Covid-19 and now what?

Covid-19 – it’s here and it’s hurting, but are we reacting in the most rational way? Of course it is difficult in confusing and chaotic times like this to know exactly what is happening. Which lives are we saving and which ones are we sacrificing? And who is questioning the government’s actions? 

There are lots of ways to answer these questions, but in a nutshell,  I believe we are going about this the wrong way because our social system and philosophy of living are fundamentally at odds with nature. The basic principle of life on earth is that there is death too. By not respecting this principle and nature itself as a living organism, I think the current approach taken in New Zealand and other countries with a similar management plan is doomed. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know the right approach either, nor do I think that we should just sit back and do nothing at all, but I think we need to seriously question what is happening right now. What will the consequences of our collective action be? We need to understand this so we know how to prevent such a situation in the future to avoid the threat of an epidemic becoming the ‘new norm’ that we will have to live with in perpetuity.

Firstly, let’s take a good look at our response to the corona virus known as Covid-19. What are we doing, and why?

New Zealand isn’t alone in its approach – governments all around the world are trying desperately to stop the virus before it takes hold and wreaks havoc on healthcare systems. These measures are a reaction to what we’ve learned about this particular virus so far. It is very contagious, spreads quickly and affects the most vulnerable, such as the elderly and infirm. To reduce the risk, to “flatten the curve” of cases, we’re instructed to do all we can to avoid picking it up. 

We’ve been told that the best way to avoid Covid-19 is to avoid contact with people. In part this involves creating a ‘bubble’ and using it to distance ourselves from others. We’re instructed to stay in our bubble unless we need to work in, or buy from, an essential service. If we have to leave our bubble we are encouraged to practice good hand hygiene, sanitising ourselves before and after with chemicals that destroy not only harmful viruses but good ones too, along with many of the friendly bacteria that call our bodies home. The Level 4 lockdown and creation of our bubbles is driving us apart, isolating us from friends and family and affecting every single part of our lives. Isolation causes fear – the threat is invisible and can come from any quarter, so we are afraid of others and rebel against those who threaten us by seemingly flouting lockdown rules.

The more afraid we become the more easily we can be manipulated. Fear breeds a climate ripe for authoritarian systems to take over and repress and exploit people, in ways we’ve seen in history but hoped never to see repeated. It might not seem an immediate threat in New Zealand, but it is a very real threat for many people around the globe. And even here in our quarter-acre pavlova paradise there is a dire lack of discussion and critical analysis of the government’s programme. Why is nobody questioning these extreme measures?

And what are we hoping to achieve? We are being told that ‘flattening the curve’ is essential to prevent our health system becoming overwhelmed by critically-ill people, and to prevent the unneccessary death of many. Of course compassion and conscience call us to avoid this terrible possibility and thus we agree to these draconian measures and intrusions into our lives. But what are appropriate restrictions for how many lives saved? Nobody would argue against staying at home to save a million lives. Or to save 100,000 lives. But should we still stay at home for 10,000 lives? Cause irreparable damage to society for 1000? What about 100? Where do we draw the line? Is one person’s life saved worth it? 

To the relatives of any person dying of this disease the loss will feel real and they will hurt and nobody but themselves can fully appreciate the  depth and severity of that loss. But this is always the case with any death and people die all the time and those who do are elderly or infirm, are the ones most likely to succumb to a dose of the flu or the accumulated consequences of their chronic diseases. The vast majority of people dying from Covid-19 is over 80 years old. And nearly all of them are already sick and have underlying health conditions that make them likely to die within the next year. So how many that would die of Covid-19 now, would have died this winter anyway?

Source: Our World in Data (https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus#case-fatality-rate-of-covid-19-by-age)

The price we are paying to flatten the curve is too high. We may be keeping people alive but we are killing the economy. Absolutely killing it. While some may consider it heartless to put money before mankind I’d like to point out that it is a healthy economy that finances everything mankind needs and that a crumbling economy will cause many people to suffer far-reaching consequences. 

