Thursday, April 16, 2020

Fighting our instincts

Before beginning this post, I reread my entry from March 24th, which was my first post about the coronavirus.  At that time, I had noted that there were about 400,000 cases of COVID-19 in the world, 17,500 confirmed deaths.  Here in the US, it was the first day we had lost 100 Americans to the virus, our largest loss of life up till then.  I had surmised that this record would, unfortunately, continue to be broken, and that we might expect 1 million cases worldwide by the beginning of April.

As of this morning, we are over 2 million cases worldwide, with over 135,000 dead.  In America, just in the last 2 days, almost 5 thousand people died.  We have over 600,000 confirmed cases, and will have lost 30,000 Americans to the virus by day's end.  In just 3 weeks, worldwide deaths have increased almost by 8 times, and the 1,000 deaths in America is now pushing 30,000, and all this despite the devastating economic damage being caused by the almost nationwide stay-at-home orders!

It is not inconceivable that the world might see 100 million cases by the fall of this year with over 1 million people dead.  I imagine that America will account for 5 million of those cases, perhaps as many as 75,000 deaths.  I don't consider this an alarmist position, or some kind of end-of-the world prediction, as those numbers come no where near the infection and death rates of the Spanish pandemic of 1918-20.  While there are similarities in that the pandemic of the early 20th century spread rapidly due to a lack of herd immunity across the globe, and was not well understood, both points being true of this current virus, our understanding of mitigation and our acceptance to engage in this approach, plus the advantages of world wide cooperation to battle the disease, bodes well for less sickness and death in this instance. 

Remember, the Spanish flu infected upwards of 500 million people in the world, and killed upwards of 50 million people, depending on the data you believe.  But it occurred during WW1, when the world, already reeling from the horrors of trench warfare, mustard gas poisonings, and daily death counts from the war in the thousands, was not focused on the disease.  Despite the occasional petty quarrels we are experiencing recently in regards to who did or didn't do what, when, for the most part the world is working together to stop the spread.  We won't see the kind of appalling numbers that transpired 100 years ago, because we are aware of the danger, and have implemented a course of action.  The Spanish flu, did not originate in Spain, its name came from the fact that the Spanish press reported on it as there was a concerted effort to suppress information about the flu by most countries.  The world was at war so distrust between countries was prevalent, and leaders were concerned that the masses might either lose interest in fighting a war, or panic over the spread of the disease, or both.

This is where our instincts can become an obstacle.

We hear about a new strain of flu in a far away land, and we dismiss it.  Not just because it seems so far removed, but because we have witnessed other possible virus scares, the bird flu, the swine flu, even ebola, which turned out to be serious but contained.  We believe in modern medicine, we believe we are smarter than people were 100 years ago, we believe that a pandemic can't happen in modern times, or can't happen in America, or can't happen to me and my family.  Call it a defense mechanism, call it an integral part of our DNA which keeps us living as opposed to worrying about dying, our instincts tell us that the threat is overblown. 

We see that only 100 people have died and think, well that is an infinitesimal percentage of the population, no problem.  Then it is a 1000, and well, still a low percentage. Then it is 10,000, and well, that is less than car crashes, and then it is 25,000, and well, that is a normal flu season.  Like the frog in water that is slowly brought to boil, we fail to see the trend, or fail to think that the trend will reach our homes.  I am sure that when it reaches 60,000, more than the Vietnam War, more than the Korean War, some will say, well, that is the cost of war, whether against a foreign enemy or a virus.  I imagine that should we approach the death toll of WW1, a bit over 115,000, there will be some who will cite the population percentage, and, well, that wasn't so bad either.

When an animal senses a fire, it runs in the opposite direction, as its survival instinct kicks in.  I would certainly not deny that the human animal doesn't react similarly, but I do believe that our ego, our over active sense of self, does interfere with this natural tendency to flee.  Simply stated, if we were told that terrorists were randomly roaming the streets killing everyone they encountered, that 30,000 Americans had been killed in such a way in the last month, and that these terrorists could not be recognized by site, we might instinctively stay at home, stay at a distance from others, keep our children near us, isolate those least able to defend themselves. 

COVID-19 is such a terrorist, yet it is invisible.  It will infect us through our friends, neighbors, co-wokers, and family, so we resist the urge to flee.  We even, at times, challenge the direction to avoid contact, as if it is our right to be infected and then to infect our loved ones.  Especially in America, but true of most countries which value freedom, our instinct to resist being told what to do wins out over what should be our desire to survive.

