The campaign to vaccinate a nation during a pandemic has brought into sharp relief a dimension that we, individual-freedoms-loving Americans often resist, that of the “common good”. “In ordinary political discourse, the “common good” refers to those facilities… that the members of a community provide to all... in order to fulfill a relational obligation they all have to care for certain interests that they have in common.... The term itself may refer either to the interests that members have in common or to the facilities that serve common interests (The Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy).”
It takes everyone to fight a pandemic, and as such embracing our common interest becomes necessary so we can prevail over COVID 19 and its variants. The transmissibility of the virus taught us early on that as individuals we must protect not only ourselves but also those around us, as we did originally with the simple COVID 19 prevention practices of social distancing, and mask wearing, followed later with the “Warp Speed” vaccine campaign. This demanded that we act as a collective. We learned that a scaled up response coordinated by the highest levels of government would be best suited for this level of challenge, as the virus did not recognize local, regional, or state borders, nor did it distinguish between people’s conservative or liberal ideologies.
Thus the pandemic has forced a healthy yet tense public debate about the “common good”. Social consciousness and collective responsibility, are typically sensitive topics in our culture, as they are easily confused for anti-freedom and ideological “Socialism”. The debate between the vaccine believers and the vaccine hesitant often splits along the seam of pro “common good” verses pro “individual freedoms”. To those of us who lean more toward the “common good” side of the equation this public tension is particularly painful, as the pro freedom folk come across as bad faith spoilers at a time of great urgency and dire consequences. Those on the individual freedoms side still shockingly appear to resist the common good when lives are clearly at stake.
But perhaps the ideological debate in general, and the “Speed Warp” vaccination campaign in particular, are both based on a limited understanding of true common good, and on a narrow view of the COVID 19 challenge. An alternative perspective views the common good and COVID 19 holistically and seems to reconcile some of the debate’s polarities. A hopeful and sensible perspective, best seen from outside the current polarization, rises from the observation best described as “a tale of two pandemics”.
A TALE OF TWO PANDEMICS
An interview I listened to on WGBH’s Innovation Hub with Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, the dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, was particularly eye opening. Dr. Mozaffarian shared that according to a study of COVID-19 hospitalizations in New York City, obesity was statistically more important in determining hospitalization for COVID patients than high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and kidney disease. In fact, after old age, it was the biggest factor leading to hospitalizations. Why was this finding so groundbreaking? Because, since obesity drives COVID-19 hospitalizations, America is uniquely vulnerable. “About half of all American adults have diabetes or pre-diabetes,” Mozaffarian said, “and three in four American adults are overweight or obese. So very few of us are actually healthy and COVID-19 is basically like pouring gasoline on a smoldering fire.”
Dr. Mozaffarian described COVID-19 as a fast-moving pandemic stacked on top of a slow moving one, Obesity. For contrast, he suggested looking at COVID-19 in Japan. Japan has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic significantly better than the United States. One of the main reasons Japan is coping with the coronavirus more successfully is their obesity rate. “America has one of the highest rates of obesity in the developed world and Japan has one of the lowest. It’s this gap that is making America’s response to COVID-19 much more difficult,” said Mozaffarian.
It is instructive that the pandemic is but the tip of an iceberg of a larger public health crisis. If COVID-19 is indeed exacerbated by obesity, then we wonder what is allowing obesity? What conditions further up the food chain, as it were, allows for an obese and sick population? And how did American exceptionalism degrade into the most obese nation being one of the least resilient to COVID-19 as well as to other epidemic scale diseases?
LOST OUR WAY
The root cause for this American (or Western) crisis seems to be one of a cultural devolution - as an advanced culture we have lost our way. America, which at its core is a global beacon for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” is also currently the greatest destroyer of the natural environment (hyper-industrialism), the greatest denier of the sanctity of the human body (Puritanism), a leader in denying humanity’s interdependency as well as in resisting the “common good” (Libertarianism), and a denier of the natural healing capacity of the human body/spirit (Prevalence of excessive and harmful medical/pharmaceutical interventions).
