present and throughout the world.
I further wonder if this modern-protection-through-science fallacy has led to yet another fallacy which is this: the-all-people-are-fine fallacy. If we break an arm, science and technology have a way of mending it. Yet, what about the broken heart? Does science have a cure-all for that? Have we been walking around not seeing the inner wounds in others? Have we ignored these wounds, thinking that all is fine and even if someone is not doing so well emotionally, well then, at least we have the science of medicines to assist. Perhaps, as is the case with Mother Earth, we might begin to see that people are fragile. People can break; people might be walking around with big wounds in them and they need more than science to aid them. Maybe they need real human contact, love, forgiving and being forgiven to be healed and to then aid others in their healing.
The COVID-19 pandemic, if anything, might be our teacher: The world is more fragile than we thought. People are more fragile than we thought. Our scientific age does not offer protection, at least in the short-term, from mutated viruses. Our scientific age does not offer protection from betrayals, insensitivities and insults, and bullying from others……that can break our heart. Yet, our knowing this just might motivate many of us to see with new eyes, as the late Lewis Smedes used to put it, and to see how precious each person is.
Science itself will not lead the way to this conclusion of how delicate and worthwhile each person is, but perhaps the pain caused by the most recent pandemic might lead the way to such a conclusion.