What Nature Can Teach Us About COVID (and What Technology Can’t)

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

Let’s get one thing clear — I’m relieved the vaccine has arrived.

For the vulnerable people at risk who have been isolating for over a year, and the medical professionals who are exhausted in every way possible, this vaccine is big. The truth is, lockdown has been brutal in many ways for everyone.

So, a vaccine should be a good thing, right? Our salvation, you might think.

But honestly, I’m scared.

Not of any physical repercussions from the vaccine (although scenes resembling The Walking Dead have gotten the best of my imagination recently).

My fear lies in how the focus on technology-as-a-white-knight will affect us in a year’s time.

In short, I’m scared we’ll forget how this all started.

If asked how the COVID-19 pandemic happened, most people would likely say, “some Chinese dude ate a bat.” Others may have their own conspiracy of how the government is determined to rid the world of all us taxpayers and trained professionals¹⁵.

However, as this is a zoonotic virus, which is caused by pathogen spillover — when one species infects another — the cause has a much deeper origin.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), most emerging infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, are driven by human activities in the environment, activities where, unlike indigenous cultures’, involve a misunderstanding and disrespect of our natural systems.

Crucially, whereas indigenous cultures have a profound understanding and respect for our natural systems, these corporate-driven activities do not. The result is agricultural intensification, massive landscape changes, and rampant trade and travel that encourage disease spread.¹

As you can see from the chart below, we face a range of drivers:

As we look a little closer at these problems of growing human activity and rising infectious diseases, the truth is laid bare:

We’re now using our natural world as simply something to gain from, rather than seeing it as the complex, unimaginably intelligent system we can learn by.

The question is:

How did this happen? And when did it start?

“Nature and I are two.” — Woody Allen

According to Kesebir and Kesebir (2017), our disconnection from nature began in the 1950s. We can see this disconnection through cultural shifts, a decline in nature references, and an increase in virtual and indoor recreation activities.

Okay, hear me out, this won’t be a history lesson by any means.

Typically, once I start seeing dates before 2015, I’m gone, probably checking out TikTok, pretending I’m not nearing my mid-30s, sitting in oversized undies, reading about history on a Friday night.

However, I want to show you something interesting.

According to studies, this shift away from nature was due to notable societal changes in the form of a massive increase in technology and consumerism (hiii old-school TV ads) and wide-scale urbanization.²

However, the 50s also saw medical breakthroughs such as the polio vaccine and Penicillin — developments in the medical world that could be defined as medical technological advances, if we’re looking at the US Office of Technology Assessment’s definition of medical technologies.³

There had also been a recent disintegration of herbalism within Western cultures as the AMA standardized medical education between 1910 and 1935. This was largely due to competition between allopathic and traditional practices, which forced schools offering natural medicine training to drop their courses.⁴

With this loss of herbal-based medicine practices, we began to lose the mindset that Earth can heal. Once paired with certain mechanistic science philosophies such as Descartes’, “I think, therefore I am”, dividing the world between humanity and every other living thing, this human-nature severance widens even further.⁵

“Plants are all chemists, tirelessly assembling the molecules of the world.” — Gary Snyder

Herbs, Earth’s healing medicine, may not have been able to save us from The Black Plague, which resulted in a harsh lesson on hygiene for humanity (gross). However, numerous studies, real-life examples, and clinical trials have shown the many healing modalities of herbs.

And here’s the thing:

We’re not talking about healing issues back in the 18th century. We’re talking about the problems we’re facing right now. Today.

Studies from countries in both Asia and Africa prove herbs’ abilities to significantly reduce COVID symptoms, as well as the number of severe cases in hospitals.⁸

As seen in Kwon et al. 2020:

“Based on this guideline, herbal medicine treatment has been used in more than 50% of confirmed patients with COVID-19 in a region. In a recent study aimed at evaluation of the combined effect of herbal medicine and conventional treatments, the rate of symptom loss at discharge, the rate of chest computed tomography (CT) image improvement, and the rate of clinical cure were significantly improved and the rate of disease exacerbation was significantly decreased compared with those after conventional treatments only.”⁷

There have also been studies showing dramatic improvements in patient outcomes by using a combination of both Western and herbal medicine as opposed to just the former.

In fact, in the study done by Ang et al., 2020, combined therapy yielded a 45% more favorable outcome than just modern medicine alone.⁶

This combination provides doctors with additional methods of treating patients. Better yet, it also strengthens immune systems, paving the way for more resilient communities, and improved ecosystem health through empowered biodiversity…

…Which helps reduce the prevalence of infectious diseases in the first place.¹²

Phew.

But, did we hear about this?

Of course not!

As with any mass-produced treatment, the majority of these options requires further studies — and therefore, funding.

It’s no secret that modern medicine has enormous funding, backed by drug companies for research. Herbalism — or alternative medicine — has next to none.

While some people say it’s because herbalism is “dangerous”, these comments are likely from those who haven’t worked with herbalists who use “whole-plant” methods and proper dosages. Correct, informed practices not only make the bioactive compounds safe but incredibly nourishing to the body, unlike prescribed pharmaceuticals, the third leading cause of death globally.¹³

But modern medicine has money, remember?

So, of course, where the money goes, the media follows.

And once again, our gaze is directed towards technology in all its wonder.

The thing is, we’ve all been waiting for our white knight for over a full year.

