We are now in the midst of what might be regarded as a raging pandemic in relation to the spreading impact of the coronavirus on human populations throughout the world. To me, this new reality is a not so subtle reminder of the precarious nature of civilization and the inescapable reality that our species in general and our place in the so-called “developed” world in particular does not grant us any immunity to the nature of our individual and collective frailty as living beings on our planetary home. We are all subject to the physical and biological forces that constitute our everyday existence for better or worse.
From a biological perspective, viruses portray unusual properties in that outside of living cells they are quite incapable of independent existence. They are specifically engineered to “infect” living cells and have the capacity to commandeer the cellular machinery that ordinarily sustains the life of the cell and appropriate cellular processes to a singular role – the production of more viral particles. They are so successful at this that the infected cell usually succumbs, and the viral progenies go on to invade neighboring cells that in the case of the coronavirus are the cells that constitute lung tissue. As entities, viruses have been among the living for billions of years. As a matter of fact, portions of human DNA contain the remnants of an array of viral DNA from many sources. In this regard, viruses have apparently played an important role in the evolution of life, including human life, on the planet. For this reason, viruses will always be with us.
Thanks to the multitude of scientific discoveries and the cumulative efforts embodied in scientific research, we are extremely knowledgeable regarding the biology of many viruses including the coronavirus and its mode of infection. One possible outcome of the acceptance of this basic reality, may hopefully be a renewed appreciation of the Commons – those aspects of civilization that are fundamental to the sustainability and viability of communal life. Examples of the these would be public health, clean air, drinkable water, adequate shelter and nutrition, etc.
It has become a patent reality that in the United States the wholesale neglect of the Commons has made us particularly vulnerable to this pandemic and its ineluctable impact on societal institutions. It also has placed particular emphasis on the essential importance of smart government leadership that places appropriate reliance on the important role that science and professional expertise can play in dealing with a national crisis such as this one.
It is my hope that the lessons from this throughout the world will find direct application in preparing for future calamities including climate change to help ensure the future viability of the species.