By John Perkins
“Virus epidemics are Mother Earth’s way of teaching us lessons that have lasting impacts,” an Andean Shaman told me. “When we contract a disease – or worry over it – we learn about ourselves and the world around us.”
I’ve thought about the historical implication of those words during this time of the coronavirus. A couple of perspectives:
The Black Plague that swept through Asia, Africa, and Europe in the 14th century killed an estimated 50 million people, as much as 60% of the population. It ended up impacting ideas about contamination, the economy, environment, and the importance of science. Although the role of viruses would not be discovered until much later, people realized that removing garbage and sewage from the streets and quarantining infected patients prevented it from spreading. Because of the many deaths, labor was in short supply and gained the bargaining power to increase wages significantly. As populations shrank, so did communities and farm lands; forests were rejuvenated. Perhaps most important for the long-term, the Plague generated an interest in scientific approaches to medicine and understanding the universe. (1)
The most notorious virus in modern times is the one that causes HIV/AIDS, a virus that since it was first identified in the early 1980s has caused an estimated 32 million deaths. (2) The HIV/AIDs virus has had huge social, cultural, economic, and educational impacts. It has taught us about the importance of safe sex, clean needles, properly-administered blood transfusions, and timely medical treatment. It has kept many people out of labor forces, especially in parts of Africa, and thus has decreased their purchasing power and GDP growth. (3) It has resulted in many attitudinal changes previously held toward different races and sexual beliefs; these resulted in new perceptions and established new laws and cultural norms.
So, what are the lessons to be learned from the most recent epidemic – coronavirus? Global and local economies are in turmoil. Health care systems are stretched beyond the breaking point. The Chinese government is under open attack from many of its youngest citizens. (4) At the same time, satellite images show that pollution from China has been dramatically reduced due to the impacts of the virus. (5) The very nature of our belief that we humans and our technical capabilities can “dominate nature” is challenged by the idea that perhaps we are more fragile than we realize, even expendable. As another Andean shaman put it, “we are like so many fleas to Mother Earth. If we become too much of a nuisance, she’ll just shake us off.” (6)
In Touching the Jaguar, I write about the failures of the current economic system – the Death Economy. This virus, like the hurricanes, fires, tornadoes and other “once in a hundred years events” is one more indication that we must transform the Death Economy into a Life Economy. Making the transition requires that we move from a goal of maximizing short-term profits for the few, regardless of the social and environment costs, to a goal of maximizing long-term benefits for all – people and nature.
The coronavirus demonstrates that a health care system based on the Wall Street dictated Death Economy goal of profit-maximization must be changed to insure our very survival as a species. People fearing that getting tested or loosing work days will bankrupt them and companies focusing on amassing and protecting their intellectual property rights are exactly the opposite of what is required to prevent global health catastrophes. The message here is that we need a public health system that rewards laboratories, universities, companies and other systems that quickly work together to find and implement solutions and that provides unrestricted care to those who need it.
Perhaps the most important message the coronavirus offers is that the natural world is conspiring to save us from ourselves, to slow our materialistic greed and reign in our aggressive, self-centered, short-term, and xenophobic tendencies.
The Andean shaman continued, “the volcanoes are losing their ice caps. Mother Earth is twitching, warning us. She hasn’t shaken us off yet but she’s letting us know that we must listen to her message. We must take actions to end our destructive ways.”
“Many Younger Chinese Speak Out Against China’s Handling of Coronavirus,” https://one.npr.org/?sharedMediaId=812431205:812431206
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/china-coronavirus-nasa-space-satellite-pollution-photo-image-a9366751.html; https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51691967; https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/01/world/nasa-china-pollution-coronavirus-trnd-scn/index.html
Maria Juan Yamberla, the Quichua woman shaman described in detail in Touching the Jaguar.