The Ecology of Being Human

By Dickson Despommier

The sign reads: “Wet Paint. Please Do Not Touch”. Yet despite this simple warning, when we encounter one, what is the first thing we do? The next thing we look for is a rag to wipe off the tell-tale evidence of our misguided skepticism. We even have an expression for such events: “Curiosity killed the cat but satisfaction brought it back”.  For some lucky folks, the paint had already dried, and after proving the sign wrong, they are left believing that you can’t trust warnings in general. Experience tempers our actions, encouraging us to go beyond our common sense. That seemingly innocent, well-meaning warning sign, designed only to spare us the inconvenience of a clean up, often has just the opposite effect. It’s restrictive message, regardless of how gently stated, immediately stimulates the innate curiosity center in our brain, triggers a burst of risk taking, threatens our freedom, and raises suspicion of conspiracies.

But lets be clear. Our insatiable quest for new knowledge is what got us to this point in our global evolution, and for that we should all be grateful for being born human. Our species is fearless, regardless of circumstance. So here we are faced with yet another of nature’s myriad challenges. A pandemic the likes of which none of us has ever experienced. Well, maybe the influenza pandemic of 1918 is similar, but few of us are alive today that remember what it must have been like to live through that global tragedy. Along with the coronavirus infection comes the latest temptation to subvert us from doing the right thing. Obey the voice of reason/authority and all will be well in due time. Stay isolated from the rest of humanity regardless of whether or not we are infected, unless we are gravely ill. Can humans actually do this, or do we rely on instinct and test the waters of the unknown by venturing out and flauntingly disregard the strong suggestions issued by nearly every world leader.

Out we go, on Spring Break to the inviting beaches of the French Riviera or Florida, frolicking in the surf as if nothing was wrong with the world. Outrageous behavior, you say, except that it’s totally consistent with our human nature of disregarding anything that stands in our way of self-expression and freedom of movement. Are they heroes? In the eyes of their peers, perhaps the answer is yes. How odd. A well-attended kickboxing event held during the height of the epidemic in Thailand resulted in a significant spike in the number of clinical cases of CoVID-19, despite warnings to the general public to lay low for the duration. Italy and Spain have higher than usual rates of clinical cases and deaths from SARS CoV-2, attributed in part to their custom of kissing each cheek when greeting one another and possibly sharing through touch, communal objects for eating and drinking.

Yet there have been some remarkable exceptions to this reckless behavior, and in full support of the recommendations from those who know how to deal with epidemics. One such case in point is the northern Italian village of Vo, stuck smack in the midst of the raging epidemic currently in progress. The mayor of that quaint town, population 3,300, realized very early on in the outbreak that the only reasonable thing to do was to collaborate with the Red Cross and researchers at the University of Padua, by testing everyone in Vo, regardless of whether or not they were exhibiting symptoms. The 89 individuals in which the test came back positive were then quarantined. In fact, so were all the inhabitants of Vo. At the end of the second week of self-imposed isolation, they tested everyone again and found a dramatic fall in the number of positives. The plan worked beautifully because the entire village bought into the plan and hunkered down. No new cases arose. Given enough testing, this strategy should be effective in stifling the infection in most other places throughout the world, as well.

In short, those that continue to place themselves in harm’s way during times of need to save lives, not endanger them, are the ones we should admire and emulate. Today, all health care workers, from hospital attendants to chiefs of staff, doctors in the field and laboratory personnel working to the breaking point, are the real heroes. Let us hope that our innate will to survive supersedes our knee-jerk reflex to thumb our nose at the voice of reason during this period in human history that requires social cooperation at all levels.

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