Military terminology used to describe cancer divides opinion among people who have been diagnosed. But one area where war metaphors are entirely appropriate, in my experience, is the lifelong 'battle' against nicotine addiction. Apparently more addictive than heroin, nicotine is a bugger to defeat. I should know. I have lost many battles – and the goddamn war – to this fascinating substance. But, much to the chagrin of the anti-smoking moralists, nicotine also has its uses. Years ago, I read that it helps prevent dementia and ulcerative colitis. As to the latter, every smoker knows of the efficacy of the early morning cigarette. Of course, none of these benefits outweigh the risk of lung cancer, so I now puff the vape with the determination of a Trojan warrior.
You can imagine my smug satisfaction this week to read of 'bizarre' evidence beginning to emerge from France that the proportion of smokers infected with COVID-19 is much, much lower than that of the general population. The theory is that nicotine could adhere to cell receptors, therefore blocking the virus from entering the cells and spreading throughout the body. French scientists are planning to trial whether nicotine replacements will help prevent – or lessen the effects of – the deadly virus. In the meantime, doctors in a hospital in Paris who found low rates of smoking among the infected are now planning to give nicotine patches to their patients.
Tobacco as a medicine has a long history. A tobacco smoke enema was used by indigenous people of North America by blowing the vapour via a rectal tube to stimulate evacuation. Europeans emulated the Americans. Astonishingly, tobacco resuscitation kits consisting of a pair of bellows and a tube were provided by the Royal Humane Society of London and placed at various points along the Thames.
We used to mock stories of European doctors prescribing tobacco smoke as a medicine to fight colds. Perhaps these medical practitioners were on to something after all. Newly enlightened, I will be stockpiling nicotine vape fluid with the dedication of a trooper. My family can be reassured that the pair of bellows will remain firmly at the fireplace.
On numerous occasions in recent weeks, I have read that the lockdown is particularly difficult because human beings are social animals. But are we really that social, Aristotle? The philosopher had it that an individual who is naturally anti-social is either subhuman and beneath our contempt, or more than human and godlike. I look forward – with some relish – to telling my anti-social friends they are either noble savages or gods. Because not everyone is having a torrid time socially distancing, in fact, quite the opposite. Friends have told me that the lockdown has not been a hardship but rather, a blessed relief. On closer inspection, it would appear that we are cooperative by necessity, analogous to ants, bees and other primates. Socialising might be necessary, but it can also be psychologically demanding and tedious.
Interestingly, the American psychologist Adam Waytz thinks the 2,500 years-old scientific idea that humans are by nature social animals should be retired. In his book, The Power of Human
, Waytz argues that humans are not naturally oriented towards others. To be sure, sociality is a dominant force that shapes thought, behaviour, physiology and neural activity. However, Waytz continues, we can't ignore the evidence that being social is 'far from easy, automatic, or infinite'. This is because our brains, hormones and cognition – on which social processes rely – must first be triggered. Despite possessing capacities far beyond other animals to empathise with others, and to transform empathy into care and generosity, we fail to employ these abilities easily or equally. 'We engage in acts of loyalty, moral concern, and cooperation primarily toward our inner circles, but do so at the expense of people outside of those circles. Our altruism is not unbounded; it is parochial.'
Because our social capacities are largely not innate but are, rather, parochial and finite, we can retire the strong version of Aristotle's statement, concludes Waytz. At the same time, humans obviously need other humans to survive. So there we have it, folks. If the lockdown has taught me anything so far, it is this: we are not as sociable as we think we are; we shouldn’t worry about our mental health if we are enjoying social isolation; but at the same time we need social cooperation if we are to emerge relatively unscathed from solitary confinement.
A world overturned?
In the early hours of another sleepless night, I pondered restlessly about the state of the world and the devastation we are bequeathing to future generations. Is the world as we knew it hurtling towards catastrophe? Catastrophe is defined as an event causing great and usually sudden damage or suffering (from the Greek meaning 'overturn'). Recalling with ominous foreboding a paper given over 30 years ago by Sir Crispin Tickell (former UK ambassador to the UN and prominent environmentalist), he listed several environmental catastrophes facing our fragile world and its inhabitants: earthquakes; meteors; volcanic eruptions; giddy-making increases in human population and its relationship to finite resources; water pollution which will eventually lead to 'water wars', overturning oil wars. Frightening stuff made bearable by the distance of predicted events and the unlikelihood of such catastrophes occurring in our lifetimes.
Sir Crispin did not itemise the threat of pandemics. Not yet catastrophic, I wondered whether coronavirus and its deadly mutations will indeed overturn human social life. But there is a much greater risk looming – classified as the greatest imminent risk of all – namely, antimicrobial resistance in the environment. Although human resistance to antibiotics has finally come to the attention of policymakers, governments are far from implementing legislation. Hopefully, when the world emerges blinking from the current pandemic, legislators will be acutely aware of this potentially catastrophic risk to human health, the highest priority of all.