Around the world millions of businesses will breathe their last breath due to Covid-19, and even here in New Zealand that number will be in the thousands. Yes, the government can bail out some of the big ones, but is the government going to bail out everyone? What are we going to get then? State planning and communism? Millions of people around the globe will lose their jobs – have already lost their jobs – losing not only their income but also their ability to be independent and live a life of self-determination. Even in our own small patch the government warns we can expect a best case scenario of around 10% unemployment if our lockdown lasts only four weeks, but up to 30% if the lockdown is extended and the world economy as a whole crashes. With fewer taxes coming in and more benefits going out, where is the next $20 billion rescue package going to come from? Just a short period of rescuing everything will cause even a financially stable treasury like ours to buckle under the pressure. 

Source: Bloomberg, 01 April 2020

The New Zealand Dollar is not the world’s reserve currency, so if our creditors get a whiff that our economy is going to fall flat on its face there could be a sharp fall in value of the NZD. As a country that imports way more than it exports, this will hurt everyone of us who buys things that are not made in New Zealand. Think about that. Think about just how many things you buy are made overseas. Prices will go up and in an economy plagued by high unemployment rates this will ad further insult to injury.

Eventually the lockdown restrictions will be lifted but all of us who followed instructions and stayed in our bubble hiding from the virus will be just as likely to contract the virus then as we were before, since we’ll have built up no immunity. So what happens when a new outbreak occurs? Will the government order us all back into lockdown, again and again until the miracle vaccine is found? We will have exhausted our financial options to the point where we can’t do anything and will still end up with our health system overwhelmed as we all contract the disease. At the same time there will be mass unemployment and unprecedented levels of hardship to deal with. 

So let’s assume the best case scenario: maybe in New Zealand we did go hard enough and fast enough and we get lucky, containing the virus and getting back to trading with each other in a somewhat normal fashion. The rest of the world is unlikely to be as lucky . The virus will run its course, nations will develop herd immunity, and our only way of protecting ourselves is to keep our borders closed, living in fear of foreigners and the hidden passengers they may bring with them.

There’s much work going on in laboratories around the world to develop that miracle vaccine. But finding a vaccine is not that easy. There still isn’t a vaccine for HIV/AIDS despite health professionals and scientists announcing that a vaccine was only a couple of years away in 1984! The urgent development of a vaccine runs the risk of lack of thorough testing for efficacy and side-effects – the greater the urgency the less likely we are to hear or see these results. Once developed there is also the question of who will get it? Perhaps it’ll be reserved for those who can afford it, or those most likely to succumb to the disease. Or worse still, will it be forced upon all of us, even if we consider the threat of the virus minimal since we are not over 70 and not sick? 

I have a MSc in microbiology and in the last few years working as a baker have spent a lot of time understanding the connection between the microbiome and our health and I fear very few viruses – they are all around us and the vast majority of them cause us little or no harm. Even the coronavirus Covid-19 appears to pose little  threat to the vast majority of humans. It appears to prefer frail, elderly people and those that have serious pre-existing conditions. This is a group with an already-reduced life expectancy, often less than a year. While I admit it’s always sad to lose a close friend or relative (I know, I lost my mother just over a year ago and she was not even 70) it is ultimately a very basic fact of life: people die! In nature nothing lives forever. Everything that is alive will eventually die, generally the weakest and oldest first. And isn’t that how it should be? Wouldn’t it be much worse if the lives of the young and fit got shortened and cut off at the knees? Yet this is exactly what our response to this virus threat might be doing. We are sacrificing the lives of the young, even though we might not notice it right now as we are not going to be measuring those lives in simple terms like with the infection of Covid-19. No, those young lives will die the death of a thousand cuts. Cuts to education, cuts to health care, continued poor housing, more environmental damage, limited job prospects –  the despair and despondency that will follow will damage an entire generation.

