biodiversity, heal, resilience

How to Heal Ourselves from the COVID-19 Pandemic

Dear One,

Can we be honest with each other? Here in this space where it’s safe to do so?

The virus isn’t our problem.

There. I’ve said it.

I’ll say it again. The virus is not our problem. It never was. And until we get this through our fearful heads, looking for the simple story and simple solutions, we’re going to remain in a world of hurt. And tragedy. And sorrow. And it’s all so unnecessary.

We’ve talked about how the virus is not our true enemy before. The true enemy is the virus-gene-environment-lifestyle relationship that favors the virus.

That was my overly simplistic and non-blaming way of saying something I think we all in our heart of hearts know: We’ve messed things up real bad.

And I think it’s time to be clear: the virus is not to blame—we are.


We’ve created a milieu that favors the pathogenicity of viruses through our blatant disregard of the beauty and intrinsic intelligence that is us and all of the natural world we are a part of. Through pollution, environmental toxicity, and adulteration and depletion of our food supply we’ve destroyed the harmony of our planetary ecology. In the process we’ve made ourselves sick, toxic, and immunologically vulnerable.

The primary urges of nature are twofold. I talk about the first one all the time: healing—to sustain life. The other is biodiversity—to have a rich abundance of different life forms cooperating and supporting all aspects of life. When we lose biodiversity, the sustenance of life marches on—but now it favors highly specialized organisms who find niches that expose our vulnerabilities.

Let me explain.

We are the Biome

We’re meant to live in harmony with a near-infinite array of microorganisms, including those that can make us sick. In fact, each one of us, rather than being a “one,” is actually a community of organisms. Our genome contains viral sequences. Our mitochondrial DNA evolved from bacteria. Our guts and skin and every possible surface of our bodies is chock full of organisms. We’re designed to cooperate and help one another physiologically. And this relationship doesn’t stop with our gut or skin—it continues out into the biosphere.

The benefits of these relationships go in all directions. Turns out, the more diverse the community of organisms, the healthier we all are. Loss of diversity in the biome (our microbiome as well as the larger ecological biome) through overuse of antibiotics and pesticides, leads to emergence of resource-depleted environments (us, for example, and our earth) and organisms that can make us sick because they’re specialized for the leftover niches (“pathogens,” COVID-19, for example).

By controlling and containing the larger biome through destructive strategies, we lose the harmony of the ecological symphony we are an intrinsic part of. We lose the resilience and health protection that being a part of a diverse community of organisms provides. It has been hypothesized that COVID-19, like other previous viral illness outbreaks (SARS, influenza), found an ecological “niche” in our damaged, depleted ecosystem.

Resilience: Why We Don’t All Get Sick

It’s been shown that microorganisms we think of as highly pathogenic are part of our microbiome. But most of us don’t get sick. In the COVID-19 pandemic, of those who have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, 80% are “silent carriers,” but not sick.

A recent survey of the human “virome” in 8,000 healthy subjects showed gene sequences for 19 human viruses, including herpesviruses, HIV, hepatitis B and C, and influenza virus, in 42% of the study participants. These are all viruses we consider to be “the enemy,” yet in these subjects, while viral genomes were identified in their blood, they were not making them sick.

Why do some of us get sick and others don’t?

Resilience. These are the factors that allow us to live in greater harmony as part of the natural world.

Resilience through Self-Care

We’ve extensively discussed the resilience factors we can control, like self-care—behaviors and lifestyle choices that support our strength, energy, and adaptability (and make us more biodiverse), like eating a healthy whole-foods plant rich diet, getting optimal sleep, rest and play, moving extensively, sharing abundant love and connection, and so on.

Planetary Resilience

There are also important resilience factors that we create together, as a society. Like protecting our planet from environmental toxicity, pollution, and depletion of resources.

A very recent study looked at United States pollution data and compared it to the number of COVID-19 deaths. They were able to account for 98% of the deaths as of April 22, 2020. After adjusting for 20 potential confounding factors (including population size, age distribution, population density, hospital beds, number of individuals tested, weather, obesity, and smoking), they found that an increase of only 1 micron/cubic meter in “PM2.5” (atmospheric fine Particulate Matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns—a very dangerous fraction of air pollution that causes respiratory and vascular disease) is associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate. The results were highly statistically significant.

Bottom line: A small increase in long term exposure to atmospheric fine particulate pollution leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate.

AKA environmental resilience is a critical part of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Back to “It’s Not Simple”

Not to science you to death, but my point is, the COVID-19 pandemic is not a simple equation. There are clearly factors directly related to the virulence of this disease and the risk of dying that go beyond the virus and place responsibility directly into our hands. Some of the identified factors are:

  • Small particulate air pollution
  • SARS-CoV-2 virus (perhaps finding a specialized niche where we’ve created vulnerability)
  • Vulnerable population: older age, respiratory disease, vascular disease, overcrowding
  • Highly nuanced severe illness: hypoxic respiratory failure (suggesting non-viral influences of the disease)

The virus is not the enemy.

What on Earth Do We Do Now?

Total overwhelm, right?

And that explains the temptation to dumb this story down to a simple “virus is the enemy” story. And to project blame away from ourselves.

But I want my beautiful earth back. And her ecological balance that keeps me and my loved ones healthy and in constant awe.

I am encouraged by these words spoken by Zach Bush MD in a recent epic talk about the connection between this pandemic and the ecological balance of the planet:

Life is: Beautiful. Adaptive. Regenerative.

We can heal our planet.

Where We Start

Remember these? Breathe, soften, stay curious. These are our resilience power tools.

And this: Permission. Permission to make mistakes. And to forgive ourselves.

And, now more than ever: Courage. Courage to jump into the arena, clearly name the problem (out loud so others can hear you!), claim personal responsibility for participating and fixing the problem, and doing something—anything—about it, now.

And if all you can muster right now is to breathe, soften, and stay curious, that’s a beautiful strong beginning.

Let’s continue to talk about how we’re going to heal our world.

We can heal our planet. We can heal ourselves.

Thanks, as always, for listening.




Xiao Wu MS, et al. Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States: A nationwide cross-sectional study. April 24, 2020.

Ahmed Moustafa, et al. The Blood DNA Virome in 8,000 Humans. PLoS Pthog. 2017.

Karyn Shanks MD. COVID-19 Lessons. 2020.

Karyn Shanks MD. COVID-19: How to Protect Your Whole Self in a Global Pandemic. 2020.

Zach Bush MD. Interview on The HighWire. 2020.

Karyn Shanks MD


Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-eight year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.

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