3. The Message in the Virus

March 22, 2020 Minding Corona No Comments

Nothing worse than a false sense of security. Please, take every measure of precaution. Then, read on.

March 22, 2020


Kindly follow this trail:

  1. Covid-19: Pandemia or Global Hysteria?
  2. Mind and Corona
  3. The Message in the Virus


OK. I’ve asked myself: Why not wait to bring this message until the worst part of the pandemic is over? It’s an inconvenient message. Nevertheless:

  • ‘Panic’ kills. It does so mainly by being an additional risk factor. If spread over large populations, the absolute numbers may become substantial. Panic grows panic, and before you know it, you have a forest of panic, especially if the enemy is worldwide and invisible.
  • Panic is always a bad advisor. We should not give in to that, just like that. Draconian measures, yes, with a different message. Panic makes a whole society vulnerable. Moreover, it demotivates many — arguably, especially adolescents, by nature. We should be motivating people from their inner strength and learn to make panic unneeded. Fortunately, this is partly happening.
  • Now is the best time to investigate the issue in prospective studies. It would be interesting to measure stress levels (blood or saliva) in the whole population. Not feasible now, but we can quickly make it so. One can then perform an ongoing study to look for correlations between stress levels and subsequent illness and mortality. Now is the time to do this, for instance, in Lombardy, Italy. This is not about using people as mere subjects in a study. It’s about giving sense to suffering. If we see a clear relationship even after a few days, then already, we can take appropriate action, saving lives.
  • Large populations (Africa, India, with inadequate healthcare facilities for many) may still be at the beginning of this pandemic, whatever the factors involved. We should do everything possible to mitigate this.
  • If the psyche plays a crucial role, how are we going to mourn the preventable deaths of loved ones if we don’t act on it now? How would you ever get over it?
  • Shortening the pandemic by one week is already worthwhile in saving lives and in saving economically.

My conclusion is that we should not wait to take this to heart until the first big wave has subsided. That would be utterly inhumane. Things can be done now.

While writing this series, events are unfolding worldwide. In China, the levels of new cases and mortality rates have plummeted. The drastic measures and social discipline may have prevented a giant disaster. They may mainly have had a psychologically soothing effect, explaining the relatively quick national recovery. With an eye on the mind, now is the time to investigate this. By nature, Chinese people would surely be glad to assist – or take the lead. Please, do!

In the West, the communication is suboptimal. I mainly hear this message: “It will be awful if we don’t follow the measures with huge discipline, and many people don’t.” This is a well-meant message of doom, which should be avoided.

With utmost respect, I dread to mention that the cases of Italy and Iran – and Spain in the following – fit the picture: these are emotional cultures, praise to them! But it may make them more acutely vulnerable to extreme circumstances such as the present one. There is no proof in this, but an eerie correlation. Reading about Iran: “… thanks to a lack of international aid, government mismanagement, and nobody knowing quite who’s in charge.” (https://www.dw.com/en/iran-faces-catastrophic-death-toll-from-coronavirus/a-52811895)

In this, I read ‘panic.’ Of course, there are other factors, such as sanctions on the country, leading to a shortage of medical supplies. In the case of Lombardy, I read they were tossed from odd carelessness to terror and panic. They are a very outgoing people (more than we Belgians). The political message in Italy, right now, is also one of terror (terrorizing) and panic. At the same time, carelessness of individuals is mediatized.

This morning, I visualized myself as a physician in a hospital in Lombardy. In spite of myself, I felt apprehensive and even felt the first signs of ‘the virus.’ It passed. Meanwhile, in the public’s eye, the ‘message from Italy to Europe’ is that we all need to be extremely wary and still, disaster will probably sweep over the continent. I say: We should strengthen ourselves from inside.

Differentiating, at this moment, Germany from Italy+Spain. The vast difference (2 vs. 113 deaths per million inhabitants) also intrigues specialists. The ‘whirlpool phenomenon’ may play a substantial role. According to this, Italy fell in the rut (whirlpool) head-on and seems not yet to be getting out of it. Germany has stayed out of it. Among other things, from the beginning, a huge amount of testing showed real numbers of disease rates. This information calmed the population and became ‘self-fulfilling’ by keeping them out of the whirlpool. Put on top of this a firm and non-dramatizing leadership.