So why are we doing what we’re doing? While I appreciate that the government had to make decisions very quickly, based on information that changes daily, I think our panicked response and reaction to Covid-19 stem mostly from our Western inability and distaste for talking about death. We cannot think about it, we cannot speak about it and we cannot accept that at times we are unable to prevent it. I have experienced this first hand with my own mother. She had a long and slow decline, suffering from an incurable and inopperable cancer. Despite the family knowing all the facts and her inevitable death creeping closer and closer, my mother was unable and unwilling to talk about it. I tried. I read many books and took courses on how to talk about death with a loved one. I took three months off work to spend time with her and be there for her when she was ready to talk about the deadly elephant in the room but no chance! She refused to talk about it and acknowledge it until the day she died. She left behind my father, robbing him too of the opportunity to talk about what was happening, and my sister, with whom she’d fallen out many years earlier and who was refused the opportunity to make peace. Please understand that I know from first-hand experience how difficult this is. It hurts losing a loved one no matter how old they are. Our medical system doesn’t make it easier for the elderly or terminally ill and their families to accept the inevitable. It is largely based on the curative model, where an inability to provide a cure is seen as a failure, and a good death isn’t a viable option. Everything must be done to avoid death, no matter the cost. 

If politicians are now being guided by those who work within this medical system it’s not surprising they have adopted the same approach, and EVERYTHING must be done to avoid anyone dying!  

The sad fact is that this Covid-19 crisis is going to affect everyone in society in almost every country in the world, and as always, the most vulnerable will bear the greatest cost. If you’re struggling in your comfortable Mt Eden bubble, spare a thought for those at home in a cold damp rental with four hungry kids and an angry man. Or the homeless who would love to wash their hands but are missing all of the required equipment. This week our nation’s children are due back to school and again those in the most disadvantaged households who lack high-speed internet connections and sufficient access to devices will be the ones that are going to be the least able to learn properly. So many people already leading lives of disadvantage will suffer further hardship through job losses and worldwide financial depression to allow the elderly and infirm to continue on their relatively short journey to their last breath.

I know, I know, we’ve all heard reports that some healthy young doctor or nurse has died from it too. But we don’t know the exact details of these people’s health – they may have had some underlying condition that even they were unaware of. And it doesn’t change the overall statistics that the vast majority of people dying from Covid-19 are elderly, with an average age of 80 years old. I am going to make a very outrageous suggestion here: why aren’t we asking the very people we are trying to protect if they want their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to live impoverished lives for decades in order that they can live a few months longer? They might understand that there’s more to life than just being alive at any cost, and a life without income, security and some sense of agency is not much of a life at all.

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) particles (virions), computer illustration. Formerly known as novel coronavirus, MERS was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Most people infected with MERS develop severe acute respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

So what should we do? Every country in the world seems to have taken the same approach. Are there countries that manage the threat of Covid-19 in a different way? I’m very interested in the way Sweden are treating the present threat. The Swedish government are encouraging social distancing, but haven’t gone as far as banning gatherings or instigating lockdown. Large crowds are banned, but factories, offices, pubs and shops remain open, keeping people in work and the economy ticking over so there are financial reserves to cope with healthcare needs. Schools and childcare remain open, as the risk to young people appears very low, while aged-care facilities are severely restricting visitors. This gives protection for the most vulnerable while allowing those at low risk to carry on living. The responsibility has largely been handed to the people to do the right thing – take extra care where needed, but keep working, learning and playing as much as possible. 

Sweden is interesting for another reason – they have very open policies about data. I think in order to make better decisions we need better, more comprehensive data here in New Zealand. In Sweden the government publish all the medical data relating to a Covid-19 death. Age, pre-existing medical condition and severity of this condition, co-morbidity, actual cause of death (which in Covid-19 is often pneumonia caused by a bacterial infection), time from detection of infection with Covid-19 to time of death. Information is power, and accurate, up-to-date information such as this can ensure decision-making is the most appropriate for the current conditions. This could be taken even further with exploration of victims’ microbiome as there’s some evidence that people with a compromised microbiome have worse outcomes in influenza and cold epidemics because it’s such an important part of the immune response. This might reveal why some younger people, with no known pre-existing condition, die of the virus. 

