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The 10 Chilling Laws of Pandemics

We’re stumbling blindly through a dangerous present towards an even grimmer future.

Andrew Nikiforuk 24 Nov 2023The Tyee

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

“Pandemics are not slain like mythical dragons. They retreat, perhaps only temporarily, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction and an anxious population.” — Brian Jenkins

The Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, an institutional offshoot of the dysfunctional World Health Organization and its equally wonky partner the World Bank, recently declared the obvious: the world is not ready for the next pandemic.

How shocking. But there is more. In a jargon-filled 47-page report, the board admitted that “the world’s capacity to deal with a potential new pandemic threat remains inadequate,” due to lack of funds and monitoring.

The bureaucrats then acknowledged another intemperate reality. “We live in a world of polycrises and cascading risks, made worse by a negative spiral of geopolitical division and multi-layered mistrust.”

It is unlikely that improved funding and monitoring or any other technical fix will prepare the world for the next pandemic. Only humility could do that, and restoration of trust in shattered institutions. And right now society remains in a state of total denial about what happened with COVID and why pandemics matter.

Many political leaders such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mistakenly thought the pandemonium would provide “an opportunity for a reset... to reimagine economic systems that actually address global challenges like extreme poverty, inequality and climate change.”

But nothing could be farther from the truth. Civilizations are not computer programs that incompetent leaders can reset. Nor has it ever been in the dynamic nature of pandemics to reset things. That’s not their biological role. Instead, they banish “normal,” stir up demons and destabilize societies by accelerating social trends from economic inequality to totalitarian technologies.

Pandemics are also impolite reminders that humans are not the master species on Earth, or even an exceptional one. Just like any mammal, humans are governed by biological laws on a planet still ruled by an incredible network of microbes including viruses, fungi and bacteria. With our hyper-mobility, hyper-population density and hyper-concentrated livestock production, humans continue to provoke this world at their peril.

Yet since the Black Death in the 14th century, civilization has become one big constant provocation in the form of deforestation, global trade, wildlife extermination, climate change, urban crowding and ocean poisoning.

The microbial world, now diminished by climate change and our assault, makes up the innovative life support system of the biosphere. (It’s not TikTok and the madness of the internet.) Communities of microbes work every day to provide such essential elements as oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and sulphur. And without them nothing would decompose.

Without microbes there is no oxygen, no forests, no diversity and no beauty.

Yet the goal of human-driven technology is to replace this remarkable biosphere with an energy-intensive artificial golem: the ever-growing technosphere.

The technosphere represents a quasi-autonomous metabolizing system composed of concrete, plastic and steel infrastructure. It runs on fossil fuels, and its ever-growing complexity now requires artificial intelligence. Unlike the biosphere which generates no waste, the technosphere gobbles energy, water and resources only to spew out continuous streams of poisonous waste such as carbon dioxide, mine tailings and plastic garbage. The technosphere’s human-created components now weigh more than all living creatures on Earth.

Pandemics, which can play the role of constraining rapidly growing populations of any kind, act as a sort of biological blowback to this relentless conquest.

Moreover, they are not random. They remain critical barometers of our social and economic fragilities. They accompany ages of discord like crows and coyotes on a rotting elk carcass. Disorder and violence follow in their wake. They accelerate every bad trend in society, whether it be political disintegration, inequality or the rapid advance of dangerous technologies such as AI. And they unleash dangerous social movements.

Anyone who wants to understand why the decades that await us will not be normal needs to pause for a moment and consider the historic weight of pandemics. Although COVID remains a mild disruptor in the scheme of things (probably 30 million dead and counting in both confirmed and excess deaths), it probably didn’t kill enough able-bodied people to be taken seriously by a highly distracted technological society that pretends it can live outside the biosphere.

At least that’s the conclusion of Brian Jenkins, the author of Plagues and Their Aftermath, and I think he is absolutely correct. In a recent Time essay, Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. global think tank, noted that the pandemic lacked visual impact and remained an abstraction for many people. As a society, we did not see first-hand the elderly die in long-term care centres or suffer quietly in their homes. Nor did we personally witness the anxious battles in intensive care units.

