What a Tiny Virus Can Teach Us Deep Truths Unearthed by a Pandemic


If a pandemic can be said to have a slogan, this was surely it. Please, don’t take my word for it. Let’s ask Google.

As a search term, “together” drifted along for the past year, until it suddenly shot up in February and continued to rise worldwide, peaking in April.

Yet, if ever a slogan was laced with irony, this was it. Even as the SARS-CoV2 proved that we are all one species, susceptible to infection wherever we may live, our divisions by sex, class, race, nationality, politics, and social media surged to the fore. Even as we declared togetherness, the responsible among us stayed apart in painful isolation while the insurgents of idiocracy socialized freely. Even as science struggled heroically to track, treat, prevent, and cure COVID-19, the most anti-science administration in US history suppressed it—as did authoritarian regimes around the globe.

Surely, then, we’re entitled to respond in ironical fashion. This piece will break the rules of journalism, and perhaps the bounds of good taste. I don’t care. Hundreds of thousands are needlessly dead. To hell with the dispassionate, editorial “we.”

Here I am, a journalist, yes, but also a human and a humanist, trying to make sense of what’s happened and to draw some lessons for the future. No, scratch that—too trite. C’mon, let’s dig for deep truths.

This pandemic may not destroy civilization, but another certainly could. The role of pathogens in extinction is difficult to spot in the historical record, but it has surely been significant. In a much-cited paper, Brown University ecologist Katherine Smith and her colleagues found that in the past five hundred years, infectious disease was a factor in nearly one in ten instances of species extinction or critical endangerment. At present, frogs, bees, and bats are disappearing around the world, in part due to pathogens. What’s more, as the swift spread of the deadly coronavirus demonstrates, we are uniquely efficient at spreading germs.

Even more concerning, if COVID-19 can’t prompt us to give science due respect, resources, and centrality in our policymaking, the slow, implacable threat of climate change will surely overwhelm us. In short, if the truths the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed don’t make us stop behaving like idiots, our run could be done in this century.

To date, the signs aren’t good. As psychologist and author Mary Pipher says, “With the pandemic, it’s clear that this country is broken. Whether it’s race, income inequality, inadequate health care and social support, or the impoverished political debate, it’s all so clear now.”

Not only in the US, of course. Democracy faces radical insurgencies, corrupt oligarchies, and corporate triumphalism almost everywhere. In many countries, including our own, the voices of scientists are silenced, research is abused and starved, and policy is set by those it’s intended to regulate. Yet, there’s something distinctive about American idiocracy. A large chunk of our population is so obsessed with absolute freedom that they buy guns to battle a virus and demonstrate en masse for the right to break quarantine. They miss the essential distinction between civil liberty and anarchy, as do, it must be said, some of those who committed mayhem in the name of George Floyd. Still, hitting the streets in full battle gear simply because you’ve been asked to stay home to save lives is deeply different. What’s more, those I joined in a huge demonstration for Floyd and countless other black victims of murderous police brutality wore masks, kept social distance as much as possible, and brandished only their voices in the fight against injustice.

Writing in Medium, London-based commentator Umair Haque captures it neatly: “Freedom?…More like freedumb. …Who can even make sense of [the] circular firing squad of social suicide that America has become?”


WITH SO MANY ironic injustices to choose from, where to start? How’s this: a tale of two eye doctors. The opener: a ludicrous conspiracy theory blaming the Chinese for bioengineering the coronavirus gets the stamp of authority from the Trump administration, while it ignores the evident truth that by suppressing the truth, the Chinese government bungled its chance to limit the carnage. Having told federal scientists that their report on how to reopen safely would never see the light of day, the White House was hardly in a position to criticize Chinese censorship.

If its hands had been clean, rather than promote unfounded tales about a “Chinese” virus made in a Wuhan bioweapons lab, the Trump administration might have focused entirely justifiable outrage toward the mistreatment of Dr. Wenliang Li. The Chinese ophthalmologist was the first to sound an alarm about the coronavirus now plaguing the world—and he paid for it with his life.

On December 30, 2019, Dr. Li posted an online warning to fellow medical school grads that a new and dangerous coronavirus was circulating in his hometown of Wuhan. The hospital where he worked had several mysterious, stubborn cases of pneumonia. That day, Li had read a report from a colleague indicating that a SARS-type coronavirus was to blame. “Inform all family and relatives to be on guard,” he typed, sparking official condemnation.

The Wuhan health authorities claimed that the coronavirus couldn’t infect humans, and police forced Li to sign a self-denouncing retraction and apology. We might never have known had not a relatively independent Chinese news service called Caixin reported on his fate.

If the Chinese government had acted rationally and swiftly, the deadly coronavirus might have been contained, or at least slowed. But it was more concerned with national pride and information control, so the opportunity was lost. On December 31, a day after Li sounded the alarm, the Chinese government informed the World Health Organization (WHO) of a new coronavirus infection, but stated, “The disease is preventable and controllable.”

