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The Corona virus pandemic: curse or learning challenge for a sustainable world

By Werner Sattmann-Frese - posted Wednesday, 29 April 2020

In his article entitled 'We can't go back to normal: how will coronavirus change the world?' Peter Baker suggests that the current pandemic is a "once-in-a-generation chance to remake society and build a better future" (The Guardian, 31/3/2020). He also notes that it can make existing imbalances worse, and we can indeed see now that in some countries attempts are made to enshrine new control structures, or, as we can see with Hungary's president, to use it to undermine democratic principles and grab the presidency for life.

At the same time, there is another story. Considering the strong link to immunity, the Covid-19 challenge can also be regarded as a litmus test of our current states of emotional and ecological sustainability. If we get seriously sick, we may have to conclude and accept that we have indeed endangered our health through harmful lifestyles, neglected our emotional integrity, lost our work-life balance, and neglected our physio-emotional self-regulation to a dangerous degree, behaviours that increasingly more of us have to engage in to survive in increasingly exploitative and inhumane societies.

What, then, can we learn from the current pandemic? And will we, in hindsight, regard what is now mainly perceived as a catastrophe, also as a driver for the long-overdue increase in ecological awareness and a restructuring of our economic activities. After all, it is remarkable that this virus pandemic has achieved in a few months what decades of urging by ecologists has not been able to achieve: a significant reduction of our ecologically unsustainable hyper-consumption and exploitation and pollution of the planet (see for example Bahro, 1994; Nadeau, 2006; Victor, 2008).


Sadly, but also predictably, the currently emerging massive reduction in consumption and pollution is not socially equitable and has the potential to lead to unnecessary and counterproductive economic and social destruction. When a conscious and equitable downsizing of our economy would have enabled us to avoid hardship, the current fear-driven managed collapse of our economy has the potential to drive many economically vulnerable citizens into homelessness and severe mental health problems.

This article presents five learning challenges that, I believe, we have to embrace if we want to tackle the current pandemic and avert ecological catastrophes and the final collapse of our ecosystems and humanness through even more violent ones to come.

Learning from the virus

When researching how bacteria protect themselves from the effects of medication seeking to destroy them, the German biologist Wolfgang Pollmann discovered in the 1970s that they achieve resistance by modifying some of their genetic code (Pollmann, 1982). They then also share these altered code fragment by docking onto other bacteria to provide them with the code thereby bestowing them with immunity. Some of us could learn a lesson from these socially-minded bacteria. This so-called horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is, not surprisingly, an integral part of nature's self-regulation and adaptation mechanisms. According to Pollmann, the dissemination of viruses is another way of sharing genetic code. They contain gene fragments used by the same and different species to share vital information needed to adapt to ecological changes. As we can read on the Antimicrobial Resistance Learning Site, "[t]he advent of molecular biological approaches proved that resistance genes are also horizontally transferred among bacteria at a rate that was greater than previously expected" .

Marine biologists have also found that in our oceans 90% of the biomass is microbial and viruses assist in modifying 20% of the DNA of this biomass daily. All this is done for the sole purpose of the survival and thriving of nature (see also Hunter, 2010).

The learning challenge for us here is to adopt an ecological and biological view of viruses and infection and abandon the current profit-driven medical view that has distorted ecological and biological understandings of nature's regulation systems into a 'fighting the enemy' and 'dodging the bullet' discourse to promote cures of illnesses rather than their prevention through conscious and ecologically sustainable living. After all fighting viruses seems pretty pointless if we accept that "there may be a hundred million times more viruses on Earth than there are stars in the universe". Ironically, the current emphasis of cures over prevention contradicts the view held in population health that most lasting positive health changes have been preventative, not curative, with the introduction of sewage systems only one famous example.


It takes two to tango

While the currently necessary, but also lopsided, 'dodging the bullet' isolation approach promoted by health officials and enforced by politicians is undoubtedly necessary to limit the number of deaths by matching the infection rate with the available medical resources, it is suggested here that this containment approach with its associated challenges should only be one of three necessary approaches to the pandemic. Widely missing are campaigns explaining to citizens the importance of increasing their immunity to infection and how to achieve this. After all, if viruses were hostile monsters out to get us, most people getting infected would also get seriously sick and possibly die. That this is not so demonstrates that our compromised immune systems caused by ubiquitous stress and unhealthy lifestyle choices are the main problem.

Socialised in the current paradigm of 'us and them', and committed to the profit interests of corporate companies and their shareholders, most politicians seemingly cannot afford to point out that the main causes underlying our current immunity and other mental and physical health problems are the increasingly unbearable and dangerous levels of exploitation that dominate the emotional and social lives of most of us. Who is not experiencing these days ongoing rounds of 'rightsizing' at their workplaces? Who is s not working in a casualised workforce or the so-called gig economy, or even experiencing prolonged phases of unemployment because jobs are outsourced or increasingly performed by machines? Who is not because of these and other reasons chronically distressed, often using illicit or prescription medication to get through the day? We have been indoctrinated to believe that it is possible to continuously increase 'shareholder value' through increasing exploitation without eventually creating a response in the form of a social revolution or, as we are seeing now, a pandemic with widely fear-driven responses such as hoarding. It is also possible that future research, when viewed in the context of the current changes, will show that the current 'irrational' fears may be our unconscious fears of living in an uninhabitable world (see Havenaar, 2002; Wallace-Wells, 2019) and shame about leaving this world to our children and future generations.

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About the Author

Dr Werner Sattmann-Frese is a Senior Lecturer at the Jansen Newman Institute in Sydney. After studying medicine and psychotherapy from 1977 to 1984, he has been in private practice as psychotherapist and supervisor for more than 30 years. He has completed a Master of Applied Science degree in Social Ecology in 1998 and a PhD on the psychological causes of ecological deterioration in 2006. Before joining the Nansen Newman Institute in 2011, he has worked as a casual lecturer at the University of Western Sydney from 2006 to 2010.

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