Sickle Cell, Darwinism, and COVID-19: Is My Life Worth Less Than Yours?

Sickle Cell, Darwinism, and COVID-19: Is My Life Worth Less Than Yours?

“Survival of the fittest” is a phrase I have come to loathe. This manner of thinking is particularly appalling to hear as a sickle cell patient. I have heard the phrase more frequently lately, against the backdrop of the current COVID-19 pandemic. But what does it mean?

Historically, the phrase was derived from Darwinian evolutionary theory and speaks to the process of natural selection. Natural selection states that characteristics advantageous to the survival of a species are passed down to future generations at the expense of less dominant characteristics that eventually die out.

Ironically, it has been theorized that the origins of sickle cell disease stem from natural selection. According to the theory, long ago, malaria crippled Africa and the Middle East, and the human body’s response was to adapt to its environment by mutating to protect itself.

People who have this protective mutated gene are described as having sickle cell trait. For the most part, sickle cell trait can be harmless, and members of this group can live relatively normal lives. (And yes, after all these years they are still less inclined to develop malaria.)

But when two people with these mutated genes have children, each pregnancy has a 25% chance of the child developing sickle cell disease.

With this in mind, it is evident that we sickle cell patients did not make ourselves sick. So, you can understand our frustration when people use Darwinism to imply that because we have weakened immune systems, our lives are somehow lesser in value than others. Even in the scenario in which someone contracts an illness due to their lifestyle choices, I think it is wrong to devalue their humanity with such rhetoric.

The U.K.’s initial response to the coronavirus pandemic was to pursue herd immunity, a strategy admitted to back in March by the government’s top scientific adviser. Yes, you read that correctly. For an at-risk patient like me, the initial response seemed to be, “If we enable the virus to spread, large parts of the population will develop an immunity to it. Yes, some people will die, but it will only be a small number.”

Additionally, the initial global narrative about the virus that causes COVID-19 was that it is like the common flu, with mortality linked mostly to the immunocompromised and the elderly. The belief that large segments of the population would be unaffected meant that those who are at risk of developing severe illness from COVID-19 were left feeling as if they are disposable.

Why should I, and others like me, have our humanity diminished because of circumstances we have no control of? As if that weren’t bad enough, these comments allowed complacency to settle in people’s minds.

It soon became apparent that many of these assumptions were wrong. We all need oxygen to live, not just the elderly and the immunocompromised. Our respiratory systems work to ensure our bodies receive adequate oxygen. The COVID-19 virus attacks the respiratory tract.

Additionally, different things can affect the performance of the immune system, such as diet, weight, sleep patterns, and stress.

Consequently, it makes sense that everyone should be taking the new coronavirus seriously, and we should have been doing so from the start. Children and healthy adults have died from COVID-19, and we also have seen cases of elderly patients recovering fully from the disease.

In the U.K., a TV advertisement emphasizes that COVID-19 is potentially life-threatening to anyone who contracts it, since so little is known about the disease’s trajectory in patients. The advertisement adds that anyone can catch and spread the coronavirus.

This new messaging is vital, and I hope similar warnings are being communicated globally. But sadly, it seems that it may take a while before the initial misguided narrative of COVID-19 is completely corrected.

Going forward, I hope everyone will think twice before making sweeping statements about viral outbreaks. I also hope that the humanity of those who are immunocompromised — or any group of people — is never devalued in such a dreadful manner again.

Note: Sickle Cell Anemia News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Sickle Cell Anemia News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to sickle cell anemia.

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  1. Tom G says:

    Well of course you don’t like natural selection because you have been selected against. Your entire position is based on emotion, not logic. Nothing personal, that’s just the way it is. There is simply no way that sickle cell anemia benefits the human gene pool. The bad news for you is that while modern civilization can mitigate the process of natural selection, to the ultimate detriment of the species I will add, it cannot eliminate it. Whether you like that or not is completely irrelevant and nature cares not at all.

    • Mary Shaniqua says:

      I agree that nature cares not at all. Notwithstanding this, I believe that we have a collective responsibility to assist those whose circumstances leave them at some disadvantage. For example, I have perfect eyesight, if I find myself in a situation where somebody with no vision or poorer eyesight required assistance, should I assist or leave them to their own devices simply because nature has selected them to be blind? Personally, I would opt for the former.

  2. Todd D'mod says:

    I’m actually devasted by the current climate. My wife and I were talking and I posed the question of how many lives it would take for her to sacrifice her own. She doesn’t think like that, but my point was in highlighting how completely irrelevant ALL of our possessions are in comparison to one life. If someone told us we would lose everything, but in doing so we would be contributing to saving others, then there is nothing to debate. I pray for you, and I hope you stay safe. The other commenter has absolutely no understanding of how research works. Sickle Cell research has absolutely contributed to breakthroughs in other areas of genetics, and also in molecular biology. Research is research, and the fundamental principle is that meaningful breakthroughs are shared across the scientific community. Tom G is basically the “tough guy” online, pretending that he’s not going to suffer from heart disease one day. Can you imagine if the world had to choose between Tom G and Stephen Hawkins? Who would we pick? Not even a contest. The body will diminish in relevance over time, and the mind will be all that matters. It’s not science-fiction, that’s just progress. Be strong, ignore the “tough guys” and stay safe. Most importantly, you fight. That is all any of us can do regardless of pre-existing conditions. Also, these numb-nuts aren’t taking into account the millions of “healthy” people who are now left with life-long ailments, including children. It’s the narrow, short-sighted individuals like Tom that have happily steered clear of the medical world. I can’t imagine having to do research next to people like that, thank god I don’t.

  3. I wound up here trying to understand my position as an otherwise healthy individual in the pandemic. “Survival of the fittest” is a fact we cannot control. But to say that anyone’s life is beneath another’s is wrong. I wouldn’t even pick between the “tough guy” and Hawkins. But I am not in control, nature is. And she doesn’t lack in care. In fact, she is neutral so caring or not caring isn’t an issue. I just wanted to say that you are alive so you are one of the fittest or you’d be dead. Thanks.

  4. Grey says:

    You’re wrong. i’m no scientist but if only the elderly and the immune compromised are at serious risk. We should not shut down the entire world. i’m sorry you’re old or weak but you’re problem doesn’t mean i should loose my job and money. The fact that you’re over 65 and at risk doesn’t mean i should be poor and stuck in my house. It’s liberal people like you who don’t understand that mother nature doesn’t care. COVID-19 will be around for as long as it wants. best if we let our bodies build up its own immunity instead of sheltering in place. letting a dangerous virus mutate. to the point of it being lethal to people it shouldn’t be.

    • Mary Shaniqua says:

      Personally, I would not place my desire to acquire wealth over the right of other people to live – but that is just me. We can agree to disagree on that. Though I agree, mother nature does not care, but the beautiful thing about us is that we are human beings – not mother nature – and therefore we have the capacity and ability to be caring and empathetic to one another.

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