It is, of course, difficult to prove/disprove the ‘whirlpool phenomenon.’ That’s why we should investigate it now for future’s sake. In the meantime, the relevant future may be very near to some parts of the world. In that case, there is no time to waste. Unfortunately, I see the elements coming together for the UK and the US.

In cities: people need to come out of their houses. It’s more difficult to keep social distance. That’s also what city dwellers see happening in many places: people still gathering on streets, in transportation, in parks. That may be additionally scary to many. The “virus is in the air.”

Back to Africa. Why is the death rate so much lower in Africa currently and so much higher in the West? Around 2 million Chinese live and work on the African continent. There was no ban on air travel to Africa until well too late. The virus is also there. Are Africans lucky this time, as some experts say, or does the cause of the differential perhaps lie in the West? Meanwhile, in the cases of Africa, India and Latin-America, the situation is hugely dangerous if they are ‘pushed’ into the whirlpool.

In the case of the latter, one particular reason may be social media. Its A.I.-driven, self-learning algorithms are continuously trying to optimize click-bait. These algorithms ‘know’ that scary stuff sells more. Also, they ‘know’ how to influence people towards becoming better customers, say, even more readily anxious. Note that this can be done automatically without any person’s evil intent.

This process is already well-known. The result is the same: people are made anxiety-prone. Then, when a storm comes over the world, it’s put upon this field of anxiety. Freaking out people heightens click-bait. It also increases massive responses that can result in immune imbalances. A bubble of the-scarier-the-more-successful envelops the planet. On top of this, people generally seem to get more dissociated from their inner being. This leads to increasing levels of burnout, depression, chronic pain, general anxiety, etc. It may also heighten the vulnerability of whole groups to catastrophic reactions.

I see some further causes of this widespread vulnerability: a shortening of attention span, massive consumption of antidepressants – of which we don’t know how they work, but they surely diminish inner communication, lessening of contact with nature, ‘rationalization’ standing in the way of poetry. Also: losing a deep sense of meaningfulness, losing openness, human respect, and trust, losing the freedom just to be oneself. As I keep repeating: There is no guilt in this. Some people and groups of people are by nature more sensitive (say: humanely warm) and may thereby also be more vulnerable, especially in extraordinary circumstances. It just makes it all the more poignant to me.

With this in mind, in social media at least, anyone can take care in his small part of the world. In social 3D, one can be friendly at a ‘social distance.’ Smiling does not infect anyone. On the other hand, friendliness – at all levels, from personal to highest diplomacy – may affect anyone’s immune system and level of low-grade inflammation. The viruses are a scientific reality; this is too. If we can see this as a step towards a better, more humane future, then even people in acute respiratory distress may look forward to this, which may help them to survive.

Whoever thinks this is nonsense is not a very wise – although possibly a quite intelligent – person. A truly empathic attitude towards all is recommended. For instance, in shops, to the ones who work there. This is no sheer altruism. By being friendly, there is a better chance that you get friendliness in return. That may boost your immune system.

The present is a good turning point to better respect our minds for the sake of ‘the universe inside’ and all the positive this can bring. There is a lot to do. For instance, the concept of ’empathy’ is by itself immensely more complex than is generally thought, including in scientific circles! Social media should be studied much more with a critical eye towards this. Right now, we can make people aware. Try to take energy out of the eruption without demotivating anyone to take all possible measures against viral infection! This is a positive-message motivation. We still have a lot to learn. A message of discipline is crucial. Sowing panic may even have the reverse effect on this.

Of course, the enormity of the present problem grabs me too. Is it conceivable that thousands of people have already died and many more will probably die from a ‘compound of problems’ in which the mind plays the central role, while almost entirely not being adequately taken into account? Is it thus conceivable that the mind plays a more significant role than the virus in what we see happening now? Scientifically, we cannot exclude it. So, we can say with certainty that it is possible. Knowing a substantial part of the research, I would say it’s even probable. That is still not a certainty. But if it is the case, then we are tackling the problem wrongly. We should then not do some of the things we do, and we should do some of the things we don’t. For starters, in that case,  Covid is a misnomer. It’s an important one since it puts all emphasis on the virus and doesn’t nudge the patient into self-reliance.