“There was no modern equivalent of town criers calling ‘Bring out your dead’ accompanied by carts making the rounds to collect corpses,” writes Jenkins. “Had COVID led to bodies piled in the streets, shared dread might have outweighed our differences.”

Meanwhile, those interested in preparing for the next pandemic might want to consider the eternal wisdom of pandemics and what they are telling us about the times we live in. Here then are 10 reflections on the meaning of one of history’s central makers.

1. Pandemics are immutable forces of history

Pandemics, like wars, famine and failed states, unsettle life in unpredictable and memorable ways. Medical technologies may have softened their sting, but plagues remain a great historic disruptor. Ancient and modern history show that whenever a rising empire seeks to broaden its trade connections, it inevitably triggers a biological explosion. The sixth-century Plague of Justinian followed shipping routes to Constantinople. The Black Death in the 14th century followed medieval trading routes to Europe. And jet passengers travelling from China seeded the world with COVID. Due to unsustainable human population pressure on the biological world, researchers expect the next pandemic to arise on trade routes from India, China or Africa.

2. Pandemics thrive on upheaval

Pandemics occur in times of great social and political upheaval and have done so for nearly 2,000 years. The historian Peter Turchin notes in his excellent book End Times that political instability feeds pandemics and vice versa. Explosive disease outbreaks routinely appear when an empire or civilization peaks in terms of continental trade, migrations and murderous competition among its elites. After the Spanish flu pandemic, which killed more than 50 million people, political violence and intolerance exploded around the world. The United States, for example, experienced a deadly wave of political and racial violence including a revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

This also contributes to how two major wars (Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Israel’s occupation of Gaza) have erupted with great ferocity in the wake of COVID. Meanwhile homicides in the United States have increased by 38 per cent, the largest gain in decades. Research has shown that the COVID pandemic has already increased internal tensions and violence in countries that experienced high death rates, such as Peru.

Pandemics put people on edge. They fray fragile fabrics. So expect more political violence around the globe.

3. Pandemics are social accelerators

The COVID pandemic, for example, allowed technology giants to mine computer users to accelerate artificial intelligence. At the same time the pandemic propelled economic inequality and turned it into a global obscenity. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer and the powerful just became more aggressive. Billionaires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos saw their fortunes skyrocket during the pandemic.

This partly explains why revolutions, wars and civil disturbance follow pandemics like otherworldly bridesmaids.

4. Pandemics reflect the civilization in which they flourish

The coronavirus took full advantage of civilization’s mobility, urban overcrowding, the industrialization of elder care and the prevalence of dirty and unventilated air in work and educational places. The virus illuminated these fragilities because that’s what pandemics do. But disintegrating civilizations that have lost their consensus and their reason generally ignore such biological warnings.

5. Pandemics erode trust

Pandemics can erode social trust in institutions for generations and are therefore destabilizing events. A 2021 Italian study explored this legacy by analyzing long-term attitude surveys in the United States. The researchers determined that immigrants from countries with high death rates during the Spanish flu pandemic later expressed high degrees of social distrust in government. Not only that, they passed on this distrust in government and institutions to the next generation.

“Experiencing the Spanish flu and the associated condition of social disruption and generalized mistrust had permanent consequences on individual behaviour in terms of lower social trust,” added the researchers. “These mutated individual social traits were inherited by descendants, at least to some significant degree.” Not surprisingly, mistrust in institutions, which began before the pandemic, has almost become a global contagion.

6. Pandemics always discriminate

Pandemics are rarely equal opportunity events. The poor and the unwell will suffer more than the well fed in their multiple homes. The great cholera outbreaks that ravaged Europe in the 19th century primarily killed members of the working class living in slums with insecure water supplies. COVID has behaved no differently, targeting the poor, women and people of colour. Even the dismal World Bank recognizes this reality. “During epidemics, low-skilled workers tend to be disproportionately affected as they are more often employed in activities that require person-to-person interactions and in which the scope for telecommuting is limited. Also, low-income households living in densely populated urban areas are more exposed to epidemic risks.”

