Vaccines, Biomimicry, Freedom and Resilience in the Ecological Emergency
I run — well, jog, really. Through thick and thin (or fat and thin), through abusive times and times of severe pressure, I’ve kept it up, sometimes more, sometimes less, but always in the knowledge that it keeps me saner than any other thing I do. More than usual, last year, at the beginning of lockdown, I ran in a kind of rebellion against the limitations, and a determination to exercise what freedom I had, literally. I ran more because the person I normally go walking with was not allowed — sorry, recommended not — to leave the house. This thoughtful, kind person wanted to do what was right, so remained in situ, exercising in the mornings before breakfast, and again in the evenings, but not going for our customary walks. Perhaps I overdid it. I pulled a muscle in my calf, and went on running until I felt the electric shock-like burst of pain that meant a tear. I hobbled home, then hobbled through the next months, and finally, in despair, I visited a masseuse who owned a gym. Their technique was, shall we say, strong. I asked how much longer I should stay off my leg, and the reply, given airily, was that I could get back to running the next day. I was incredulous. I thought I’d never walk again, never mind run. Nevertheless, with extreme caution, and very slowly, I set off the next morning. Miraculously, I could run. I rang and expressed my heartfelt thanks, and continued with the massages for a few weeks and then for various reasons that had nothing to do with the masseuse, and everything to do with my own circumstances, I stopped going for a few months. Everything was good. For a while.
This spring, gradually, I began to have some problems again, this time with a hamstring. I went to have a massage. I was conscious of the long absence, and I wondered how things had gone for them in the meantime. I knew from the first time we’d met that they’d had some qualms about the government approach to the virus. I didn’t agree with everything, but they’d made some good predictions: the restrictions would last much longer and be more draconian than we anticipated, and we’d all be forced to take the vaccines, even though they’d been developed by private, for-profit companies, using far less of the time-related tests that vaccines are normally subject to. For that, and other reasons, this person would not be taking the vaccine.
I will not name the town or place where I met this person. I have written this without reference to their sex or gender. All this, of course, is to protect them from the rush of judgment and recrimination that they could be subject to if their identity became known. I know of course that even writing this could bring all kinds of judgments down on me. It will be published, because not everything is policed, and because I am not important or threatening enough to be a risk for whoever trawls through sites to find words that challenge.
This person does not accept that taking the vaccine will benefit them. They think they have already had the virus, and have, therefore, developed some natural immunity. They’re acutely conscious of their personal health and fitness and have no underlying health conditions. They have, after all, a choice. Or do they?
As a philosopher, I am particularly interested in questions of choice, and rights, and what we should or should not be expected to do in order to protect ourselves, or others. This has been much debated during the pandemic, but I’m not sure we’ve reached any firm conclusion. We who are members of societies that considers themselves free, and their members to be free: what are the circumstances in which this freedom can be limited? The pandemic has been a serious test of our freedom. We have been asked to agree, en masse, to restrictions on our movements, and our ability to gather. We have obeyed these strictures, on the whole, because we understand that we are doing so in order to curtail the spread of a novel virus that seems to be much more infectious, and, dangerously, unpredictably severe and even fatal to a significant minority. There has been a notable cohort of objectors collating issues of rights with those of conspiracies within or beyond the borders of state, with dark forces gathering to overwhelm our capacity to think or speak freely. And while some of the associations — 5G, chemtrails, virus as deliberate manufacture of a bio-weapon, vaccine as containing zombie-inducing properties — would be laughable if they were not so prevalent and dangerously seductive in a populace fed on a diet of sci-fi and National Enquirer absurdity, issues remain.
One is the issue of bodily integrity. If you do not want to take a vaccine which, admittedly, has been developed under quite exceptional conditions which mean that there are not the usual time-frames for tests, then do you have a right to say no? Evidently, there are severe restrictions on your ability to do so. You face all kinds of consequences, you can’t eat out, can’t travel. You may lose your job. These are strictures that could mean poverty. Joblessness. Homelessness. Things that will definitely affect your health.
The vast majority of the population of Ireland — ninety percent approximately — have been vaccinated. Yet there are still high numbers of people in ICU and in hospital. We do not know if those are vaccinated or unvaccinated, and the virus continues to mutate.
A biomimicry approach to a virus would have taken us down a different route. We would not have put our faith and trust in big pharma and in a tech solution to a problem caused almost certainly by the amount of pressure we are putting ecosystems and their resident species under. We would have examined the virus, no doubt, but not as ‘the enemy’. Instead, we would have sought to understand the conditions within which it thrives, and then we would have been better placed to understand the trajectory of its development, and how it has settled (or how related viruses have settled) into a rough accommodation with host species. Instead of focusing on overcoming, isolating and other features that speak to a top down, hierarchical approach, we would have taken an approach that sought ways to advance to a stage where the virus and the human were able to accommodate one another, perhaps through working to speed through the natural evolutionary stages. I know that might sound strange, but in the context of what we now begin to hear in some countries, which is an acknowledgment that we are going to have to live with the virus, this makes sense.
We would also have looked immediately, and with rigour, at the pressure we put other systems under, and we would immediately and globally have looked at ways to better integrate human systems into the relationships with other ecosystems and species to create an immediate reduction, a destressing, if you like, on those systems. We would have focused on a campaign of ‘wash your hands’, sure, but with relatively non toxic soaps, and not with the idiocy of a focus on plastic containers with synthesised hand sanitisers, and not with throwaway masks which are an ecological disaster. We would have looked to plants to learn what filters best, and even that would have been seen as a temporary measure. We would have ensured clean, well filtered water for all humans instead of closing borders and locking people in ghettos into the torture of waiting for death in conditions where they simply cannot clean themselves.
The reality is that this viral pandemic is but a manifestation of our own inability to see ourselves as part of systems and while my masseuse may have — and almost certainly does have — different reasons from the ones I’ve outlined here for their reluctance, the inability of our societies to tolerate a discussion of the causes and consequences of our current approach speaks volumes.
This is a difficult thing to write about. The righteous anger of those who are driven by fear and judgment of others will no doubt reign down. Yet it is important to me that the more-than-human world is reflected in our conversations about the pandemic. I’m not anti-vax. I didn’t really have a choice — I am a companion to someone. My relationship depends on my being able to travel to be with them. That’s it. My resilience is entirely attitudinal. However, I am watching my society operating under tighter and tighter laws that restrict more and more freedoms in the name of health and safety without taking a look at the causes and consequences. If we allow this to happen, we will create, not resilience, but fractures, and the more fractured a thing becomes, the more likely it is to break. We need to be able to raise questions like this one: did we cause the virus? How do other systems cope with stressors like viruses? What can we learn from them? If we do not, then we are in more trouble than I thought we were, and I am not an optimist.