21 Questions for 2020: #10

#10. COVID-19 is trying to tell us something. What is the message in that virus-shaped, ever-replicating bottle?

Much like climate disruption or computer viruses, the rapid global spread of COVID-19 is showing us just how interconnected we are. What happens anywhere in the world, to any of us, concerns all of us, everywhere. 

Like heat waves, viruses do not discriminate, although it is true that the most vulnerable will always be disproportionately affected. On Earth these days, this means not only poor humans, but also all non-humans. 

I have been thinking about the bats and the pangolins, which are suspected of being the initial carriers of COVID-19. They have been suffering lately—bat populations have been crashing worldwide (along with the insects they depend on), and the poor pangolins, which look something like golden armadillos, have been hunted practically to extinction by the Chinese. COVID-19 is making it clear that what happens to other species matters to all of us. Their suffering will come back to haunt us too. 


Within the human realm, COVID-19 is teaching us the hard way about the dangers of outsourcing manufacturing supply chains to faraway countries. When the Chinese got sick, their health crisis reverberated around the world and hit global investors especially hard. Corporate executives had imagined that they could profit endlessly from reliance on “cheap” labor, and turned a blind eye to the effect this has had on the American working class. The opioid crisis and ever-rising suicide rates bore witness to the despair in America’s abandoned manufacturing communities. 

COVID-19 is showing corporate chieftains and investors that in the age of climate disruption and pandemics, exploiting some people and neglecting others is a losing strategy. Local resilience and self-sufficiency is essential, and will pay a “happiness dividend” as it puts people back to meaningful work in their own communities. 

COVID-19 is shining a light on the tattered state of the American social safety net. People are at the mercy of the health insurance industry, which can and often does bankrupt sick people with inflated health bills. The number of workers in the part-time gig economy, from adjunct professors to Uber drivers, continues to swell, and not only are these people less likely to be insured, they rarely have paid sick leave or any job security. COVID-19 is making it clear how this sorry state of affairs for millions of Americans affects all of us. 

COVID-19 is also weighing in on the question of air travel, forcing us to recognize that just because we can hop on a plane does not mean we should. Burgeoning air traffic is not only spreading pathogens around the globe, it’s also a key driver of climate disruption. But we now have technology that makes it quite possible to travel virtually. Though I can’t imagine that virtual reality will ever be able to match real live experiences, there are many cases where face-to-face interactions could be accomplished via video-conference. Many global gatherings could take place online. COVID-19 is urgently suggesting we reconsider the benefits of armchair traveling.

In my own field, higher education, the coronavirus is pushing faculty to think more creatively about how to deliver course content and evaluate student work online. While MOOCs (massive online courses) have not worked so well, it’s possible that smaller groups of students, under the attentive guidance of faculty, could learn just fine online. In fact for some students, it might even be better that way. 

Classrooms are often fraught, anxiety-inducing spaces, and the whole experience of living on-campus has in many ways lost its allure for young people—not to mention being very expensive. If we reconfigured education so that most content was delivered online, students could meet in person to focus on social skill-building, like how to deliver an effective presentation, or how to have a respectful, dynamic discussion. Or simply to have some old-fashioned fun together!

If there is a bright side to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is this: we are being pushed to become much more thoughtful about how we live and work together on our crowded planet. COVID-19 is forcing us to recognize that there is no way humans can flourish in a world where so many animals are abused and suffering; so many people are exploited, sick and unhappy; and where the Earth herself is over-crowded, contaminated, diseased and dying. 

In this interconnected world, what we do to others (whether other humans or other species and the natural world) will come back to us in spades. COVID-19 is telling us loud and clear: It’s time to clean up our act. 

Leave a comment


  1. Gerry

     /  March 15, 2020

    This COVID-19 pandemic looks like a “black swan” to me,
    It’s rare, unpredictable, and has major consequences.

    Of course, it is not completely unpredictable. My wife and I sometimes have lunch with 2 friends where we discuss many different things. For concerns about the future, one friend talked about nuclear war, I talked about climate change, my wife talked about pandemics,
    and sometimes dark damocloids).

    But this black swan, whether predictable or not, does show some serious problems with our current society. Definitely in business thinking (efficiency is overrated, resilience / robustness is important), and in philosophy (every man for himself is overrated).

    Of course, most or all of the problems shown by this black swan were not unknown before hand, many have pointed out the problems, but the society as a whole has ignored them. I think it is because we do not live in a real democracy, we live in a society with serious wealth, income, and political power inequality, where the powerful are (were?) satisfied with the status quo. This black swan will shake things up, but how much change will happen remains to be seen.

    I recommend the Wikipedia article mentioned above.

    I hope I don’t offend anyone when I say that in my opinion, this pandemic shows how right Bernie is.

