21 Questions for 2020: #19

#19. How does a bigger-picture understanding of the COVID-19 crisis change the questions we ask and the solutions we are able to perceive? 

Since the “novel coronavirus” burst onto the global scene in the early months of 2020, we’ve been barraged by “experts” telling us how to process the events unfolding before our eyes. Much of what they are saying boils down to common sense: wash your hands. Don’t sneeze in people’s faces. Stay home if you’re sick. 

COVID-19 is a nasty little bug. But it’s a strange bugger, too, because it doesn’t affect everyone the same way. Some people host this virus with no symptoms at all, while others get horribly sick and die from it. 

What is the solution to the mystery of why northern Italy was hit so hard, along with Wuhan and New York City, while in other places it is rolling through more or less like the common flu? 

The dominant voices—the experts who are testifying before Congress and sharing their views through major media outlets—don’t really have an answer for this, or at least, I have not heard one. 

But there are a few voices suggesting that the answer may lie not with the virus per se, but with the relative health of individuals’ immune systems. 

To me this perspective makes sense. We live on a planet that is naturally teeming with countless viruses and bacteria. Our immune system enables us to keep all the various viruses and bacteria that enter our system under some kind of balanced control, which we experience as feeling well

The problem we’re facing in 2020, according to researchers and activists like Winona Laduke,  Sandra SteingraberZach Bush and many others, is that for the past 70 years or so we have been systematically attacking and exterminating the natural microbiome of the soil, as well as contaminating our waters and polluting our air. Is it any wonder that so many of us have weakened immune systems, since we’ve been breathing, drinking and eating these toxic chemicals for our entire lives?

It is common sense to correlate those who are getting sick and dying from COVID-19 with what the doctors call “underlying conditions”: 

  • People who are already sick with chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and asthma are more at risk. 
  • People whose immune systems have been weakened by mental health issues like stress, depression and isolation are more at risk.
  • People who live in unhealthy environments are more at risk: cities with major air pollution and crowding; industrial areas, including Big Ag areas where toxic chemicals lace the environment; and possibly, though this is unproven, areas that are being suddenly flooded with 5G electromagnetic frequencies. 
  • Elderly people living in nursing homes are more at risk—no surprise as they are often living in poor conditions, with unhealthy food and lots of medications that disrupt their immune systems. 

Yes, it is true that we are hearing about the occasional young, healthy person who gets sick and even dies of COVID-19. But we are also hearing that doctors are being pressured to write COVID-19 as the cause of death even when they are not sure this is so—something to do with insurance payments. Many of the health care workers who have succumbed were probably stressed, exhausted and frightened—a potentially lethal “underlying condition” that a virus can exploit. 

I certainly don’t have the answers here, but at least, like Socrates, I’m willing to admit how much I don’t know. I want to stay open to a wide range of voices, knowing that in our age of viral fake news, all information has to be parsed very cautiously and with active intelligence. 

As usual, one question leads to another. Why, in the 21st century, have we seen such an explosion of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, auto-immune disorders, autism and mental health issues like depression, anxiety and addiction? Why, in the country that likes to think of itself as the richest and best in all ways (the United States, of course), is the population the sickest and most stressed and unhappy? How does the GNH (gross national happiness) correlate to a population’s ability to fight off “novel” viruses like COVID-19? 

Although I am in no way an anti-vaxxer (I have been getting my flu shot annually for decades, and made sure my children were fully vaccinated), I have to wonder whether a COVID-19 vaccine is going to be the magic savior that people are hoping for. A vaccine is not going to cure the underlying conditions that created the perfect storm from which the COVID-19 crisis emerged.

Curing what ails us means addressing underlying conditions such as: 

  • social inequality, poverty and crowded, unhealthy living conditions, along with the stress and unhealthy behaviors that emerge from despair and anger;
  • debt bondage that keeps people in harness to the system, preventing us from exploring creative forms of living;
  •  massively unhealthy agricultural practices that result in toxic soil, water, air and food; 
  • widespread chemical contamination from fracking and other forms of fossil fuel extraction and consumption; 
  • the relentless destruction of the forests and oceans that give our planet its oxygen and keep the climate system balanced.

None of this can be medicated or vaccinated away. There is no quick, clean, easy fix for any of it. But we do have many good ideas about how to start—visit the websites of Project Drawdown, the Bioneers or Yes! Magazine for lots of excellent ideas and inspiration.

It’s going to take slow, careful, loving regeneration to remember how to farm in healthy, sustainable ways, weaning ourselves away from the cheap industrial food that has been so damaging to both our internal and our external biomes. 

The way we educate our children has to change—no more sitting for hours at desks under fluorescent lights, learning how to take tests. To meet the challenges of the 21st century, we need creative, active, lively young people, who understand the importance of respect for the natural world, and who are not afraid to challenge orthodoxies and lead the way towards deep systemic changes in every aspect of life. 

