In mid-February 2020, my friend Russell and I attended a conference called The Conscious Life Expo. The twisted irony of the name will whistle out the kettle in a moment.
The event was hosted at the LAX Hilton, a nondescript concrete behemoth beside the Los Angeles airport. Behind the banal façade, like a technicolor pearl in an oyster, an animated psychedelia awaited.
As we entered through the sliding glass, the scene was like a new age rendition of the Star Wars cantina bar. Hundreds of henna-tattooed droids and crystal-necklaced wookies sipped Starbucks’ dark roast while lathering on essential oils. Dread-locked hippies twirled to the wails of Waheguru in front of a makeshift stage in the marble lobby.
Russell is tall and, candidly, famous so we donned our hoods, like two Jawas, and surreptitiously slinked around the periphery of the mayhem.
We slithered up the stairs and into the entrails of the marketplace as if performing a spiritual colonoscopy of the conference center. The bazaar was sardined with every sort of mystic, sage and seeker hocking their wares; dreamcatchers and didgeridoos, palo santo and hemp leggings, books on finding yourself and others on losing yourself. Apparently, black tourmaline sends energy down through the root chakra and out the earth star chakra beneath your feet. Who knew?
The jammed hallways, the dropped cottage cheese ceiling and Russell’s height coalesced into panic-inducing claustrophobia like we were on Malkovich’s seventh-and-a-half floor. Finally, we were squirted into the world’s most diminutive conference room where Russell was booked to speak.
People swarmed in. Extra chairs were filled as quickly as they were added. A bejeweled lady with purple hair snuggled in next to me and produced not one, but two small parakeets from her satchel, each balanced on a shoulder. I’m not kidding you. In a Hilton!
As people waited for Russell, it felt like a plane taxiing to the runway, revving for lift-off. Attendees began coughing like an orchestra tuning up before the concert, high-pitched short hacks coming from the piccolo, low resonant croaks from the bassoon. A cosmic pestilence filled the air like a fog machine.
Russell dazzled as per usual, gave me a look, and from the petri dish we squiggled. It was as if the Expo sneezed and propelled us like droplets out the mouth of the sliding doors and back into dull care. I’d never been happier to see a banker in a pin-striped suit hailing an Uber.
Knackered, I trudged home and went immediately to sleep.
I woke up the next day, a Sunday, and felt off. My throat was scratchy and my chest was tight. My condition deteriorated over the course of the day. By Monday, I was running 102 and hacking uncontrollably. My body ached like I’d run a marathon. The fatigue was so profound I could only relate it to the feeling I had in the aftermath of the many flights I took from Tokyo to New York. I remained in this acute state of illness for two weeks.
Through the entirety of March and April, as the family sheltered in place, these symptoms intermittently recurred, albeit less intensely. I’d attempt to take a walk only to turn around a hundred yards out in a clammy sweat and melt back into the puddle of my sheets. Daddy had what little Micah calls “the ‘Rona.”
I am not exactly Jeff “The Rock” Krasno, but I am healthy. I exercise daily and I eat well. I have none of the comorbidities associated with severe COVID-19 contraction. Despite the propellers of Marine 1 whirring outside my window, I opted for self-treatment over air-lift. Of course, we knew little about this menace in the early Spring so I followed my instincts. I alkalized my body, gargling and drinking an unimaginable amount of apple cider vinegar. I built up my microbiome with probiotic sea plankton and coconut yogurt kefir. I “sweatidated” in the sauna by pouring eucalyptus water on the searing rocks until the air was stoked to 190 degrees and then breathing deeply to the guidance of Mooji, the Jamaican spiritual teacher. I took lypo-spheric vitamin C and vitamin D. I ate clean, didn’t drink alcohol, severely limited my caffeine and got outside when I felt up to it. I slowly crawled my way back into well-being, though my children claim I remain mentally deranged.
My intention is not to be cheeky, though I suppose the world might benefit from some levity. A truck backed into my immune system and dumped a viral load big enough to mulch a football pitch. I was fortunate to be able to quarantine and have the resources to self-administer myriad if cockamamie treatments. Frontline workers, health care professionals, delivery drivers, grocery clerks, scientists, meatpackers, government officials and many others could not shelter-in-place. Of those who have gotten sick, many do not have adequate health care or the resources to self-treat as I did. We owe them a great debt. And, to the best estimates, 37 million people have been diagnosed with the disease and over 1 million have died, including parents of good friends.
If you can remember back to March – and I don’t blame you if you cannot given the successive deluge of world events – you’ll recall how little we knew about the virus. Lying on my bed in my seventh sweat-soaked shirt of the afternoon, my phone abuzz with sensationalism, I had no choice but to lean deeply into my meditation practice or go mad. For two hours a day, I drifted into the emptiness and I am not confident I have completely returned from the void. There appears to be some sort of sacred latency between the happenings of things and my responses to them. These essays have emerged from this uninhabited space as honest attempts to better understand the world more from the perspective of a witness than a participant.
Standing behind everything that separates us, beneath the various identity costumes we wear, we share a common need for purpose, belonging and well-being. This coronavirus is a barrier between us and our personal and collective health, our ability to connect with those we love and earn a living to support our families.
Another distant memory is the halcyon moment when we imagined that a global pandemic might unite us, envisioning the virus as blind to race, class and creed. Yet viable solutions to solving the greatest challenge of the last 100 years have been shrouded in a thick political marine layer. And while it’s difficult to navigate true north in a fog, still, we’re all piloting theories. It doesn’t help that our wacky cousin, and other more nefarious characters, are hurling misinformation at us like rotten tomatoes on Facebook. We are doom-scrolling, awash in memes and YouTube videos positing this theory and that.