The most crucial thing we can do now is trying to understand what makes us so vulnerable to something that is part of the natural world. Will our current reaction to this virus just make us more vulnerable in the future? The fact is humans are not separate from nature. We exist in collaboration and symbiosis with our microbiome, which includes microscopic organisms like funghi, bacteria, protozoa and viruses. We cannot sanitise them out of our lives and expect to be healthy. That is utter hubris and a complete denial of how nature works. In order to survive viral epidemics we need a strong immune system and a healthy constitution not drugs, masks and sanitisers for everyone. We need to address the underlying conditions: chief amongst them our constant poisoning ourselves with synthetic compounds found in agriculture and food, empty calories from highly processed foods, the overall poor nutrition that causes lifestyle diseases like diabetes, IBS, auto-immune diseases and allergies.

We need to ask ourselves what do we want for our collective future? Do we want to live in fear of each other isolated in our bubbles, kept ‘safe’ by masks, sanitisers and obsessive handwashing, never touching  a stranger again, never going to festivals, gatherings, weddings? Our children locked inside never to play with others, everything just experienced through screens? Do we all want to wear some kind of ankle bracelet that informs the government of our every move and allows us access to public life only if we have been taking the government perscribed drugs and vaccinations? Is this going to be our ‘new normal’? We are already on that path, all we need to do is continue walking down it.

Or do we take this moment in time to pause and reflect on what we really want? We are fortunate to be standing at a fork in the road. We can decide what really makes us happy and healthy and what doesn’t and use this to plan for a better future. Right now could be mankind’s moment of clarity, similar to the day when the addict wakes up in hospital and realises that something needs to change. We need to decide which of our bad habits can be left in the past and ways to make our new habits continue into a better future. The upswing in gardening, home cooking, composting, cycling and spending family time outdoors are heartening to see. In Auckland I’ve never seen so many people walking and cycling the streets, rather than the streets being completely ruled by cars. People are connecting with the people in their neighbourhood because they actually see them for the first time and have time to stop and have a chat. This provides a vivid contrast to the frantically busy, consumer-driven lives, where most of us lived in a different kind of bubble, insulated from the rest of the population as we rushed from place to place in our cars. 

‘The Wishing Well Bubble’ in Sandringham – not everything is bad about this forced pause to our busy lifestyles. People have time for contemplation, creativity and a lot of outdoor activities like gardening, walking, running and cycling. These guys went to quite some length to cheer up their neighbours and passers-by. Amazing, it makes me smile every time I run past.

We need a better understanding of how our pre-Covid lifestyles have made us so vulnerable to this invisible threat. We need to know what we can do to prevent another pandemic, another assault on our health, economy and way of life, as rebuilding these will take many years. We must also ask questions, hard questions, and think about what’s important to us as a nation. In New Zealand we have the benefit of being close to each other but far from the rest of the world. We are a small nimble nation of entrepreneurs and we are compassionate and tolerant, with diverse communities of people from all backgrounds, cultures and religions. We have a kind, compassionate and thoughtful woman as leader of our country. All these things mean we have the very best chance of making the radical changes that many of us knew needed to happen but were always too afraid to take action for fear of hurting the economy. Now that we have brought everything to a halt, we have the opportunity to reset, restart and refocus our energy into living a better, healthier, happier life – those of us who survive Covid-19 owe it to those who don’t. 

Some interesting reading and listening:

The Coronation: https://charleseisenstein.org/essays/the-coronation/?_page=4

Or as a podcast on Rich Roll’s podcast: https://www.richroll.com/podcast/charles-eisenstein-511/

The Money Week Podcast with Edward Chancellor. https://moneyweek.com/economy/global-economy/601080/edward-chancellor-governments-reaction-to-the-virus-will-come-back-to

Our World in Data, some basic facts about how data is gathered and what it means: https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus#case-fatality-rate-of-covid-19-by-age

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