7. Pandemics spawn irrational social movements

Pandemics spawn irrational movements for rational reasons. Quarantines, masks and the curtailment of mobility are blunt but effective instruments requiring a high degree of public consensus and co-operation. That didn’t last for long when COVID came calling.

Carl Sagan, a celebrated astronomer, noted in 1996 that despite all of our technology and science, humans still live in a demon-haunted world. Confronted with the chaos of any pandemic, people, leaders and experts can and do behave emotionally. The internet scaled up this irrational response. In addition many governments failed to act quickly, ignored the efficacy of masks and totally rejected the importance of filtered and ventilated air in crowded buildings. Radical movements against vaccine mandates, hospital workers and even clean air should not have surprised authorities, who, in most cases, thought they were living in a rational world. Alberta’s most influential political movement today, Take Back Alberta, considers wearing masks a communist conspiracy.

A black and white wood print from the 15th century shows two figures holding whips, with one lashing himself.
From the flagellants who emerged in the Black Death to the truckers’ convoy, pandemics spawn irrational social movements. Image via Wikimedia, public domain.

Canada’s truckers’ convoy was not an aberration. Consider the flagellants. The stunningly high mortality of the Black Death in the calamitous 14th century, for instance, gave birth to this flamboyant social movement. They believed God was punishing society for its sins with pestilence. To appease God’s wrath, the flagellants marched from town to town beating themselves bloody with whips. Then they named Jews as the source of the plague, accusing them of poisoning water wells. This conspiracy tale unleashed a wave of brutal violence across Europe. The plague pogroms eventually forced a Jewish exodus to eastern Europe, where, 400 years later, another holocaust took place. The impacts of pandemics haunt our daily lives.

8. Pandemics possess long tails

Pandemics can last years, decades and even centuries. The Black Death ravaged Europe over 300 years beginning with a massive mortality event in the 13th century. It then intermittently hit the continent and did not really disappear until a massive outbreak in Marseille in 1720. The cocoliztli epidemics, probably a viral hemorrhagic fever, dispatched nearly half of Mexico’s population in the 16th century and continued to re-emerge in waves for another 150 years.

COVID could well flare up and strain local hospital resources for the indeterminate future. It may even be part of a wave that started years ago with the emergence of two related but much more fatal viruses: SARS and MERS. Global trade, travel and population may have reached such high levels that they can sustain routine outbreaks of the coronavirus family for a long time to come.

9. Pandemics are biological icebergs

Acute disease and dead bodies in morgues are what we directly see. But these events are usually outweighed by the burden of chronic disease and excess deaths, which can last years if not decades. Long COVID, which now affects tens of millions of people, is not an anomaly.

The Spanish flu pandemic, for example, triggered a wave of Parkinson’s disease. The Parkinson’s Foundation even notes that “people born during the Spanish flu had a two- to three-fold-increased risk of later developing [Parkinson’s disease] compared to those born before 1888 or after 1924.” A recent study in the journal JAMA Neurology confirmed that people who had an influenza infection 10 years ago have a 70 per cent higher risk for Parkinson’s disease. The disease might be a legacy of an extreme inflammatory response in the body triggered by influenza.

10. Pandemics don’t end with a political command or vaccines

Pandemics retreat or fizzle out when society has wittingly or unwittingly addressed the social and ecological conditions in which they thrive. The great cholera outbreaks of the 19th century didn’t diminish until industrial elites built clean water and sewage works for the working class. COVID, an airborne virus, will likely dog us as long as we tolerate dirty air in poorly ventilated homes, hospitals, workplaces, schools and public transport.

Although the technosphere appears to be done with COVID, the pandemic is not done with us. It will haunt our politics, our health and our psyches for years to come. It will echo, reverberate and erode our tattered social fabric. Welcome to the Age of Discord.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Coronavirus

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