America exhibits some of the worst attitudes toward life and nature, widely commercializing and marketing unhealthy lifestyles that have been proven linked to multiple public-health crises from obesity to depression to opioids abuse to cancer to heart disease to the alarming rise in children’s mental and physical ailments, and so on. According to Dr. Mozaffarian, voluminous research indicates that America has been becoming a sick nation particularly over the past four decades. Thus, COVID-19 is sounding the alarm calling for our urgent attention. However, not all is lost. The exciting news is that, in America, culture is fluid, and it can also evolve.
FIRST PRINCIPLES OF TRUE HEALTH
Dr. Zach Bush MD, a physician specializing in internal medicine, endocrinology, and hospice care and an internationally recognized educator and thought leader on health, disease, and food systems, is one of the most prolific visionaries relating COVID-19 vulnerabilities to the environmental crisis. Dr. Bush is also one of the experts who points out the parallels and correlations between the macro and the micro levels, the natural environment and the individual. Let’s consider this. When a singular physical health symptom prompts us to see our physician, we often learn that our complaint is but a mere indicator for a larger systemic problem in our body/spirit and its environment. For example, remember when you or someone you know had back pain and, in consultation with a physician, you (they) discovered that the reason was rooted in multiple conditions all neatly stacked up to bring you down? You had structural stresses, as your (their) weight was many pounds too many, and your (their) lifestyle included high stress levels that were held tight in the lower back, and your (their) mattress was not optimally supporting you (them), and so on. Your symptoms may have manifested in one organ but the causes were simultaneously located elsewhere in the body/spirit, and/or your lifestyle, and/or in the environment.
The same multi-causal effect applies on a societal scale. What then in American society (or global society for that matter) is causing the crises of Western diseases (obesity, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, coronary vascular disease, asthma to name a few), which in turn allow a fast moving COVID-19 virus to burn through like a firestorm in a dry woodland? Our blindness to the multiplicity and complexity of disease causes results in our limited success in resolving Western epidemics including COVID 19. A virus alone does not cause disease. More specifically, we have failed to comprehend nor follow the following four foundational principles for healthy living and disease mitigation:
1. A humble respect for Mother Nature, of which, we humans are an integral part.
2. A firm scientific and philosophical understanding of the ecological web of life that interlinks all organisms within the body and all around it.
3. A Subjective knowledge of each his/her own particular body/spirit needs and characteristics. Caring for her real needs cares for us.
4. An Individual and collective trust in our innate capacity to self-heal most disease and injury.
SCIENCE AND SCIENTISM
Let us put it all in a bit of historical and cultural context. What is failing and what is thriving in our American way of life? “It can’t be all bad, can it?” you may wonder. Let’s explain, and it has to do with science. We are a scientific culture. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries in particular have given rise to amazing scientific and technological explorations in all fields, from space travel to the invention of pocket-sized computing devices, but most especially in the research of disease. We are the beneficiaries of unprecedented development in the medical sciences and technology that allows us new freedoms and longer lives. However, along with the rise of scientific progress, a rigid approach has evolved in the science community. Philosophers call it “Scientism” (or Reductionism). The purity and power of the scientific method - hypothesis, experimentation, refinement, replicability - have been interpreted by Scientism through three cultural/philosophical biases:
1. the bias of reductionism
2. the bias of materialism
3. the bias of isolationism
These three perspectives have been dominant in the scientific community and Western culture throughout the twentieth century, at times to great benefit. An elaboration will help us appreciate the significant pros and cons of each.
The Reductionism bias claims that the best way to know things is to reduce a thing to its component parts. It asserts that the best way to know about disease and heal it is to understand smaller and smaller material components of an organ or a pathogen and learn their operational mechanisms. In other words, the more I can take a disease apart the better chances I have for understanding and controlling it.
This attitude has its roots in the Industrial Revolution that ushered enormous innovation, particularly in assembling large arrays of intricately engineered parts into a working whole, The Machine. During this period, we also learned to frame our lives and culture through the lens of the mechanics and the efficiencies of burgeoning early technologies. The human body was perceived by our industrial revolution ancestors as a cluster of attached moving parts. Thus, disease has been interpreted by researchers as the adverse presence of tiny malicious parts or foreign parts or missing parts or damaged parts within the body. Disease can be summed up as a “parts disorder.” “I can manage a disease by manipulating its parts back to their original state,” goes the reductionist’s thinking. The keen Information Age observer, however, rightfully questions whether this “particles” view of reality adequately explains disease and whether it is sufficient for true remediation.