More than 12 months, locked indoors as our mental health declined. Our most vulnerable on deathbeds without visits from loved ones, hooked up to ventilators. Meanwhile, patients suffer on waiting lists for other urgent medical needs, pushed down the queue, as our health system crippled under the weight.

But still, we gazed, and waited for technology to save us.

What This Means As a Species

“What happens to a species that loses touch with its habitat?” (Pyle, 2007).

The answer to that question is becoming increasingly clear.

Not only are there direct repercussions such as a global decline in mental and physical health¹, but as we can see from this past year, losing touch with our roots to nature has enormous implications on how we function and survive as a society.

And we’re not even including climate change here.

The health of our ecosystems is a direct mirror into the health of our species.

As Gandhi said:

“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another”.

So, when technology and big pharma come to our rescue, rolling out their vaccines to bring the pandemic to its knees, what happens next? Do we just go back to the way things were again? Back to normal, as so many people have been saying.

What I hope is that we don’t go back to “normal”.

“Normal” is what put us here in the first place.

Instead, I’d like to suggest going back to our roots, where we get back in touch with nature.

Ummm, what does that mean?

Simply being mindful while in nature can help encourage a sense of connectedness to the outdoor world while also boosting psychological wellbeing¹⁴.

Have you ever noticed how different you feel while in a forest, compared to your car or home?

You could start by planting something in the ground. Anything. Even if it’s an apple core that you’re sure won’t result in anything.

Just get your damn hands in the dirt.

And no, this isn’t hippy bullshit — remember our chat about hygiene?

This is science, baby.

“It’s not half so important to know as to feel.” — Rachel Carson

So, why am I scared?

I’m scared we’ll glorify the technology behind these vaccinations, and am almost positive the media will make sure we’re doused in articles on its wonders.

The truth is, pandemics will continue happening, worse and more frequently — the further disconnected we become from nature and the more that disconnection results in wreaking havoc on our natural systems for monetary gain.

So, is modern medicine bad?

No, it has amazing potential. Prosthesis blows my damn mind.

Is technology bad?

Hell no, I love that shit! I’m almost as proud of my 2012 MacBook for doing such a great job at existing as I am my own son.

The problem is we rely so much on these systems that it takes us away from what nature provides.

We are, after all, Earth people. We weren’t made in labs. (And even if we were, the tissues needed to create us would show that we share 25% of our DNA with trees.)¹⁶

Technology has let us down this pandemic because it’s failed to tell us how to avoid this brutal year from ever happening again. Instead, it’s assured us it will happen again. As long as we continue trusting technology, focusing on it, relying on it, glorifying it, and using our natural world simply as a means to coexist with it, then another pandemic is inevitable.

To tell you the truth, I messed up as soon as I wrote this article.

I focused it around journal-based evidence and scientific jargon… because I thought it would help prove my points, and make sense of everything.

But focusing on cognitive rationale directly opposes the point I’m trying to make.

To really get it, and make sure humanity levels-up from the rut we’re in, we have to remember how to feel things again.

Things besides a really good Instagram reel.

Canadian educator, author, and activist, Jeanette Armstrong has written about indigenous pedagogy and worldview.

She teaches of the Okanagan indigenous people’s way of speaking about themselves, in terms of the four capacities that work as one and connect us to the rest of the living world: the emotional self, the thinking-intellectual self, the physical self, and the spiritual self.

As Armstrong says, in this way of thinking (and feeling), land and people are one.⁹

Most days, I feel overwhelmed. As I mentioned, scared, and sometimes I just feel pissed off with the way we’ve handled this issue.

But then there are days when I look out my window to the Irish countryside, the hills completely engulfed in pink and orange hues as the low sunlight passes through molecules, the same molecules that fill my body.

And I sit, for a while, in that feeling as well.

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References:

  1. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/climate-change/qa-infectiousdiseases-who.pdf?sfvrsn=3a624917_3
  2. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315898636_A_Growing_Disconnection_From_Nature_Is_Evident_in_Cultural_Products
  3. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9780230286405_1
  4. Wright-Mendoza, J. (2019). The 1910 report that disadvantaged minority doctors. JStor Daily. Retrieved from https://daily.jstor.org/the-1910-report-that-unintentionally-disadvantaged-minority-doctors/
  5. https://iep.utm.edu/descarte/
  6. https://www.mdpi.com/2077-0383/9/5/1583/htm
  7. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2213422020301128
  8. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S094471132030235X
  9. Armstrong, J. (1996) “Sharing One Skin: The Okanagan Community.” In Mander, J., Goldsmith, E. (Eds.) The case against the global economy and a turn toward the local. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, pp. 460–470.
  10. Lange, E. (2009). “Fostering a learning sanctuary for transformation in sustainability education”, in Mezirow, J and Taylor, E.W. (Eds.) Transformative Learning in Practice: Insights from Community, Workplace, and Higher Education. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons Inc., pp. 193–204.
  11. Thomford, N.E., Yahaya, E.S., Ekor, M. and Awortwe, C. (2020) Turning Up the Volume for Precision Herbal Medicine in Africa in an Era of COVID-19 and Planetary Biodiversity Loss. OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology [online], 24(12), 682–684.
  12. https://www.cbd.int/financial/values/g-valuehealth.pdf
  13. https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2016/06/16/peter-c-gotzsche-prescription-drugs-are-the-third-leading-cause-of-death/
  14. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/eco.2018.0061
  15. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/26/survey-uncovers-widespread-belief-dangerous-covid-conspiracy-theories
  16. https://genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/

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