Furthermore, it’s interesting to look at the acute respiratory distress syndrome as a whirlpool. Once you are in it, it’s hard to get out – hard but still feasible, always feasible. But from a distance, or even at the periphery inside, it’s relatively easy to heighten your chances not to get swept further into it when you know how to. The ‘relatively’ is related to deep meaningfulness, as is the whole domain of psychosocial stress. Therefore, in an absolute sense, it may at the same be an immense challenge.

The first part of the challenge lies in appreciating the strength of the whirlpool from even a small distance. This way, it’s also hard to comprehend what can be done to avoid people getting sucked into it. For instance, we should avoid anxiety as a deterrent against irresponsible behavior in a ‘war against the virus,’ etc.

Of course, we desperately need the responsible behavior itself. The focus should be on protection against ‘the virus.’ Moreover, providing confidence to others that one is doing whatever is possible to prevent further infestation also has a huge soothing effect. It relieves the panic and helps many towards not getting caught in the whirlpool. Despite social distancing, the message of ‘being together’ is essential in this age. On the other hand, non-believers-in-the-virus are doing a lousy job twice.

“In my view, a substantial part of the current and coming morbidity and mortality – and economic woes – can be blamed to not sufficiently taking into account the deeply human side of human being, the subject of my Ph.D. Looking back, we face an immense ethical problem.” This is a quote from an email that I’m sending to more and more people who can make a difference.

Communication to the public should be honest, trustworthy, open, with due respect to our deeply-human nature. If people trust in something (we are protected, special, immune) and then that starts falling, it may fall heavily. Being a realist, anxiety may help to make people (not everyone) more cautious, but it also adds to the whirlpool. I think it is best to be open to this. That starts with proper insight. As I already pointed out, not so much the panic itself, but the meaning level behind/below it is most important. Internal conviction. This is also crucial for health workers who are working in contact with the acutely ill or dying. This may infest them consciously and even more non-consciously, in this way making them more vulnerable.

A possible message could be: “Avoiding panic, staying relaxed may heighten your internal defense against viral disease. IF the virus enters you, it has less chance to make you seriously ill.”

Nearing the end of this writing, I need to point out the following. For instance, in China, 71.000 deaths happen in a year due to Influenza flu. The number of deaths due to Covid is stable at this moment at +/- 3300. Looked at it this way, it almost seems like little. If you take out the 71.000, then the death toll of Covid is a whopping 3300! Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the Influenza flu kills 290,000 to 650,000 people per year, many of these also in economically developed countries. For instance, in the US, 61,000 deaths were linked to the virus in the 2017-2018 season. If Covid-disease and mortality numbers end up in the range of the seasonal flu – which is yet uncertain – then, of course, one still comes on top of the other. However, there is a huge discrepancy between the public/political/economic reactions and fall-out, mainly due to, as said, the uncertainty. The economic shut-down is and will be a source of suffering on its own: businesses going bankrupt = people going broke, no money for those in need, etc. This is a massive problem in its own right. The victims are the poor, within nations and between nations.

Crucially, in any case, and also future-oriented, we should learn to understand who we are, especially in the ‘universe inside.’ We should learn more about our inner strength. This may also be important – even more so – towards the flu and many other diseases. The present heart-wrenching wave can pass without this possibility being taken seriously. Then we will not know what may have happened. On top of the vast human suffering, we will have missed an opportunity for the future.

Ah, the future. It suddenly seems further away than usual. I imagine a post-corona world as a kind of awakening out of a bad dream, and hopefully, an era. I know realism, but I like to dream too. From this coronalia era, we may look forward to a world in which people can be happy with less complicated things — for instance, oneself and a few others. One may learn to be more creative. Another one may learn to appreciate small things and to enjoy the beauty around in spite of anything. We may all realize the better world. Musing about what it can be.

To take care of each other, to not take the care for granted.

To look forward to better moments and find joy in them today.

To take some time in order to have some time instead of throwing it out.

To enjoy what some other person enjoys just because.

To be generous. To let others take as long as they don’t take you.

To have enough with less.

To give time, not give it away.

To try and try and never give up.

To be inspiring and see where that leads to, with a smile.

To be able to dream a sweet dream.


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