Materialism holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all things, including mental states and consciousness, are results of material interactions. According to philosophical materialism, mind and consciousness are byproducts of material processes (such as the biochemistry of the human brain and nervous system), without which they cannot exist. In this worldview, the “abstract” notion of “human spirit” is a superstition or, at best, a poetic notion that is irrelevant to healing disease. But is it not? Contemporary medical research and evolving cultural trends affirm a strong link between spirit and wellness.
The bias of Isolationism is an aspect, and sometimes an extreme form, of modern Western Individualism. To be clear, I am not objecting to Individualism per se, but critiquing its isolationist manifestations. According to the dictionary: “Individualists promote the exercise of one's goals and desires, and value independence and self-reliance, and advocate that interests of the individual should achieve precedence over the social group” (Wikipedia). Individualism at its worst becomes isolationism. This industrial revolution inspired attitude views the individual as an isolated part amongst a random collection of other parts, an individual as a value-free object, nothing but a rational entity. Here we elevate and reward each member for individual accomplishment through a winner-takes-all race to a “top.”
Experience teaches us that isolationist individualism inevitably motivates selfishness and results in systems collapse. In the lexicon of disease, a cancer cell is an overly individualistic cell. Isolationism also suggests a natural world that is extremely dangerous, unforgiving, and inherently separate from the individual inhabiting it. Thus, we isolate ourselves from nature by sheltering in airtight dwellings, sanitized environments, sheltered from “pathogens”, and ultimately isolated from one another.
These practices have resulted in weaker communities and weaker immunity. Isolationism in a patient is much more likely to exacerbate disease than to heal it. Isolationism in the medical researcher is much more likely to narrow his/her perspective than to illuminate it. Isolation of the human body/spirit is a likely cause of declining health and death.
GREATER THAN OUR PARTS
Scientism, or Reductionism, which currently frames our reaction to disease in general and to COVID-19 and its variants in particular, has also been a strong motivator for civilization’s progress during the past century. Reductionism, Materialism, and Isolationism, at the time of their emergence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, offered refreshing alternatives to the prevailing medieval religious superstitions of the day. And indeed, the scientific method at the heart of the reductionist paradigm has solved many problems and improved our quality of life for a time.
But it appears as if the reductionist paradigm and especially its technological innovations have also created an alarming measure of environmental, social, and health threats, setting the stage for a COVID-19 pandemic to run rampant. Reductionism, with its hyper-rational and value-free position, inherently neglects to honor the natural environment, the genius construct and power of our own body/spirit, the ecological and relational webs we inhabit, and our innate capacity to self-heal most disease and injury.
Dr. Jacob Israel (a pseudonym to protect privacy), a member of my community, lost his mother a while ago to a multi-disease condition. Dr. Israel has been a beloved and deeply respected pediatrician in our town. His mother, like many of our aging parents, had been geographically distant, which prevented him from being at her side frequently enough during her last months of hospitalization.
When Dr. Israel was sharing his grief with me at his home in the days following the funeral, he told me the following story. During his last visit to the hospital, shortly before mom’s passing, he took a close look at her medical charts. Dr. Israel noticed that nine different specialists had been visiting his mother’s hospital bed to attend to nine separate diseased organs or systems, each prescribing a separate medication regimen. He described his shock and dismay at the sheer number of isolated interventions, uncoordinated as far as he knew. He suspected that the massive uncoordinated medication cocktail she was receiving may have hastened his mother’s death.
There was something extremely inhumane in the assembly-line-style health care process Dr. Israel’s mom had undergone at the hospital, though it seemed as if each individual specialist at the assembly line was doing exactly the “right” thing. Dr. Israel, thus, felt through the realization that the same medical paradigm he was devotedly and proudly practicing had failed his mother at a time of need by reducing her to component parts, treating her as a sum of her chemistry, each practitioner isolated in the bubble of his/her expertise. Mom’s treatment looked more like a mismanaged lab experiment than a compassionate and caring effort to tend to a precious living soul. This was deeply disturbing to Dr. Israel. In retrospect, it seems as if his insights were an uncomfortable gaze at some of the fault lines of the Reductionist medical approach.
Continue reading in Part 2