Uncertainty is not the friend of the conceptual mind. When the mind cannot know, it will often default to fear over love, to reactivity over responsiveness. How many of us have been living in this exhausted, anxious, agitated, cortisol-fueled state, desperately trying to know the unknowable?
The invective of politics is so triggering that we lose our capacity for compassion and discernment. It’s preposterous that our political identities have anything to do with an issue as trivial as mask-wearing. Yes, I have read about 20 studies with varying conclusions, but forget this disease even exists for a moment and return to a saner time. When I was a boy, any time I coughed or sneezed, my mum told me to cover my mouth. This was a moral lesson: I shouldn’t spread my germs because I value the health of the people around me. Love thy neighbor. The Golden Rule.
When we step back from the short-fused political polemic, we often find a simpler moral intuition to guide us. We all need some time to catch our breath.
Haste and science make cranky bedfellows. Yet politics is stomping its feet for answers now. And, in this demand, science falters and equivocates, further undermining confidence in itself. Vacillations about the nature of COVID’s transmissibility, for example, have confounded and confused. Good science – like good food, wine, yoga, piano playing, athleticism or art – takes time and requires patience. And good science, like those other endeavors, can bring us together. It is in togetherness, in scaled and flexible cooperation, that we achieve the great projects of humanity.
As fraught as this moment is, it is also pregnant with opportunity. If we could step back from the political precipice and on to the perennial sturdiness of morality and reason, if we could commune around a global collective effort to tame the virus, we could write a new world story.
This virus appears to be highly transmissible with a relatively low fatality rate. It more severely impacts the elderly and those with comorbidities. This is a more insidious combination than immediately apparent. Higher fatality rates, for instance, might actually staunch the spread, as the virus would incapacitate or kill its hosts with greater frequency and justify more drastic lockdown measures. But, as it is, asymptomatic carriers can bop around and bestow the illness upon the more vulnerable.
This is where an ethical and moral dilemma surfaces. Many of us have intellectually tangled with the concept of herd immunity, which propagates the idea that we entirely reopen our economies and, in short order, 60% to 70% of the population will have the antibodies and the disease will wither. Of course, we don’t know how close to these percentages we currently are. Knowing, however, that the illness is more fatal among people with heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases, and that these conditions are highly correlated across underprivileged socio-economic (and, by extension, racial) groups, we must honestly face this question: Is it ethical to sacrifice the lives of our disadvantaged and elderly in the pursuit of herd immunity? If so, how many? The virus itself does not discriminate yet it shines a light onto where humans have.
There may be another way, a middle path. In the short term, we may see significant spikes of cases during the winter in the Northern hemisphere. But, together, we can rally around a number of measures to mitigate spread and fatalities. We can cautiously open sections of the economy and “dance in and dance out.” We can practice common sense public health guidelines, which do not have to be draconian or politicized. Limit large gatherings (80% of the cases come from 10% of people). Practice personal hygiene. Bolster immune systems though public health initiatives. Institute mass testing with rapid response home tests. Where there are outbreak clusters, we tamp down and contact trace.
There is also reason for optimism on numerous anti-viral fronts. A number of therapeutics including monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) (which the President received) and convalescent plasma therapy (CPT) are promising treatments. CPT uses blood plasma taken from people who have recovered from COVID-19 which contains antibodies that can recognize and neutralize SARS-CoV-2 as well as other components that may contribute to an immune response. These therapies can be used prophylactically within small circles as “ring vaccination.” For example, if someone within a family or social group contracts the disease, mAbs can be administered to other members within the group.
These community measures are most likely bridges to a widely distributed vaccine. Currently, there is tremendous public skepticism around a COVID vaccine, with a majority of Americans claiming they would not take it. Much of that skepticism is derived from, again, political pressure that is forcing vaccine developers and the FDA to rush a product to market. The looming election plays a prominent role in the current administration’s Operation Warp Speed initiative. Some urgency is clearly productive and there appears to be significant progress among numerous drugmakers.
Still, large-scale peer reviewed clinical trials must run their course. The outcomes need to prove beyond any doubt that a vaccine is completely safe. Recently, nine prominent drug makers pledged that they will not submit vaccine candidates for FDA review until their safety and efficacy is shown in large clinical trials. The move is intended to bolster public confidence amid the rush to make a COVID-19 vaccine widely available, and counter fears of political pressure to deliver a vaccine before the November presidential election.
Skeptics with legitimate concerns will still exist, but if there is a safe vaccine available in the summer 2021, people may slowly shift their attitudes if it means they can see their families and friends, go back to work, travel and go to restaurants. Many may not decide to take the vaccine, but if approximately 70% do elect to accept it, then we may achieve herd immunity.
This is just a paltry plan from a bloke tapping keys in a guest house. But we do need some blueprint. Otherwise, we’re back at that Hilton Expo, waiting for two ravens to fly past a harvest moon while a crystal refracts the light from the iris of a coyote.
We can eradicate the virus. And, in doing so, we can accomplish something greater. We can re-establish faith in the best part of the institutions that eliminated smallpox and put a man on the moon. We can eschew odious politics and rally the mighty infrastructure of our government to serve the people. We can move our collective conscious out of the amygdala, the center of fear, and into the pre-frontal cortex where sound judgment is reasoned. We can summon our better angels and grant ourselves and each other some grace. We can honor those who have passed by leveraging this hideous time into a more peaceable and global communion.