I have not hidden my opinion of President Trump.  Regardless of that perspective, I would like to think that my evaluation of his devotion to his instincts is accurate.  He has listened to them all his life and they have served him well.  Financially secure, held in high esteem by millions of people, one of only 45 men to hold the title of President of the United States.  Taken in combination with my belief that Americans are already predisposed to doubt the malignant nature of a virus, President Trump's high regard for his ability to sniff out an opportunity and avoid a danger, easily explain why he hesitated to fully embrace the danger of this virus. 

This is not to say he didn't make some good decisions.  But he had to fight his instincts to make them.  His instinct that America is strong because of our economy.  His instinct that the voting public would care more about the economy than its health.  His instinct that taking advice from others is a sign of weakness.  His instinct that "experts" in the various governmental bureaus and agencies did not like him.  His instinct that loyalty is more valuable than competency. 

I know that some of this sounds like criticism of the president, and perhaps it is, but I am attempting to communicate that his very strengths as perceived by his advocates, are the obstacles he must overcome to lead America through this crisis, just as some of the virtues of the American people, self-reliance, resistance to authority, belief that nothing bad can happen to America since God is on our side, are becoming obstacles to fighting the spread of this malady.

President Trump's biggest flaw is his inability to admit when he makes a mistake.  Someone who does everything perfectly, will never examine the results of his actions, and therefore can not learn to improve his future decisions.  And perhaps too, that is America's biggest flaw. 

We have made the mistake of continuing the belief in employer provided health care, and now see how an economic downturn creates a double whammy for Americans who are unemployed, especially during a health crisis. 

We have made the mistake of putting all our eggs in the basket of consumerism, and now find ourselves facing the consequences of a population and a business community with a woefully inadequate ability to withstand an emergency; very little savings and limited ability to access loans or grants. 

We have made the mistake of increasing deficit spending during the greatest economic surge in our history, and now face an explosion of national debt to prevent a deep recession. 

We continue to support policies that widen income inequality, tax cuts that favor the rich, corporate welfare at the expense of small businesses, laws that reward tax avoidance by the most wealthy individuals and business entities, and will soon see how the rich were buying at rock bottom prices during this downturn while the rest of America saw their meager savings depleted, and the foundation of their financial futures cracked.

The good news is that we have learned from the mistakes made during the pandemic of 1918-20.  We will lose less global citizens to COVID-19.  Whether we address the mistakes we have made in the past 40 years which have created such an imbalance in the distribution of wealth and our ability to address, and recover from an emergency, is not as certain.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Saving Mountain Gorillas, and Ourselves

An interesting article in the April edition of the Smithsonian about mountain gorillas.  Mountain gorillas appeared in our collective consciousness with the publication of primatologist Dian Fossey's book entitled "Gorillas in the Mist" (and the film of the same name 5 years later), in which she detailed the plight of these majestic creatures who share 98% of their DNA with mankind.  The fact that her research indicated that gorillas in general, and this sub-species in particular were one of the most maligned animals in the world, was starkly confirmed when she was murdered, not by one of her subjects, but by human poachers whose illegal activity (and murderous treatment of the mountain gorilla) was revealed by Fossey.  One particular poignant quote from her book is

"After more than 2,000 hours of direct observation, I can account for less than 5 minutes of what might be called aggressive behavior". 

Quite a big difference between her research and the commonly held opinion by most people concerning a gorilla's disposition and behavior.

The main point of the article is to provide good news about the mountain gorilla, in that the world population of these animals has increased, perhaps by 4 times, since Fossey began her work in the early 1980's.  While that sounds impressive, we are talking about a population today of roughly 1000 animals, but even that low number, when broken down by the number of fertile females and babies, is enough to move the status of the mountain gorilla from critically endangered to endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.     

How did this come about?

The article cites two main reasons.  First, since animals do not respect national boundaries, the work by conservation groups and the governments of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to establish and link various national parks and reserves to provide the mountain gorilla with a continuous habitat (about 300 square miles) was a good beginning.   But more importantly, those from outside the communities began to allow those villagers who live in proximity of the gorillas to participate in the decisions about how to best protect both the animals and the livelihood of those who depend on the land for survival.  In short, change the dynamic so that the local populations perceived the gorillas in a positive manner as opposed to competitors. 

