|Illustration by Matt Rota, stolen from The New York Times, and cropped (with apologies)|
Though my daily routine is only lightly influenced by the current stay-at-home normality (as I stopped working a bit less than a year ago), it has still afforded me additional time to do those things I've been meaning to do but managed to avoid by going out to more pleasant experiences, like concerts, movies, and dinners, that are now impossible.
So I'm sorting through old stuff, a long-overdue project. I'm not a hoarder (really!), but I do get lazy and take too long to complete things I've started. That's why I have a terrible backlog of unread newspapers and magazines in my room, but it's also why they don't just go wholesale into the recycling bin - I want to go through them first. I started and I mean to finish.
Over the past year, the occasional fit of constructive reviewing, sorting, and tossing of these archives always produces a gem or two - and so I am encouraged in my folly. This effect was more than abundantly clear a few days ago when I randomly picked up and read (well, cherry-picked) an entire Sunday New York Times from September, 2012.
In it, there was a spookily prescient op-ed by David Quammen, whose book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic was soon to be published. There he asked the question we all now know the answer to: What will cause the next global pandemic?
His answer included the following:
Scientists who study this subject — virologists, molecular geneticists, epidemiologists, disease ecologists — stress its complexity but tend to agree on a few points.
Yes, there probably will be a Next Big One, they say. It will most likely be caused by a virus, not by a bacterium or some other kind of bug. More specifically, we should expect an RNA virus (specifically, one that bears its genome as a single molecular strand), as distinct from a DNA virus (carrying its info on the reliable double helix, less prone to mutation, therefore less variable and adaptable). Finally, this RNA virus will almost certainly be zoonotic — a pathogen that emerges from some nonhuman animal to infect, and spread among, human beings.
In other words, the now universally loathed and feared COVID-19.
Quammen knew what he was talking about, but it's not like he was some sort of prophet. Indeed, as a good reporter, he cites his sources: Scientists. They knew, and we were supposed to be prepared. Oy.
Even more coincidentally, that same 2012 edition of The Times quotes Walt Whitman's famous 1855 poem Song of Myself, in which he stated "I contain multitudes." This phrase became the title of a 2016 book by the science writer Ed Yong, which beautifully and clearly explains just how ubiquitous and powerful microbes are. Those of you who know me well may remember my constant raving a couple of years ago that Yong's book had changed my worldview. Through it, I learned that the microbes have always been in charge of things on Earth, that they always will be in charge, and that we are merely their oh-so-temporary guests.
At this point, I trust that every well-informed person understands this truth, thanks to the novel coronavirus epidemic. The microbe is in control - we are completely at its mercy, now and for the foreseeable future.
That is our reality and it can't be denied (though some continue to try).
A seven-and-a-half-year-old copy of The New York Times has no consciousness or intention (neither does a virus), but it brought those qualities to life in me as I sat in my favorite chair, just reading and stirring up a little dust.
This life is temporary. We have very little control over what will happen to us from one day to the next. So, let's be smart and try to make the best of it. Be kind, be generous, be respectful. Love one another. Support the things you care about. Now is the time.
Note: Click here to read Quammen's entire op-ed.