It then allowed millions of Chinese to engage in year-end holiday travel, and tens of thousands of people to fly in and out of the country. With those acts of willful ignorance and pride, the pandemic was born. Across the Pacific, they would soon be matched by an administration seemingly determined to make our country number one in know-nothing arrogance.

As the virus spread, President Donald Trump declared in a January 21 televised interview, “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” Days later the WHO declared a worldwide public health emergency, and Trump barred visitors from China—although loopholes allowed tens of thousands of travelers in for weeks after.

Meanwhile, the thirty-four-year-old, otherwise healthy Dr. Li had become gravely ill. On January 8 he had been summoned to help with a pre-symptomatic COVID-19 patient who suffered from glaucoma, and he evidently caught the virus. Within days Li had a cough. On February 6, according to Caixin, he was put on a ventilator in the intensive care unit of Wuhan Central Hospital. Respiratory experts were brought in.

A day later, at two o’clock in the morning, a colleague of Li’s, who had been waiting for hours outside the ICU, broke protocol and went in. “Two minutes later, this colleague came out,” Caixin reported. “He bowed his head deeply, said nothing, and left.” Wenliang Li was dead. It was a scene that would be repeated, with many variations, thousands of times in the months to come.


TED REID is a professor of ophthalmology at Texas Tech University. He may also be the guy who finds the cure for COVID-19. (With so many researchers working on the challenge, chances are he won’t, but not for lack of trying.) The Yale-trained scientist is a man of exceptional breadth: he’s a biochemist, microbiologist, immunology investigator, and inventor. Full disclosure, Ted’s also a friend. He’s my go-to guy for big thinking on science and society, a subject he’s co-taught for years in an honors seminar at his university—but we’ll come back to that.

As a researcher, one of Reid’s specialties is finding novel applications for selenium in preventing or curing diseases. Among his inventions is a contact lens with a thin coating of the naturally occurring element that keeps the lens bacteria-free. Selenium, Reid explains, is a superoxidizer. It catalyzes a reaction in bacteria that, in effect, incinerates them. It can also be used to destroy viruses, he says.

For all its toxic properties, selenium is also an essential mineral for human health. (Too much can be harmful; read on, but do not try it as a home remedy for COVID-19 or anything else). Reid has a hunch that selenium could be coaxed into playing a key role in our immune system’s search-and-destroy mission in going after the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19.

He and his team are working on it—although Reid, now in his eighties, remains isolated at home with his wife, so progress isn’t as fast as he’d like. But at least it gives him time away from the lab for a ruminative conversation with me.

Science saw this coming, he says. “Society should have, too. Polio was a pandemic. But people forgot about it. We conquered it, and people forgot. So was smallpox, and before that the flu, and before that the plague. And of course more recently we experienced AIDS.”

The US, where nearly a third of the world’s known COVID-19 infections are clustered, was especially unprepared. Part of that is politics: Trump disbanded the pandemic task force and made dismissive statements about the coronavirus threat. But I have to accept that many people, even some friends of mine, swallowed the lies whole, and even when it became evident that coronavirus was here and spreading fast, many people defied pleas for cooperation and even legal restrictions.

“The only route to civil equality, peace, and a decent standard of living for all is through good government.”

“We were populated by independent characters who had come across oceans to strike out into a terrifying new existence,” Reid observes.

We’re almost too self-reliant. It was an evolutionary selection, in a way. That feeling of independence has been passed down. When you approach the middle of the country from either coast you again see a selection gradient. You get to Texas, and it’s just bizarre. You’ve got these guys who say, “I’ve got my gun, and that’s all I need.”


HERE’S A DEEP TRUTH: you can’t shoot a virus with a gun. Put another way, we aren’t truly independent. From the start, our survival has depended on cooperation. According to famed Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, we are one of a tiny handful of eusocial species. These are species that exhibit exceptional levels of cooperation, division of labor, and altruistic sacrifice. By sheer biomass, ants are the most successful of these. But we are unique.

Unlike ants, we aren’t primed by our genes to devote our lives wholly to the common good. (If we were, North Korea would be our leading nation.) We’re all selfish to a degree. Our global technological civilization, capable of discovering and defeating a virus, represents the hard-won victory of cooperation over the instinctive drive for exploitation that underlies human nature.

We can thank language for that. Complex symbolic language enables us to make agreements, to record agreements, to make laws, and eventually to create institutions that enforce them. Within that framework, we’ve been able to specialize far more than any other species, understand the world around us, and develop world-changing technologies. We’re the only animals that hatch scientists, priests, and celebrities.


Tracing our emergence as a eusocial species in his 2019 book Genesis, Wilson writes, “To speech was added literacy, which rendered every human thought potentially global. Humans could ask any question… The capacity for language, science, and philosophical thought made us the steward and the mind of the biosphere.”

