Hunter S. Thompson's novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream was published fifty years ago. That dream rests largely on the same promise of eternal economic growth that was famously criticized just six months ago. Although that criticism went viral on social media, the generation that has grown up with those platforms is now learning that things can go viral elsewhere. And for many, not just Americans, the dream is now over: we have awoken to the reality that economic growth is not eternal.
The dream never began for most of the world's indigenous people. Yet there is something profound that the billions of non-indigenous people around the world who are still chasing the dream can learn from them. If governments would follow Brazil's lead (it rightly reversed a previous decision last month, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, that would have opened up contact with the country's little-contacted indigenous people), indigenous people would be the safest on Earth. (The safest are not on Earth, they are aboard the International Space Station.)
My own plans to spend time in indigenous communities in Taiwan last month were ended when my flights were canceled. Instead, I ended up getting stranded for two weeks in northern Thailand. There, I spent a few days in a hotel run by an indigenous Lahu family. Oriented mainly toward tourists, they offered day trips as well as longer term homestay opportunities in their village. After hearing about my previous experiences, they asked me if I might be interested in visiting the village. Of course I was, but, despite showing no Covid-19 symptoms, I could not be 100% certain that I was not carrying the virus. Early European colonizers knew nothing of viruses; but I did not want to run even the smallest risk of decimating an entire village.
Had I visited, I might have seen something similar to the scene in this month's photo in which a Lahu man is butchering a slaughtered, domesticated pig. Animals have carried viruses that are harmful to humans for as long as we have been around. But since we domesticated livestock at least 10,000 years ago, the present coronavirus pandemic was as predictable as its timing wasn't. Scenes such as this one are repeated daily in indigenous communities around the world.
So why are indigenous people relatively safe? Unlike the rest of us who need to be told to isolate, they tend to live in isolated communities anyway. But inside those communities life is very close-knit. Asking them to practice social distancing would be futile. Often, a large family lives in a very small space. For the rest of us, both isolation and social distancing are unnatural: we are naturally social animals. Yet most governments and their citizens seem to realize how dire this situation is and, so far, altruism is prevailing in what is almost a global social experiment.
I felt a sense of loathing that I would not visit that Lahu village last month. But the feeling was nothing compared to the fear I had of that same visit. Yet I found a compromise. I ended up volunteering to teach English to trainee hotel staff as well as helping the owners organize an upcoming event.
The world has never needed altruism more than it does right now. Indeed our survival may depend on it. I don't know what the post-coronavirus world will look like. But I know there are many people stranded in parts of the world where economically hurting tourism companies can make money by taking stranded tourists into isolated indigenous villages. If you are one of those tourists, please resist the temptation. Most governments are unlikely to follow Brazil's lead.If you enjoyed reading this month's opinion editorial, please consider supporting independent, advertising-free journalism by buying us a coffee to help us cover the cost of hosting our web site. Please click on the link or scan the QR code. Thanks!