When a village raises cattle and hunts for bush meat for its survival, and believes that a gorilla will negatively effect those efforts, it is very easy to facilitate the capture and removal of a gorilla.  But when a gorilla guide can earn more than a poacher, or when selling produce to the local lodge which houses tourists is easier than selling it on the streets, or when working at or managing that hotel pays more and is less tenuous than herding cattle, then people will be more willing to protect the reason behind their new economic opportunities.  It becomes a beneficial relationship; a win-win so to speak.

Additionally, as the article plainly states, "Poor people are drawn into insurgent militias for economic reasons.  They just want a better life".  So, providing the villagers with an alternative to illegal and/or terrorist activities for their income, becomes a double win-win as it reduces the violence of the area as well, which is especially important in the DRC which has been ravaged by civil strife for decades.

Which brings us to Sapiens. 

While it is not fair to extrapolate the actions of a handful of villagers in Africa to all of mankind, I don't think it is a stretch to identify our need for security, a better life, or economic advancement as relatively universal desires.  We extol those ambitions via our glorification of individualism and self reliance, despite condemning it in those who find it critical to cross a border to seek it out for themselves and their families.  And, sadly, we too often attach the accumulation of large sums of wealth, wealth beyond the needs of oneself or one's family, as a laudable goal, despite the consequences for many other people that result when too much wealth resides in too few hands.

Still, if we agree that the carrot of an economic uplift can alter perspectives and actions, then can we apply this theory to two pressing situations; battling COVID-19 and addressing climate change.

It is no surprise that almost instantaneously with the beginning of the various decisions by mayors and governors to enact guidelines for social distancing which resulted in the shuttering of businesses, there were those who cried foul, that we can't allow our economy to go down with the virus battling ship.  And while it was easy to discount those objections when they came from the rich and influential, CEO's and political pundits who might suffer economically but not to the point that they would lose their home or stand in a food line, it was easy to understand the everyday person who lives paycheck to paycheck and now faced the very real possibility of not having an income for 2 months. 

How do we apply the lessons of convincing a villager that the gorilla up the hill is an ally when we believe that the gorilla is an invisible germ, or a slowly changing climate?

The coronavirus is an enemy that must be defeated before we can get back to some sense of normalcy.  But the gorilla is not the germ, just as the gorilla was never really an enemy of the villagers, only the scapegoat they used to justify how they behaved.  In fact, the gorilla was an answer to some of their problems all along, if only they had valued the life of a fellow species, and had thought about how preserving that life might help improve their own.

The gorilla that we all face is the process of altering our lifestyles for a while in order to prevent the loss of tens of thousands of Americans, hundreds of thousands of other Earthlings.  The gorilla is the paradigm that makes us believe that we need more of everything, that money is more important than the lives of our parents, older siblings or elderly neighbors, that the economy must be preserved above all, even though we have a history full of cataclysmic economic events from which we have recovered. 

COVID-19 is just the latest disaster that we are encountering that should be reminding us that we have only one planet, that we need to work in concert with each other to maintain its health, and that battling and killing over pieces of land is like two fleas fighting to determine who owns the dog. 

Similarly, climate change itself is not the gorilla that we fear but the changes, the paradigm shifts that we will need to embrace that worries us.  Are we noticing that limited travel has produced a tangible effect on the air quality over the Western nations?  Does that mean we should stop travelling when this is all over?  Of course not, that is the problem with false choices.  We can have a clean environment and still travel, we just need to embrace the changes in our development and use of energy that will provide the best of both worlds.  We need to counter those who argue that changing over to a more environmentally friendly energy policy will be detrimental to our economy with the benefits that those changes will bring, just as many villagers learned to embrace the idea that saving the mountain gorilla would benefit them.       

I am reading a book which I will post about in the near future, which reminded me that humankind has only been around for a blink of an eye when compared to our planet, not to mention the universe.  Both will go on without us, should we fail to begin acting with a much bigger perspective.  If nothing else, saving mountain gorillas reminds us that if it wasn't for human intervention, mountain gorillas may be extinct today, and that if it wasn't for human activity, mountain gorillas would never have been in danger to begin with.  Likewise, we can be the savior or cause the demise of our own species as well.