The pandemic is your fault.
If you are avoiding people, wearing a mask and generally following what public health officials tell you to do (even if that has been a moving target), the notion that you have anything to do with why this pandemic occurred may seem ridiculous.
After all, it’s easy to look for blame in others.
You may be pointing your finger at Chinese officials for not acting fast enough. A recent Pew study suggested 78 percent of Americans place “a great deal of the blame for the global spread of the coronavirus on the Chinese government’s initial handling” of the outbreak.
Maybe you blame politicians who have prioritized their political well being over the health of the people they govern? Or are other people’s diets the problem? A dinner party? A beach party? The police?
There is enough blame to go around.
Finding blame in yourself can be a more difficult task. But experts say you have played a role whether you know it or not.
“What we eat, what we wear, all the other kinds of things that we buy, whether we have a cellphone or not, how many children we have (if we have children), how much we travel — all of those choices put varying degrees of pressure on the rest of the natural world,” the pandemic-focused author David Quammen told me in a Zoom interview.
It’s that simple. We’ve created a world where it’s impossible to make choices that don’t impact the natural world.
“The more we disrupt wild, diverse ecosystems, the greater jeopardy we have of contacting all of the very diverse viruses that wild animals carry,” said Mr. Quammen.
Still not convinced? Do you own a cellphone?
“Owning a cellphone makes you a customer for a mineral called coltan,” Mr. Quammen explained
When coltan is refined it makes tantalum. And there’s a trace amount of it inside that phone or computer you are using to read this story. Problem is, it’s only found in a few remote places.
“One of which is a highly diverse forest area in the eastern Democratic Republic of The Congo,” Mr. Quammen continued.
“So when I buy a cellphone, I’m a customer for tantalum and I’m sending a miner into a forest area in eastern Congo. And that miner is probably going to eat bushmeat. So I own a little of the responsibility for the jeopardy that that miner may come in contact with a new virus and spread it to others.”
An awkward pause took hold as I contemplated Mr. Quammen’s proposal.
“Maybe spread it back to you?” I asked.
“Yes, maybe spread it back to me.”
I was talking to Mr. Quammen while doing research for “How to Stop the Next Pandemic,” a 14-minute Times documentary that ask the questions: Why do pandemics happen? And how do we stop them in the future?
The short film highlights a scary trend largely overshadowed by the coronavirus ravaging the globe: New pathogens that may cause pandemics are on the rise.
Trends in historical data charting the incidents of new emerging infectious diseases point to a future with more Covid-19-like events, not fewer.
“Yes, they’re increasing over time in direct correlation with human population growth and our ecological footprint,” said Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that aims to protect the public from the emergence of disease.
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 27, 2020
What should I consider when choosing a mask?
- There are a few basic things to consider. Does it have at least two layers? Good. If you hold it up to the light, can you see through it? Bad. Can you blow a candle out through your mask? Bad. Do you feel mostly OK wearing it for hours at a time? Good. The most important thing, after finding a mask that fits well without gapping, is to find a mask that you will wear. Spend some time picking out your mask, and find something that works with your personal style. You should be wearing it whenever you’re out in public for the foreseeable future. Read more: What’s the Best Material for a Mask?
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
- In the beginning, the coronavirus seemed like it was primarily a respiratory illness — many patients had fever and chills, were weak and tired, and coughed a lot, though some people don’t show many symptoms at all. Those who seemed sickest had pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome and received supplemental oxygen. By now, doctors have identified many more symptoms and syndromes. In April, the C.D.C. added to the list of early signs sore throat, fever, chills and muscle aches. Gastrointestinal upset, such as diarrhea and nausea, has also been observed. Another telltale sign of infection may be a sudden, profound diminution of one’s sense of smell and taste. Teenagers and young adults in some cases have developed painful red and purple lesions on their fingers and toes — nicknamed “Covid toe” — but few other serious symptoms.
Why does standing six feet away from others help?
- The coronavirus spreads primarily through droplets from your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze. The C.D.C., one of the organizations using that measure, bases its recommendation of six feet on the idea that most large droplets that people expel when they cough or sneeze will fall to the ground within six feet. But six feet has never been a magic number that guarantees complete protection. Sneezes, for instance, can launch droplets a lot farther than six feet, according to a recent study. It’s a rule of thumb: You should be safest standing six feet apart outside, especially when it’s windy. But keep a mask on at all times, even when you think you’re far enough apart.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?
- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
If you’re not already concerned about future pandemics, talking to a disease ecologist focused on zoonoses (diseases that pass between animals and humans) will likely open your eyes.
Dr. Daszak, who has a knack for monologuing about pathogens, has been warning the world for decades about potential pandemics. In 2008 he co-authored a study titled “Global trends in emerging infectious diseases,” which showed how emerging infectious disease events “have risen significantly over time.”
“These pandemics have been with us throughout history,” Dr. Daszak said. “But what’s happening now is we’ve globalized the planet, we’ve colonized the planet, and we’re now coming across the last remaining viruses that wildlife carry that we’ve never experienced before.”
If you don’t want to see more Covid-19-like events in the future, I urge you to watch our short film to become more aware of their origins, what role you play in them and most importantly what we can do to stop them.
Before finishing my interview with Dr. Daszak, I cautiously joked, “With Covid-19, is nature sending us a message?”
Dr. Daszak stared at me without smiling.
“Nature didn’t send us this message. We sent it to ourselves,” Dr. Daszak said.
Our consumer habits have changed the planet so significantly that “we dominate every ecosystem on earth right now,” he said.
“And our response is: we blame one country, versus another. We blame people who eat one species over people who eat another. And we blame nature. Well, no, we need to point the finger directly at ourselves, understand what’s going on and change it.”
The call ended.
And just like that, the pandemic was my fault.