Bill Sherwonit

Bill Sherwonit

In the early stages of the novel coronavirus pandemic, I wrote a City Wilds column that suggested the new viral strain beginning to wreak havoc around the world might be viewed as a kind of teacher (“Instead of evil enemy, let’s consider the possibility of virus as teacher”). 

As I noted then, one of the things I’ve come to admire about many indigenous cultures, including Alaska’s Native peoples, is the idea or belief (as I’ve come to understand it) that other forms of life can be our teachers, our guides. Without going into that too deeply here—and, I suppose, at the risk of offending some folks—I think the coronavirus offers some lessons for us. Some food for thought, if that’s easier to digest.

Early on, I gave this example: the virus sweeping through our human world reminds us that we’re part of larger nature and not separate from it. More than that, we’re not “above” nature, not superior to it. We—and by “we,” I mean America’s mainstream culture and too many of the people we’ve chosen to be our leaders—like to think we’re in control, or at least we act as if we’re in control. 

We humans imagine we are calling the shots, we’re deciding what’s best for us, the rest of the world be damned. Or at least ignored. But as the wiser among us have warned across the years, we do so at our peril. There are consequences to pay for our dismissive, egocentric, destructive notions and actions.

Climate change is teaching us the same lesson. The problem is that so far it’s been a slow-motion crisis (though that is changing). Even with all the extreme events of recent years and the clear evidence of major climatic shifts worldwide along with their impacts, not enough of humanity has so far been threatened in the here and now to get our full attention, to make us change our behaviors.

Well, bring on the novel coronavirus and Covid-19 pandemic, which gained our attention—one might even say demanded it—in a remarkably short period of time. And in the many months (nearly two years, in fact) since it first made the jump to humans, the virus has ably demonstrated that our species is still not in control of it, even after some scientific wizardry produced a number of effective vaccines in record time. 

Through its own processes and in an impressively short period of time, the virus evolved an especially contagious and deadly form, the “delta variant,” which has wreaked havoc even in countries with plenty of vaccine.

Does any nation come immediately to mind?

Despite all its wealth, scientific expertise, and medical know-how, the United States has experienced enormous suffering of many different kinds, much of it self-inflicted, particularly in recent months after we Americans figured we’d “beaten” the coronavirus. 

As the news media has repeatedly reported, that suffering has not been uniformly experienced across our country. “Red” states with populations that are largely politically and religiously conservative, have fared worst, for one simple reason: the refusal of many people to get vaccinated and wear masks, despite overwhelming evidence that those two actions best help to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

As President Joe Biden (among others) has repeatedly observed, the United States is now experiencing “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

There’s no better example of this new reality than right here in Alaska, which recently has experienced a Covid-19 surge greater than any other state—or nation.

During this newest surge, both locally and elsewhere, the virus continues to offer us lessons, if we’d only pay attention. 

For instance: denial is among the most troublesome human traits and lies at the heart of many of our species’ woes. Not that we should need reminding, but denial has played a key role in the most recent Covid-19 surge: denial that the virus is real, that vaccines are both safe and effective, that young and healthy people can become deathly sick because of it, on and on.

That denial has been fed by another troublesome reality (and again, we shouldn’t need reminding): technological advances can be a curse as well as a blessing. 

The Internet and associated technologies have contributed to the “silo effect.” People can now easily find just about any information—or misinformation—on assorted social media platforms, including what’s espoused by self-styled “experts” who feed implicit prejudices, fears and paranoia. This has contributed mightily to a widespread belief in conspiracy theories and alternate realities. Who would have guessed that a substantial portion of Alaskans and other Americans would place more faith in ivermectin, a drug intended to treat parasitic worms, than Covid-19 vaccines?

 Another lesson, one that also apparently needs to be relearned over and over: the dangers of blind allegiance to a charismatic personality. Donald Trump’s early and ongoing dismissive attitude toward the “China virus” has influenced his legions of Trumpian faithful, who don’t question his pronouncements, no matter how blatantly false.

We’ve been taught, again, that self-proclaimed patriots, like true believers, can be a dangerous lot. The insistence on individual rights and the freedom to do whatever one pleases, at the expense of the common good, the greater good, has played a huge role in Covid-19’s resurgence.

The pandemic has accentuated the best and worst of human behavior. We need look no farther than Anchorage to see the selfless and heroic actions of front-line workers and also the appalling words and actions of the self-righteous “haters” who ridicule and threaten the very people who might end up saving their lives.

Those who’ve been paying attention have also witnessed the advantages of privilege—and the costs to those who lack it—across the world. Wealthy, technologically advanced nations like the U.S. have had access to an over-abundance of vaccines, while poorer countries have received miniscule amounts of the live-saving medicines.

The coronavirus has emphasized the gap between the haves and have-nots—and the troubling lack of an adequately compassionate response to those in need. The maddening irony, of course, is that so many in our nation refuse to accept what other countries beg to receive, too often in vain.

One final thought: although we don’t know with certainty the coronavirus’s origins, it appears likely that this viral epidemic had its start either in China’s “wet markets,” where wild, living, caged animals are among the “foods” available for purchase and slaughter; or in a testing laboratory, where viral studies were being done and the coronavirus somehow escaped. Whichever is true, it appears the pandemic’s origins are likely connected to the all-too-common human penchant for cruelty to animals, whether for food and other consumptive uses, to “control” their numbers, or for scientific research.

So another lesson might be this: it’s time—beyond time—to stop treating the Earth and its myriad inhabitants so badly, because eventually our actions are only going to hurt ourselves. In a way, it seems a kind of karma. 

I’d like to think we can see the wisdom, the rightness, of respect and compassion for all life. But if nothing else we might consider our own self-interest.

So yes, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from the coronavirus pandemic, of many different kinds. Let’s hope more of us start paying attention to what the virus has to teach us; and then, most importantly, consider what actions benefit the greater good while behaving more respectfully toward each other and the Earth, our original home. And in the bigger picture, the only home we’ve got.

Anchorage nature writer and wildlands/wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at

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