But then he poses a humbling question: “Can we muster the moral intelligence to fulfill this role?” After all, for every scientist like Ted Reid, there are thousands who cling to myth and superstition—people like the hapless preacher Landon Spradlin, who took his family to New Orleans for their annual Mardi Gras street ministry, convinced that “God can heal anything.” Spradlin, an avid Trump supporter who had dismissed COVID-19 as “mass hysteria,” contracted the disease and died of it weeks later, according to a sympathetic account in the Washington Post.

We are eusocial, for sure, but evolution has also honed us to be xenophobically tribal, intensely competitive, and all too often spectacularly dumb. In our scramble for social success, we stomp reason facedown into the mud. Proof, you say?

As I write this, COVID-19 cases are doubling by the week in my hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska. Our state has the dubious distinction of leading the nation in the rate of coronavirus spread. Yet, all around me restaurants, gyms, even tattoo parlors are reopening with the blessing of our governor. And he’s far from alone. Egged on by “freedom rallies,” whack-job conspiracy theories, and a whack-job president, states have at least partially reopened, despite many being nowhere near the National Association of Governors’ standard of declining cases for at least fourteen days.

Dr. Bob Rauner, a public health physician and Lincoln school board member, is flabbergasted. “As best I can tell, [we’re] abandoning the plan to limit deaths to 100,000 to 200,000,” he says in one of his locally popular video updates. “Are we adopting a plan that would let it go to 500,000?” he asks, “or are we just going to give up completely and let it go to one or two million fatalities?”

If you think a rational calculus might favor fatalities over the cost of continued shutdown, consider this: Rauner estimates that at least 10 percent of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers would be among the two million dead. And then the next pandemic wave will roll through.

Even a million dead (the low end of the let-it-rip estimate) would make COVID-19 the greatest catastrophe in American history, far exceeding the 405,000 who died in WWII and the 620,000 who died in the Civil War, as well as the 675,000 Americans who died in the 1918 flu pandemic.


PSYCHOLOGIST MARY PIPHER despises much of what we have become as a society. Yet, she’s not without hope. Among her books, one of the most popular is In the Shelter of Each Other, a work of nonfiction about how to sustain nurturing families under the tidal forces of contemporary life. If there’s a silver lining, however thin, around this pandemic, it may be the opportunity it affords people to rethink their priorities, she says. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at our leadership.

“We are batshit crazy right now,” she says. “The world is looking on with amazement and horror.” One problem Pipher observes: “The definition of freedom is getting more and more distorted. To a large percentage of our country, freedom means the right to do pretty much anything you want.”

So, we’re back to the distinction between anarchy and civil liberty. In principle, tearing down the government lets everyone roam free. But that’s not how humanity works. We’ve run the experiment in places like post-invasion Iraq and central Africa. What you get are ruthless predators. You get looters. You get kidnappers. You get suicide bombers. You get child soldiers and child sex slaves. In short, you get anarchy.

Of course, regulation can be cumbersome, and government can be oppressive or even downright brutal, but somewhere in the middle lies liberal democracy, a form of governance in which a balance of powers prevents oppression, individual rights are secured, and the welfare of the people is paramount.

Pipher reminds us that good governance can produce another kind of liberty: “freedom to have safe water, freedom to congregate without fear of being shot, freedom to access healthcare, freedom to earn decent wages in a safe work environment.” Capitalism can’t fix racism; only civil society, enlightened by humanism and bolstered by fair and impartial institutions, can do that. Millions of years of evolution have bred xenophobia into us, giving rise to implicit bias, bigotry, and, all too often, institutional racism. That needs to change. The only route to civil equality, peace, and a decent standard of living for all is through good government.

Talk like that is enough to give a libertarian the vapors. I tried to interview several of them for this article, but they wouldn’t talk to me. Let me try to make their case before the pandemic knocks it down: the essential good trick of humanity is to specialize and trade. You hunt meat, I grow vegetables. Exchange some of each, and we’re both better off. Fast forward a few millennia, and you have the creative fire of capitalism racing through free markets—unless you let the heavy weight of regulation slow it down.

It can be a seductive argument if you’re already rich, or you watch cable TV ads for shares in gold. But along comes a pandemic to remind us that markets have failures.

It takes government to organize and enforce quarantine. More than that, it takes government to fund unprofitable vaccines, and to see that people get inoculated. Sure, we need incentives for creativity, but without good governance we will go extinct. It’s not just pandemics that threaten us. It’s climate change, which no particular company has an incentive to solve. And beyond that, it’s asteroid impact. Just ask the dinosaurs. Oh wait, you can’t.

Ronald Reagan famously, and fatuously, said, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” As the COVID-19 pandemic closes in, let me leave you with a far wiser quote from scientist and statesman Benjamin Franklin: “We must indeed all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” Be well.