The barn­storm­ing coro­n­avirus hum­bles homo sapi­ens: We only think we’re in charge

Once again na­ture re­minds us who’s boss. Ei­ther we hu­mans hang to­gether or we’ll hang alone.

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - EDITORIALS -

We walk the Earth’s crust, we erect vast cities, we boast of our achieve­ments. We see our­selves as the mis­tresses and masters of our fate. Yet as John Len­non and other writ­ers be­fore him bluntly warned, life is what hap­pens while we’re busy mak­ing plans.

The lit­tle liv­ing form that now roils hu­man­ity is a virus, one among mil­lions of in­fec­tious agents that roam this planet. As the coro­n­avirus claims ris­ing num­bers of lives, we hu­mans see our­selves as un­der siege: Like its kin, this virus is with­out dis­crim­i­na­tion in select­ing its vic­tims; great wealth has its priv­i­leges, but im­mu­nity from epi­demics isn’t one of them.

Thus does na­ture once again re­mind us who’s boss. And thus must to­day’s only hu­man species, homo sapi­ens, live up to its name: in Latin, “wise man.” Wis­dom should dic­tate that we best sur­vive na­ture’s anoma­lous mo­ments when we look out for one an­other — when our ac­tions and pre­cau­tions pro­tect the com­mon good. More suc­cinctly, ei­ther we hu­mans hang to­gether or we’ll hang alone.

All the san­i­tiz­ers ever manufactur­ed can­not iso­late us from a pathogen that blithely trav­els among us, shrewdly dodg­ing erad­i­ca­tion while of­ten stop­ping to repli­cate. We can, though, di­min­ish this virus’ im­pact on a club with 8 bil­lion mem­bers via the choices each of us makes one by one: Ev­ery hand­shake that in­stead be­comes a bow or a fist bump, ev­ery cough that’s buried in­side an el­bow, ev­ery food sur­face that’s rou­tinely wiped clean, demon­strates one more per­sonal com­mit­ment to ev­ery­one else’s good health.

Think of coro­n­avirus, then, not only as a nascent threat to hu­man res­pi­ra­tion but also as the lat­est erup­tion of na­ture that de­mands our ur­gent at­ten­tion. Such erup­tions, many of them ter­ri­fy­ing, are al­ways with us. Con­sider, for one ex­am­ple, the earth­quake, a rou­tine and some­times dev­as­tat­ing force. If you en­rolled in Ge­ol­ogy 101, chances are the prof quoted a maxim of early 20th-cen­tury his­to­rian-philoso­pher Will Du­rant: “Civ­i­liza­tion ex­ists by ge­o­log­i­cal con­sent, sub­ject to change with­out no­tice.”

Na­ture re­lent­lessly pum­mels us with these lethal chal­lenges. We can de­bate whether the Great Chicago Fire was of hu­man or bovine ori­gin, but it could oc­cur only be­cause warm, dry weather se­verely de­hy­drated the Amer­i­can Mid­west in Oc­to­ber 1871.

Hu­man be­hav­ior is shap­ing mod­ern cli­mate ex­tremes. But by na­ture’s pa­tient clock, such anom­alies have been oc­cur­ring for eons. Tor­na­does and floods may shock us, but they shouldn’t sur­prise us. It’s be­cause our hu­man clocks run faster that we la­bel as ex­tra­or­di­nary what­ever new-to-us event na­ture de­liv­ers dur­ing our brief time here.

In the cat­e­gory of health pan­demics, the Span­ish flu of 1918-19 has be­come to­day’s go-to com­par­i­son for the still spread­ing coro­n­avirus. In a time of com­par­a­tively lit­tle mo­bil­ity, that cen­tury-ago dis­ease took half a year to travel the globe. It in­fected one-third of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, or some 500 mil­lion peo­ple. It killed per­haps 50 mil­lion, maybe 100 mil­lion. No­body knows with any cer­tainty. And within 18 months, Span­ish flu dis­ap­peared as in­ex­pli­ca­bly as it had ap­peared.

We have no idea what to­day’s coro­n­avirus has in store for us. Mod­ern san­i­ta­tion prac­tices are more pro­tec­tive than those of a cen­tury ago, yet our world also is more densely set­tled. And even if a vac­cine or other in­ter­ven­tion thwarts to­day’s virus, in time an­other will come along to men­ace us.

In our rel­a­tive frailty, we hu­mans are bet­ter suited to re­spect and try to adapt to na­ture’s as­saults than we ever will be to elim­i­nate them. Re­spect, and then do what we can to limit their spread and treat their vic­tims.

The mun­dane pre­cau­tions we take to pro­tect our­selves and one an­other against coro­n­avirus aren’t fail-safe. They do, though, give us to­day’s best chance of sur­viv­ing one more of na­ture’s peren­nial re­minders: We’re the Earth’s ste­wards, its tem­po­rary ten­ants. But we don’t run the place.


Work­ers wear­ing pro­tec­tive suits spray dis­in­fec­tant as a pre­cau­tion against the coro­n­avirus in Seoul, South Korea, on Feb. 26.

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