This pandemic, with an estimated mortality rate of one to two per cent, is not a world ender or something to be truly feared.
But it deserves our respect and it certainly has our attention.
Pandemics, which go off like improvised bombs, don’t have to be formidable killers to be bad. Even modest biological detonations can upend your day and alter your world.
As SARS-CoV-2 — the respiratory virus that causes the disease COVID-19 — begins its explosive global journey, it has proven its ability to clog hospitals and freeze economies.
It is worth remembering that SARS-CoV-2, unlike influenza, is a novel cold-like virus that Homo sapiens have never experienced before. We have no immunity and must acquire it either through exposure to the virus or a vaccine that most likely won’t be ready till the pandemic is over.
SARS-CoV-2 will play with different populations differently, making use of the demographic material at hand along with human follies such as the criminal dearth of testing in the United States for the last month.
And it won’t be the last. This particular biological invader springs from an ancient, large and diverse family of viruses hosted by a variety of wild animals, including bats and birds.
These species are particularly hard pressed by global economic forces now ruinously reducing biological diversity everywhere. As biological biodiversity declines, viruses will seek reliable hosts and jump from animals into people at any given opportunity. Peter Daszak, a pioneering disease ecologist, says we now live in Age of Pandemics.
SARS, a close relative of SARS-CoV-2, plugged up hospital systems and cost $50 billion to bring under control in 2003/2004. MERS, a coronavirus present in bats and camels, has burdened the care of patients with diabetes and heart disease in Middle Eastern hospitals for years now.
COVID-19 behaves a lot like its relatives. It targets the ill, smokers and the elderly. For 80 per cent of the infected, it appears as a cold-like nuisance; for 20 per cent, it is a life or death battle with hellish pneumonia (see sidebar). Judging by the escalating outbreaks in Australia, Spain, U.S., England and France, COVID-19 will trump the impacts of SARS or MERS by several orders of magnitude.
Still, at this point it seems COVID-19’s effect on the globe’s highly complex and fragile economy will likely be far more severe than its impact on public graveyards.
Practicing for de-growth
Because the pandemic shut down China, the high-speed driver of global growth, SARS-CoV-2 will usher in a prolonged global recession.
Viewed through the lens of climate crisis survival, the pandemic has produced some good news. Reduced economic activity in China, the world’s largest oil user, has already resulted in a 25 per cent drop in greenhouse gas emissions and blue skies. Container ship traffic across the Pacific has dropped by half to 100 sailings a month. Auto sales are down 80 per cent and exports have fallen off by nearly 20 per cent.
In this regard, the virus is readying us for what could be the new reality. To really address the climate emergency, we must slow down economic activity, reduce trade, re-localize economies and severely restrict travel.
Already, though, we see there is no smooth glide down. Dramatic decreases in oil consumption — up to four million barrels a day — have collapsed oil prices. That has given Russia and Saudi Arabia, the world’s top petro states, an opportunity to engage in a price war.
Increasing oil price volatility could have social and economic ramifications as calamitous as the virus for many oil-exporting nations, including Canada.
Successes or liabilities?
To date, COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities inherent to several conditions unique to our modern technological era, and often extolled as markers of progress. Today’s global economy is shaped by just-in-time supply deliveries; rapid urbanization; the extended lifespans of an aging baby boomer generation; and unparalleled human mobility.
Just in time, a business model pioneered by Toyota in the 1980s, now dominates the world economy — everything from grocery stores to hospital beds.
JIT thinking goes like this: Why waste money stocking up on supplies or making stuff locally, when you can order the cheapest stuff from a distant Chinese factory?
Or why waste money on inventory when a truck can act as moving storage room?
COVID-19 has punched several holes in such short-term thinking as Chinese factories, under quarantine orders, stopped making things. Supply chains have failed and transportation networks are now backlogged. Medical authorities have struggled to order masks, gloves and antibiotics just in time.
Moreover citizens are beginning to appreciate a related global vulnerability: the concentration of too much critical industry in China. It is the world’s largest exporter of the chemical ingredients used in antibiotics and other drugs.
Due to shortages, the prices of ingredients needed to make statins to control cholesterol levels have shot up by 40 per cent. The active ingredient in Tylenol is also in short supply.
The virus, notes actuary Gail Tverberg, has revealed the “world economy has effectively put way too many eggs in one basket, and this basket is now not functioning as expected.”
The fragility of just-in-time systems has been long foretold. According to decade-old reports by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office and BMO Nesbitt Burns, a severe pandemic with a 2.5-per-cent death rate will shock the economy and turn health care systems upside down. That rate sounds a lot like estimates for COVID-19, which, if it infects more than 100 million North Americans, could kill two million.
Experts now predict a terrible outbreak in the U.S., which has failed to test properly for the virus. A germaphobe president that could not be unseated by an impeachment hearing, may be undone by a chaotic and incompetent health response.