    Best wishes and good luck to all of us.

  2. Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

     /  March 15, 2020

    Thanks, Gerry–I agree with you that this looks like a Black Swan event. Kind of the way we used to have “once in a century floods” that are now occurring more frequently, we may have to adapt to the global spread of viruses as a regular occurrence too. We are be tested in new ways, and toughened, I think, for what’s to come.

    I’m curious to hear more about how you connect the current health crisis to Bernie’s platform. Could you say more? I voted for Bernie in the primary, though I was sad to abandon Elizabeth Warren, who I think would have made a more competent day-to-day president than either Bernie or Joe. She just didn’t seem to have the necessary steam on Super Tuesday, alas.

    I have been shocked in recent weeks to see the Sanders campaign foundering–I suspect foul play, it just seems unreal that Biden could have such a sudden and decisive bounce back. I’m glad Bernie is hanging in there, as the twists and turns of this campaign season are totally unpredictable.

    • Gerry

       /  March 15, 2020

      Under the current “health care system”, many are uninsured or underinsured. And many of them are living paycheck to paycheck, Which means they have a difficult time paying for medical expenses. Which means they delay going to a doctor. And many of them don’t have sick leave. So there are people going to work sick and infecting others. Which contributes to the exponential growth of the disease.

      Under Bernie’s plan, Medicare for All, necessary health care would be free to people needing health care, people would not wait to go to the doctor, and they would stay home when sick. The public health system would know who is sick and who is not sick, provide proper social isolation and social distancing, and the pandemic would not grow so fast, and the health care system would not be as overwhelmed as it may well be soon. And we would all be at less risk of getting sick.

      His Medicare for All is not radical, it is similar to the systems in many European countries. And last I knew the US is faring worse in this pandemic than all European countries except Italy.

      Remember this pandemic began with one person in China in December, and now it is affecting thousands or tens of thousands.

      Yet another profound example of how we are all interconnected, and when one is hurt, many will suffer.

      I guess everyone is following this crisis. I hope everyone realizes there is a lot of misinformation out there, including some from our president. I recommend the websites for the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and your state and local public health departments. Unfortunately the CDC is underfunded, but it is still worthwhile.

  3. Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

     /  March 15, 2020

    Yes! We need universal health care, and a federal health policy, with a well-funded oversight office. I am impressed with the way Canada is responding to the COVID-19 threat, it’s possible they may get ahead of the curve and not have the runaway epidemic that is taking over the US. Thank you for sharing, Gerry. We are all interconnected. So true.

  4. Thanks for writing and sharing. Many hundreds, maybe thousands of us have been asking for a moratorium on the destruction of Earth, the suffocation caused as we slaughter trees. That this virus causes pain and difficulty breathing mimics what is happening to our atmosphere. I looked up the role of viruses in the web of life. They play a part in the carbon cycle of the ocean plus they transmit genetic material as they spread form being to being. Many of us (thousands) are visioning a new world filled with love and compassion. I chose to see it as the evolution of our species. Everything has a function. Our role is to keep resonating a vibration of love and gratitude, to grow compassion and let the ripples travel the planet with the virus. She is showing us how quickly she can spread.

    • Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

       /  March 16, 2020

      Yes, I agree with you–the virus is a message from Gaia, and part of the Earth’s natural processes of renewal and rebalancing. Understanding that helps to bring in a broader perspective, but it doesn’t ease the pain of living through these very difficult times. I hope that we humans come through it with more empathy for the animals that have been suffering because of our destructive practices…going extinct….I hope that this will prove to be a transformative initiation that leads to a new, much more respectful relationship of human beings to our planet. We can help make it happen! Now is our time.

  5. I so passionately hope that the “corporate chieftains” can take the message to heart. Alas, I am not so optimistic.

    In the short term, I’ve been wondering whether the pandemic may be having a positive effect on global CO2 emissions–that is to say, reducing them.

    • Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

       /  March 21, 2020

      Yes! These satellite images show it: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146362/airborne-nitrogen-dioxide-plummets-over-china

      Re the corporate chieftains, I have been wondering where Bloomberg and Steyer are now, with their billions. We could USE an infusion of cash to help in so many ways, right now!

    • Gerry

       /  March 21, 2020

      I don’t know what to expect from our “corporate chieftains”, they are a strange breed. (Although they are not all alike, consider Nick Hanauer’s “The Pitchforks are Coming”). But I think if enough people of good will and good heart work to improve things, the country and the world will be better. Do I know that? No. But it seems the best way to be.

      • Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

         /  March 21, 2020

        Yes, I actually think that this positive visioning is important, Gerry. We have to be care-mongers, not fear-mongers! It is possible that we will come through this a stronger, more caring, more aware and alert global community. I am sure the whole world will be vigilant about pandemics forever more!

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