COVID-19? It’s Mother Nature’s revenge for Bruno the Bear...

There is, in brief, nothing ‘unique’ or ’unprecedented’ about today’s COVID-19 pandemic… and we don’t even need to go back to the Middle Ages to find other examples

Maybe it’s just a side effect of prolonged isolation – but I’m starting to find the conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 a whole lot more irritating than the pandemic itself.

For instance, the widely-held belief that this deadly virus is somehow ‘a product of human technology’: a biological weapon created in a biological laboratory… like the one which is known to exist in Wuhan, China (apparently, a stone’s throw from the wet-market where COVID-19 is believed to have originated).

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m not disputing that the technology to modify existing viruses (and possibly even to create new ones) does indeed exist. And certainly, I am not in any position to confirm or refute the theory that COVID-19 might just be an example.

But it’s the premise of the argument that gets to me: i.e., the something as deadly and insidious as COVID-19 could only have been created in a biological laboratory: for all the world as though deadly pandemics – or ‘plagues’, to use the slightly more archaic term - had never existed at all, before the technology to create them suddenly became available in the 20th century.

And yet… not only have plagues and pandemics always been a reality; but some of the historical ones have actually been a lot more devastating than the one we are coping with right now (at least, in terms of their immediate impact on public health).

The Bubonic Plague, for instance: a bacterial disease that repeatedly ravaged Europe throughout the Middle Ages… in some cases, literally decimating entire populations in the process. That, too, was a pandemic originating in China… and just like COVID-19 today, it was originally exported to Europe through existing trade routes.

Now: I am perfectly aware that Chinese civilization was considerably more advanced than its European equivalent at the time: especially when it came to science. But I somehow doubt that China was quite so scientifically advanced as to possess a great many ‘biological warfare laboratories’… as long as 800 years ago or more.

So, short of introducing time-travel into the mix – and there are probably already a few conspiracy theories about that, too - one can only conclude that the dreaded Bubonic Plague was, in fact, a product of good old Mother Nature, and not humans at all: just like cholera, measles, smallpox, malaria, Ebola… and all the countless other, equally deadly diseases that have periodically claimed millions of lives at various points in our history.

There is, in brief, nothing ‘unique’ or ’unprecedented’ about today’s COVID-19 pandemic… and we don’t even need to go back to the Middle Ages to find other examples. The Spanish Flu of 1918 was also a mutation of an existing virus – in this case, influenza – and it ended up infecting an estimated 500 million people worldwide (in other words, the equivalent of Europe’s entire population today).

And yet, back in 1918, the entire concept of ‘biological warfare’ (as opposed to ‘chemical warfare’, which was widely used in World War One) still lay decades ahead in the future. Clearly, then, Spanish Flu must have had a natural – as opposed to man-made – cause.

So… why do we find it so difficult to accept the same explanation for COVID-19 today? I.e., that viruses have a rather nasty habit of mutating from time to time; and – as we’ve all already experienced very recently with SARS/H1N1/Bird Flu, etc. – this results in regular outbreaks of infectious diseases, emerging to plague use every few years or so?

Well, for what it’s worth, I think I might actually have an answer to that question. Only it’s a little complicated to explain… so you’ll have ‘bear’ with me for a while. (That was a pun, by the way. Hopefully, you’ll get it later).

Let me start with the short version. At this stage of our development as a species, humanity has cocooned itself so utterly from the natural universe, that we have all-but forgotten it even exists… still less, that it has the potential to kill us outright if we’re not too careful.

It might seem irrelevant… but this is especially true of our relationship with wildlife. Recently, for instance, there was a news item about a young American teenager on a visit to Yellowstone Park: whose reaction upon seeing a wild bison for the first time (that’s a North American buffalo, by the way: in other words, a big, heavy and horned member of the bovine family, with a reputation for being somewhat short-tempered) was to try and use it as a backdrop for a selfie.

I suppose she was lucky, in the sense that the animal only caused minor injuries when it (inevitably) charged, gored, tossed and trampled her as a result. What struck me about that story, however, was the extraordinary naivety – almost bordering on hubris – with which such people feel ‘immune’ to the dangers of nature.

