What kind of a god would create viruses? If the universe was created through "intelligent design" what possible purpose would viruses serve? Viruses are so small we don't even really call them life-forms. They're like little machines, whose only function is to infect a host in order to replicate themselves and keep going. By themselves, they're without any purpose or ultimate meaning.
Sunday, May 3, 2009
Quarantine - Are Viruses God's Little Mickey Finn?
In what sense is that different than any life form? What is the "ultimate purpose" of a green bottle fly, buzzing irritatingly around under the shady eaves on hot days, looking for some stray dung to lay its eggs in? Aren't all living things just trying to get along, reproduce themselves so their kind can continue? That's the "life force" of which philosophers speak. But does it have any ethical meaning, which we ourselves don't give to it?
There's been much hoopla lately in the press about the "Swine Flu" scare which appears to have originated in a dusty little rural hog-farm community in Central Mexico. We already know that "corporate" farming, in which thousands of animals are squeezed into limited spaces with unimaginably dirty and unsanitary conditions is a recipe for contagion, disease, and the promotion of "super bugs". All of us who eat meat, undoubtedly consume protein which has been grown under intolerable conditions, not just for the poor beasts themselves, but for the dangers this system entails.
Plagues and infestations have been known for millennia. What they all have in common is crowded conditions, unsanitary practices. Dirty water, poor sewage management, tainted food, overpopulation. Many of our most stubborn prejudices and superstitions grew up over the centuries in response to unscientific notions about how and why people get sick.
Science has taught us that bacteria and viruses thrive and may quickly get out of control where people live too closely together, or allow their infrastructure to deteriorate. We know that viruses are "everywhere," that all living beings carry thousands of these things around as "benign" "passengers," any one of which may, without warning, mutate unexpectedly into deadly killers.
As man continues to proliferate across the planet, the natural restraints upon the explosive potential of infection are abandoned. When people once lived in small communities, or nomadic bands, there was a natural "quarantine" effect of isolating contagion within small groups or individuals. One of the classic "tools" epidemiologist and public health administrators always consider in fighting new diseases, is isolation or enforced quarantining of individuals, groups, or communities. But in the bustle and flux of the modern world, quarantining on a large scale appears unworkable.
The solution to plagues or pandemics is to reduce the concentration of individuals across the biological spectrum. Failure to do this voluntarily will inevitably result in periodic crises of contagion. If we continue to up the ante by ignoring this deadly paradigm, these waves of disease and suffering will increase in severity and frequency.
In Asian countries, it has become common for people to wear face masks in large cities, either to prevent spread of an infection they have contracted, or to keep themselves from being infected. Wherever people congregate closely in numbers, there's a risk. Anyone who has had a child who went to public school knows how colds spread like wildfire in classroom situations. You will hear theorists occasionally claim that common contagion is really a method of "naturally" inoculating ourselves against infections, by stimulating the natural immune systems within our bodies, that close contact is really a useful tool in maintaining a robust population. But that argument doesn't hold up with the periodic deadly mutation.
Epidemiology tells us that we are unlikely to keep up with the rapid transformations of opportunistic viral mutations. We can't count on science to provide us with quick cures or inoculations against common or unknown invaders. Historically, we know that isolating contagion is probably the first and best line of preventive medicine. That's what's being tried now in America against the "Swine Flu"--send the kids home and don't go out.
We haven't really come very far from the days when superstition dictated that one simply avoid seriously ill members. That's still good advice. Of course, we have to treat people, and we have to care for them, even if they're dying. But crowding and overpopulation are the ultimate recipe for armageddon. In wars and natural disasters, disease usually kills far more than bullets or falling walls or fires.