5 lessons we can all learn from the coronavirus crisis

Sometimes the best way to make changes is when you're in the middle of a challenging time.

A cashier wears gloves while scanning the groceries of a customer at a Whole Foods in Cambridge, MA on March 24, 2020.

Photo by Erin Clark for The Boston Globe via Getty Images
  • While no one knows the future, implementing lifestyle changes now can prepare you for returning to a post-coronavirus society.
  • Boredom has long been a powerful catalyst for creativity and should not be viewed in the negative.
  • Spending more time in the kitchen, walking, and being more thoughtful online can be practiced right now.

Speculating on what a post-coronavirus world looks like seems impossible at the moment. This not-knowing is generating personal and economic anxiety around the world. We must grapple with the fact that a one-to-two month timeline is not feasible and prepare ourselves for what a year or longer looks like.

Being in the middle of a crisis can be fertile ground for preparing what comes after—or, perhaps more pertinent to this discussion, what comes now. Reaching an existential crossroads is an ideal time for self-reflection. It forces you to confront the solitude we usually avoid by endlessly gazing at our phones. As has long been known, boredom is a powerful teacher that should not be overlooked, during this moment, or ever.

As I wrote about last week, transience is part of life. This is the first time the entire planet is collectively experiencing a crisis in my 44-year lifetime. Sure, we've witnessed Black Lives Matter, #metoo, and the AIDS epidemic, and there were plenty of people that felt inoculated from those moments. It's easy to ignore or decry movements that don't personally involve you. This moment is different.

There are dozens if not hundreds of changes we can speculate on. Below are five currently on my mind.

Creative Time Summit | Keynote Presentation: Rebecca Solnit

Value service workers

For years, I've done this: When in line and the person in front of me stares at or talks on their phone the entire time the cashier rings them up, I always ask upon reaching my turn, "How does it make you feel when a person ignores you to look at their phone?" Never once—and my anecdotal study has many dozens if not a hundred responses thus far—has someone replied, "I feel great." Answers range from "I'm used to it by now" to "It's like I'm not even a human being."

Grocery store (among other) workers aren't having a moment right now because they're heroes. The dictates of capitalism demand that they risk getting sick or don't get paid. We shouldn't appreciate service workers now; we should always appreciate them. The grief that retail workers usually receive is a sad reflection of a twisted social hierarchy. And to think, just weeks ago we endured gripes regarding the impossibility of a $15/hour minimum wage. As a society we need to seriously question the value we place on work, and make that value available to everyone. It starts by valuing those that care for you, regardless of your financial or career position.

A return to the kitchen

With eyes turned on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, as well as the sales surge in pretzels, popcorn, Oreos, and other processed foods, there is good news on the food front: loads of people are baking their own bread. I picked up this skill over a decade ago while living in Brooklyn and fell in love with the patience and diligence the process requires. Sure, the fact that flour and yeast are hard to procure is unfortunate. At the same time, it signals an important return to the kitchen. Americans outsource their cooking and food preparation too much as it is.

In the past week, my wife has experimented with Polish peasant food, pungent Isan soup, and scrumptious butter cookies. We both cook regularly, but given our normally hectic lives, that's usually limited to weekends. Yesterday, she made cultured butter from scratch, which then went into pancakes. (Fortunately, I'm live-streaming classes to keep moving after all this home cooking.) I'll return to bread when I can secure flour, but in the meantime I'll be reopening my Hungarian cookbooks to revisit the dishes my grandmother made.

Hit the books

With Amazon taking up to a month to ship books and local bookstores and libraries closed, there are still plenty of opportunities for reading. (You probably binged "Tiger King" anyway.) Fortunately, ebooks are instantly downloadable. If you're in a financial squeeze, the National Emergency Library has made over 1.4 million books available for free, and Open Culture is one of the best resources around for discovering open-source and public domain reading materials.

Reading bestows numerous benefits, including increasing your intelligence and levels of empathy. This pandemic has thrown many off-guard. Yet disease has long been part of our biological heritage. Humans have endured pandemics with much less up-to-date information. That said, this is the perfect time to study the history of medicine and evolutionary biology. A grasp of the past empowers you with the understanding of how to move through an uncomfortable present. Take advantage of this time to fill your brain with knowledge.

man reading his book on his window

A man reads his book on his window after partial curfew declaration within precautions against coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in Tunisia's old city Al Madina al-Kadima on March 27, 2020.

Photo by Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Back to the basics

"Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do," writes Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust: A History of Walking. "It's best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking."

Not that walking is nothing. In a sense, it's everything to us bipeds. Still, Solnit make an important point. The most startling revelation of this pandemic is seeing more people casually walking around on sidewalks than on the roads—and one of my cross streets is the perpetually-crowded Venice Blvd. Even the ubiquitous scooters are nowhere in sight.

We can't expect these practices to sustain at the current level when self-isolation is over. But maybe, just perhaps, more of us will remember the pleasure of walking. As Solnit implies, it is also a wonderful opportunity to work through those thousands of thoughts in your head. Time and space give you perspective.

Come together

I had, admittedly ignorantly, assumed that a pandemic was one issue that would cut through political polarization. Wow, was I wrong. As mentioned above, this virus transcends race, gender, and class. Yes, it's particularly dangerous for immunodeficient patients, of which there is a class component (due to food availability and exercises opportunities). Overall, no one wants this virus, and everyone can suffer—if not you personally, then a relative or loved one.

We need to unite and rally around levelheaded science. The growing number of conspiracy theories (5G; bioweapon manufacturing; Advil) potentially hurt others as well. This crisis is often compared to 9/11 where over the months that followed there was fear around New York City. But there was also an overwhelming sense of community. Though I am mostly inside these days, when I do go out for walks, I notice that same sense of "we're in this together." Subtle and simple: people making eye contact and saying hello. That is not the usual exchange in Los Angeles.

Reading, walking, cooking, appreciating the person ringing up your groceries, all practices that slow us down and bring us back to fundamentals. Humans are social animals, making this an especially difficult period, as we can't touch one another. But we can still effect each other, even if through these screens. On the other side of your posts, human eyes stare back. Keep that in mind the next time you sit down to write or share. People all over the world are suffering right now. We can all play a role in alleviating each other's distress.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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