It is as though the possibility that you might be ‘killed by a wild animal’ somehow belongs to a distant, forgotten past. And indeed, for most of us that is perfectly true… in the sense that the vast majority of us will never even get to see any potentially dangerous wildlife at all… still less get close enough to take a selfie.

We have, after all, built up entire cities around us, with the specific (and very successful) aim of keeping the natural world firmly out of ‘our’ territory. And in Europe in particular, we have tamed and domesticated the landscape to such a degree, that Mother Nature can barely even get a foothold at all.

The forests that once spanned the entire continent have long been felled, and replaced by farmland or urban sprawl. And most of Europe’s once-abundant wild fauna – including the wolves and bears that once inspired cautionary tales such as ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, or fanciful legends such as the ‘Beast of Gevaudan’  – is either extinct, or confined to a few nature reserves here and there (and even then, most of it had to re-introduced).

All of which, naturally, brings me to Bruno the Bear (get the pun now?). It was admittedly a while ago… but back in 2006, an adult European brown bear – later nicknamed ‘Bruno’ – wandered out of its reserve in Northern Italy, and proceeded to go on a ‘walkabout’:  crossing the border into Austria, and eventually travelling as far as Germany... thus becoming the first bear to venture into that country in 170 years (the last one having been shot by hunters in 1838).

Now: like I said earlier, modern-day Europe is not exactly very well-equipped to handle such things as wild bears roaming around the countryside. And so, in case you’ve forgotten how this particular story panned out in the end… Germany’s reaction to the sudden presence of one, single, solitary specimen of European brown bear on its soil - the first in almost two centuries – was to… um… kill it.

And to me, that is just as revealing as that American teenager’s behaviour when confronted by that wild bull. The circumstances are perhaps different, as was the outcome; but both cases seem to illustrate just how far removed we have become from the natural weal that once regulated our entire existence.

Wildlife either does not frighten us at all; or else – as was the case with poor Bruno – it frightens us so much that we have to exterminate it at every opportunity. And… well… it’s the same with all other manifestations of the natural universe: including at the microbial level of bacteria and viruses.

In the case of COVID-19: what was once a regular occurrence – as common as a wild bear in the woods, in fact – now seems ‘impossible’ to reconcile with contemporary existence… to the extent that we find ourselves having to invent outlandish theories to account for it.

And this may well explain why so many people prefer to think of COVID-19 as a purely manmade – as opposed to natural – threat. It is, after all, far less humbling to be threatened by a human enemy (which we are used to anyway), than by a superior force over which we have no control at all.

Effectively, then, the ‘biological warfare’ conspiracy theory puts us all back on familiar territory, by portraying the villain of the piece as just another human agency…  thus feeding into the myth that Mother Nature (whom we once feared so much) simply no longer has the power to harm us, as it used to in the past.

And yet, Mother Nature has been out there all this time… no matter how much of her handiwork we have buried under layers of asphalt and concrete. And no matter how advanced we think we’ve become as a species… we still remain just as susceptible to dying by her hand, as we’ve always been in the past.

So how’s this for a conspiracy theory? What if COVID-19 was, in fact, just Mother Nature’s way of gently reminding us all of her existence, once and for all? What if it was all part of a grand strategy, to ensure that wildlife such as Bruno the Bear could once again freely roam the lands that were once its natural home (as it would now be able to do, what with all the deadly humans now safely locked up indoors)?

The same conceit could just as easily be extended to other ways in which this virus has proved a blessing for nature, though a curse for humanity. Already there is evidence that global pollution levels have fallen drastically… and for the first time ever, all European countries are now well within their carbon-reduction targets, as agreed by the Kyoto protocol…

But hey, let’s not make the same mistake as all the other conspiracy theorists out there. In reality, COVID-19 is just another a pandemic: like all the countless other plagues we’ve experienced hundreds of time before. And just like all those other plagues…  and just like Bruno the Bear, for that matter… this one, too, will one day be forgotten.

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