A healthy Earth = a healthy human. I know people are imagining future scenarios where the health of the Earth becomes irrelevant, as human beings take off for Mars, or live on space stations, or transition into virtual reality—but is that really the kind of future we want to create and leave for descendants? 

I am a living cell in the great body of Mother Gaia. There is no boundary between us: every particle of my body is part of the woof and weave of her grand living tapestry, and every moment of my life she and I share breath. In death, I will return my body to her flanks to be regenerated in new forms. 

How could I not wish with every fiber of my being for the health of this grand system of which I am a tiny part? How could I not do whatever I can, with the intelligence and creativity I’ve been given, to ensure that the vitality of this system is regenerated, for the benefit of all life on Earth?

Solving the COVID-19 crisis is not about attacking a novel virus. There will always be more where those came from. It’s about restoring the well-being of the Gaian environmental and social systems—starting with lovingly tending our own individual immune systems, realizing that as we do so, we will also be tending the wider world that is our larger Being. 

Leave a comment


  1. Stephanie Mines

     /  May 15, 2020

    There is still time to turn this around. Covid-19 and the climate emergency are the same crisis. Covid-19 demonstrates how disconnection from Gaia impacts human health and development. It is a potent, wake up formed by tragic losses that signal the urgent necessity for a new way of life. We can restore our immune function. Resilience and regeneration are built into the human design. The real question is will we heed this wake-up call? I have always known that the health consequences of climate change were the eye of the storm. There is still, just barely, enough time for the inner climate evolution that will take us across this threshold. We need a groundswell of awareness.

    • Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

       /  May 15, 2020

      So true, Stephanie. If this doesn’t wake us up, I fear nothing will! Each day brings its quotient of hope and despair. We hang in the balance, and each day each of us has the potential to tip the scales….Thank you for all you are doing to wake us up in time!

  2. Beautiful column.

    Here’s a thought:

    We know what to do. There’s been no question what to do since, well, forever.

    So why don’t we do it?

    Isn’t all that is really needed a change of mind and heart?

    And isn’t the reason we don’t start there because, well, we all know that there is no possibility of a radical enough change of mind and heart, so we need to look at the purely external changes you list – all of which are wonderful and absolutely necessary.

    But then we come back, in a kind of vicious cycle – if we know all these things to do that you list, and we’ve known them for, well, forever, and human nature is not going to change, should we just give up?

    Well, look at the radical changes in behavior around the globe in just one month.

    This time, it was primarily due to fear.

    Is it possible that love and empathy and caring and compassion could emerge – spontaneously, with such force and power that it would result in at least as many radical changes in behavior?

    • Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

       /  May 16, 2020

      This is a provocative thought, Don. I do think that love and compassion can emerge from the compost heap of our current civilization, but they have to be cultivated, I don’t know if they emerge “spontaneously.” I think humans are born instinctively looking for and capable of giving love, but then we are conditioned by our circumstances, which too often stunt the growth of our compassionate heart-mind. Hope springs eternal with every new baby though; so perhaps a very important place to focus on would be supporting young parents to be the best versions of themselves possible. I was fortunate to have had wonderful role models in my own parents, and I had the kind of job, when my children were young, that allowed me to spend a lot of good time with them (I was a PT adjunct professor for my kids’ early childhood). I wish all parents had the support they need to be loving, patient and creative in raising their young children. Something to work on…..

  3. Imogen da Silva

     /  May 15, 2020

    Thank you for for your always considered words.

    I wonder if the reason many people are sick is because agribusiness has been feeding them more and more cheaply manufactured “food” that does not provide the nutrients to support a healthy immune system. And the people who can’t afford to pay for food that is grown without additives are the poorer communities who are in turn disproportionately beset by diabetes, obesity and heart disease, I believe, as a result of eating this “food”. They are the communities that have been hardest hit by the virus too.

    People are eating animals that have been pumped full of hormones and antibiotics and kept in substandard conditions to satisfy profits. Eating vegetables and fruits sprayed with chemicals to keep them “fresh” for longer. We need to go back to a time where we are grateful for everything Mother Earth provides.

    • Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

       /  May 16, 2020

      I totally agree with your analysis, Imogen. If the food we eat (along with the air we breathe and the water we drink) is toxic, then we are just poisoning ourselves slowly. I believe that what I (and many others) have thought was gluten-intolerance is really intolerance to all the herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and other additives in conventionally grown wheat. Starting with food safety and regenerative agricultural practices would go a long way towards improving the health of the planet and individual health. And don’t even get me started with factory beef, pork and chicken “farms.” I stopped eating red meat years ago, and I feel so much better for it–though I know my individual action doesn’t stop the industry, at least it’s a start, a personal stand. Any of us can do that, and I hope more of us will.

  4. Excellent take, as always. So many questions…

    Despite not having all the answers, we certainly have enough that we really should be acting on. C’mon people, let’s change the world! It can be a better, healthier place.


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