The U.S. has private and public hospital beds for less than one million people but even a minor pandemic would create at least five million infections needing hospitalization.
The demand for mechanical ventilators for those with failing lungs will exceed supply. China, Iran and Italy have experienced that truth.
The essayist Ian Welsh noted more than a decade ago that just-in-time thinking will broaden a pandemic’s impact, because it champions elites who behave like reckless grasshoppers as opposed to Aesop’s prudent ants.
“Our society, as a whole, has no surge capacity protection, no ability to take shocks,” wrote Welsh. “We have no excess beds, no excess equipment, no excess ability to produce vaccines or medicines. Everybody has worshipped at the altar of efficiency for so long that they don’t understand that if you don’t have extra capacity you have no ability to deal with unexpected events.”
After this relatively modest pandemic, individual nations might adopt a new business model called planning ahead. Prudent societies will make sure they have extra supplies of metals, fuel, medicine and food on hand to keep things running when disruptions occur. Nations will untie many of the ropes of globalization and seek greater independence by consuming fewer resources.
Urban crowding has already shaped the contours of the pandemic, because COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus. More than half of the world’s population lives in cities and 35 metropolises — human feedlots — boast more than five million residents.
If each person infects just two others, then an infection will become 1,024 infections in 30 days. Super spreaders, people who can infect up to 100 people, can swiftly change that dynamic in cities or cruise ships.
In fact cruise ships, which are in many ways like floating apartment buildings, make exceptional petri dishes. Both passengers and crews come from all parts of the globe. All live in cramped quarters where viral disease can spread easily. In addition, many passengers tend to be elderly or immuno-compromised. Some ships even come with dialysis units. On one cruise ship recently overwhelmed by influenza, investigators found that “77.4 per cent of the 1,448 passengers were 65 years of age or older and 26.2 per cent had chronic medical problems.”
Historically, pandemics have never been kind to urban dwellers. The plague of Athens (most likely typhoid) dispatched a third of that city’s residents in 430 BC. The Spanish Flu pandemic buried nearly 100 million people — the majority lived in cities or were soldiers tightly packed into ships, camps and trenches.
COVID-19 first erupted in a Wuhan, a city of 11 million in central China. It then exploded in Daegu, South Korea, a city of two million. It hopscotched to Iran, whose largest trading partner, China, is building a number of mega-projects.
A quarter of Iran’s 82 million people live in cities claiming more than one million residents and a third of these live in slums. One recently made calculation started with the fact that seven of then 21 COVID-19 patients in British Columbia traveled recently in Iran and extrapolated that at least half a million citizens there are infected.
North America’s aging baby boom generation (some 78 million people) will add fuel to this fire. By 2050, nearly a quarter of the world’s population will be over 60 years of age. This demographic represents a new monoculture ripe for microbial invasions. In fact, three specific members of the corona family virus (SARS, MERS and SARS-CoV-2) have now targeted this age group.
Last but not least, humans are on the move as never before. Viruses move as fast as people. No country better illustrates the unrestrained mobility of Homo sapiens better than modern China.
Between 1949 and 1978, the Chinese made but 1.7 million trips abroad. Between 2009 and 2018, that number grew to 1 billion. In 2018 alone, the Chinese made 160 million trips around the world to as many as 159 nations.
It is no surprise that cruise ships, those floating petri dishes which have the capacity to move 47 million people a year, have played a major role in spreading COVID-19 the same way steam ships carried the Spanish Flu from port to port a century ago. In fact, maritime trade, the way most stuff travels on this planet, remains a disease spreader as potent as air traffic.
Misfortune writes history
In 2005, the Asian Development Bank predicted that a pandemic might cost the region anywhere between $100 billion and $300 billion in lost trade and investment. The cost of the COVID-19 for the global economy could exceed $2 trillion.
In the ecology of things, pandemics play a great role in human affairs. They tell us first and foremost that a great disturbance has taken place usually in our economic and trade habits. They remind us misfortune writes history and that life is not linear. Pneumonia remains an old person’s best friend. Exponential growth always makes trouble. Small things can always undo big things. Pandemics also tell us to put aside our money-making obsessions, and pay attention to the biological world around us.
During a pandemic “the man who infects hardly anyone is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention,” wrote the plague chronicler Albert Camus.
More than 50 years ago, the British ecologist Charles Elton documented the pandemonium unleashed by global trade and travel with awe. He warned that “we are living in a period of the world’s history when the mingling of thousands of kinds of organisms from different parts of the world is setting up terrific dislocations in nature.”
He predicted these dislocations would result in an endless parade of “unforeseen emergencies.”
Buckle your seat belt.
COVID-19 is but a modest emergency compared to what’s coming in our crowded, mobile, just-in-time delivered era of hyper-globalization.