On Easter, as the coronavirus was rapidly spreading, NPR’s “Weekend All Things Considered” carried excerpts from sermons from across the country. I was particularly touched by the way Presiding Bishop Michael Curry ended his talk at Washington National Cathedral, singing, “He’s got the whole world in his hands, he’s got the whole world in his hands. ...”
It was a powerful close that left me thinking: Just substitute “She” for “He” and you’ve defined the core problem we’re facing. For the first time in the life of our generation of human species, Mother Nature has the whole world in her hands. The entire planet is collectively facing the same challenges from the same coronavirus at the same time.
That has been the starting point of all my analyses. I try to ground all my thoughts on how to deal with this pandemic in the logic of Mother Nature and the laws of natural systems. If you don’t — if instead you start your analysis with politics or ideology, or the fact that you’re just tired of being locked down so what the hell, let’s throw back a few with the gang at the local bar and the virus be damned — you’re actually challenging Mother Nature to a duel.
And no one seems to be doing that more these days than President Donald Trump, who’s practically been sounding the all-clear lately, Mother Nature’s powers be damned.
I understand how people are desperate to save their businesses and get their salaries back. Anyone reading this column knows my heart has been with them from the start.
But if you define wearing a mask, or restrictions on the size of religious gatherings, as a sign of disrespect for your personal freedom — not an act of respect for Mother Nature when she has the whole world in her hands — you’re making a huge mistake.
Let’s remember, Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics, and the engine that drives her is one thing: natural selection. That is the quest of all organisms, to survive and thrive in some ecological niche as they engage in the struggle to pass on their DNA to their next generation and not end up among those that get returned to the manufacturer and decommissioned.
And that’s what viruses do, too: try to survive and replicate. The coronavirus, for instance, co-evolved with bats in the wild. But it apparently jumped to humans when someone ate an infected mammal in Wuhan, China. When it did, it made a warm home in human cells and tissues in ways that can harm or kill us. Once that happened, the coronavirus became just another one of Mother Nature’s fastballs that she throws at us to see who’s the fittest.
Mother Nature is not only all powerful, she’s also unfeeling. Unlike that merciful God that most humans worship, Mother Nature doesn’t keep score. She can inflict her virus on your grandmother on Monday and blow down your house with a tornado on Wednesday and come back on Friday and flood your basement. She can hit you in the spring, give you a warm hug in summer and hammer you in the fall.
As such, telling her that you’re fed up with being locked down — that it’s enough already! — doesn’t actually register with her.
All that registers, all that she rewards, is one thing: adaptation. She doesn’t reward the richest or the strongest or the smartest of the species. She rewards the most adaptive. They get to pass along their DNA.
And in a pandemic, that means she rewards a president, governor, mayor or citizen who, first and foremost, respects her power. If you don’t respect her viruses, wildfires, droughts, hurricanes, floods and so on, she will hurt you or your neighbors or your citizens.
Trump doesn’t respect Mother Nature, because he measures everything in terms of money and markets. He has no feel for natural systems, except golf courses, where he developed the illusion that he could tame nature, even building man-made waterfalls.
Mother Nature also rewards leaders whose adaptive responses are the most thought-through and coordinated. She evolved her viruses to be expert at finding any weakness in your personal or communal immune system. So, if your family or community is not utterly coordinated in its response to her viruses, they will find the tiniest cracks and make you pay.
Also, because Mother Nature is entirely made up of chemistry, biology and physics, she rewards only adaptation strategies grounded in those same raw materials. If your adaptation strategy is grounded instead in ideology or election-year politics, she will mercilessly expose that.
And remember, Mother Nature will not stop spreading this virus until either we come up with a vaccine to give us herd immunity or some 60% of us get the infection, overcome it naturally, and develop herd immunity that way. But her viruses don’t just magically disappear because of lockdowns.
It is true that the coronavirus hits different regions, climates and populations differently, and so each should be able to adapt a little differently. But as University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm recently told USA Today, over time “this damn virus is going to keep going until it infects everybody it possibly can” — until it meets a vaccine or natural herd immunity.
For all these reasons it’s clear, or should be, that the holy grail every nation needs to be looking for is what Dr. David Katz, a public health expert, argued from the beginning of this crisis: a “sustainable strategy of total harm minimization.” That means a strategy that would save as many lives and as many livelihoods as possible at the same time. We have to be trying our very best to do both, and we can.
“Our choice never had to be accepting millions of deaths from the virus or from economic ruin,” said Katz. We could have, and still can, acknowledge that different members of our population face different risks from COVID-19 “and therefore develop strategies that protect the most vulnerable in our populations and let the least vulnerable return to work — and thus achieve the best of both ‘lock it down’ and ‘open it up.’ ”
Basically China, Germany, South Korea, Sweden and many others have all been pursuing different strategies for sustainably and maximally saving lives and livelihoods. It is too soon to say that any of them has found the perfect strategy.
But what it’s not too soon to say is that they are all reopening in ways that respect Mother Nature, appreciate the need for coordination and are grounded in science. So they’re still requiring some degree of wearing of masks in public, practicing social distancing, restricting the number of people who gather in any enclosed space, protecting the most vulnerable and limiting further spread by massive testing, tracing and quarantining to contain inevitable new outbreaks — until they get herd immunity.
America, by contrast, is a mess. In some places you see reopenings that respect Mother Nature’s power, are coordinated and are grounded in science, and in other places you see crowded restaurants or a gym owner defying his governor’s guidelines as cheering demonstrators waive signs that read “My freedom doesn’t end where your fear begins.”
The people making those signs, and the morons on Fox cheering them on, don’t get it. We’re not up against each other. We’re all up against Mother Nature.
We need to reopen and we need to adapt, but in ways that honor Mother Nature’s logic, not in ways that court a second wave — not in ways that challenge Mother Nature to a duel. That is not smart. Because she hasn’t lost a duel in 4.5 billion years.
Thomas L. Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.