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We only think we're in charge

Chicago Tribune • Mar 10, 2020 at 2:30 AM

We walk the Earth's crust, we erect vast cities, we boast of our achievements. We see ourselves as the mistresses and masters of our fate. Yet as John Lennon and other writers before him bluntly warned, life is what happens while we're busy making plans.

The little living form that now roils humanity is a virus, one among millions of infectious agents that roam this planet. As the coronavirus claims rising numbers of lives, we humans see ourselves as under siege: Like its kin, this virus is without discrimination in selecting its victims; great wealth has its privileges, but immunity from epidemics isn't one of them.

Thus does nature once again remind us who's boss. And thus must today's only human species, homo sapiens, live up to its name: in Latin, "wise man." Wisdom should dictate that we best survive nature's anomalous moments when we look out for one another — when our actions and precautions protect the common good. More succinctly, either we humans hang together or we'll hang alone.

All the sanitizers ever manufactured cannot isolate us from a pathogen that blithely travels among us, shrewdly dodging eradication while often stopping to replicate. We can, though, diminish this virus' impact on a club with 8 billion members via the choices each of us makes one by one: Every handshake that instead becomes a bow or a fist bump, every cough that's buried inside an elbow, every food surface that's routinely wiped clean, demonstrates one more personal commitment to everyone else's good health.

Think of coronavirus, then, not only as a nascent threat to human respiration but also as the latest eruption of nature that demands our urgent attention. Such eruptions, many of them terrifying, are always with us. Consider, for one example, the earthquake, a routine and sometimes devastating force. If you enrolled in Geology 101, chances are the prof quoted a maxim of early 20th century historian-philosopher Will Durant: "Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice."

Nature relentlessly pummels us with these lethal challenges. We can debate whether the Great Chicago Fire was of human or bovine origin, but it could occur only because warm, dry weather severely dehydrated the American Midwest in October 1871.

Human behavior is shaping modern climate extremes. But by nature's patient clock, such anomalies have been occurring for eons. Tornadoes and floods may shock us, but they shouldn't surprise us. It's because our human clocks run faster that we label as extraordinary whatever new-to-us event nature delivers during our brief time here.

In the category of health pandemics, the Spanish flu of 1918-19 has become today's go-to comparison for the still spreading coronavirus. In a time of comparatively little mobility, that century-ago disease took half a year to travel the globe. It infected one-third of the world's population, or some 500 million people. It killed perhaps 50 million, maybe 100 million. Nobody knows with any certainty. And within 18 months, Spanish flu disappeared as inexplicably as it had appeared.

We have no idea what today's coronavirus has in store for us. Modern sanitation practices are more protective than those of a century ago, yet our world also is more densely settled. And even if a vaccine or other intervention thwarts today's virus, in time another will come along to menace us.

In our relative frailty, we humans are better suited to respect and try to adapt to nature's assaults than we ever will be to eliminate them. Respect, and then do what we can to limit their spread and treat their victims.

The mundane precautions we take to protect ourselves and one another against coronavirus aren't fail-safe. They do, though, give us today's best chance of surviving one more of nature's perennial reminders: We're the Earth's stewards, its temporary tenants. But we don't run the place.


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