Global Pandemics

 On July 19, 2019 WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared the Ebola virus disease (EVD) outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).  “It is time for the world to take notice and redouble our efforts.  We need to work together in solidarity with the DRC to end this outbreak and build a better health system”. 

Scientists agree that one of the likely outcomes of global climate change is disease and pandemics.  As temperatures rise drought and heat will cause food and water shortages resulting in malnutrition, starvation, and disease.  We know this because it has happened before.  The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 was the worst pandemic in history, killing 100 million people.  The Black Death claimed the lives of over 75 million people in the 14th Century.  “A pandemic is when a disease spreads across a wide geographical area and affects many people. An epidemic is specific to one city, region, or country, but a pandemic spreads beyond national borders, possibly worldwide.”

The effects of a pandemic today would be widespread.  We travel more widely moving between countries and living in urban environments, where people are in closer contact increasing the risk of a virus spreading.  The speed of news media and internet communication increases the risk of panic, and the chance that people who may be infected will travel in an attempt to escape the disease, potentially taking the virus with them.  Vaccines are not available immediately because pandemic viruses are generally novel or new agents.  No country has enough medical facilities capable of dealing with thousands or hundreds of thousands of infected people.  Medical facilities would be overwhelmed, and there would be shortages of personnel to provide vital community services, due to both the demand and illness.  In some ways the internet would amplify the panic making the response much harder.

So what can we do to prepare for a pandemic?  Similar to our preparations for a weather disaster we need to be thinking along the lines of food, water, energy, and shelter.  In order to reduce the spread of an infectious disease we need to reduce our contact with other people.  We should think about prophylactics, masks or filters covering our mouth and gloves to reduce skin contact with surfaces that might transmit the infection.  We need to think about a deep pantry, storing food that can last us for months.  We need to consider how we can operate our home if the power grid goes out.  We need to consider the mortgages and what happens if we lose our job.  How do we maintain our livelihood if we can’t go to work?  How do we obtain our food if we can’t shop?  How long can we remain isolated before we are forced to go back to work or out to shop for food? How is the infection transmitted?  We need to know if we are safe within our homes.  What happens if one of our family members becomes infected?  Do we have the supplies, knowledge, and skills to treat them without spreading the infection?  If we need a doctor or hospital are they available?

There are many things to prepare for in the likely event that we are going to encounter an epidemic or pandemic.  It has been a long time since the world encountered a pandemic such as the Spanish flu or the Black Death.  The fact that most people still recognize these names indicates just how deeply these events impacted humanity.  Yes, a global pandemic would be a catastrophic event, but I think a global nuclear war would be much worse.  If humanity becomes embroiled in another world war it will certainly result in detonation of nuclear weapons.  Nuclear radiation from the bombs will affect all life on earth and potentially last for thousands of years.  The nation that throws the first bomb will not avoid the repercussions of nuclear fallout.  All life on earth will suffer the consequences.  A global infection that reduces the human population will be terrible but it will not necessarily involve any weapons of mass destruction.  Instead of fighting each other we will all fight a common enemy making cooperation with each other very important.  We will not throw bombs, leveling cities destroying buildings, bridges, roads, water treatment facilities, farm fields and silos; all the infrastructure which we have built.  If humanity ever moved towards world war we would certainly destroy much of what we need to survive in the decades ahead.

The future is going to be extremely difficult no matter how much we wish otherwise. It is likely that near term events are going to reduce the human population.  If we think the risk of war or pandemic is low, that it won’t touch us where we live, we are simply deluding ourselves.  If we have built a bunker in which we can hide we’ve already abandoned our civilization, for civilization means living in society.  Unless we can provide all the necessities of life (and protect our supplies from thieves) we cannot live a life in isolation.

Liberals are often obsessed with saving lives, reducing poverty, and saving others from pain and suffering.  Conservatives are obsessed with preventing abortion, convicting felons, and preserving current traditions.  Yet neither position accepts the reality of how nature shapes life on earth.  The process of evolution is a contradiction to both ideologies.  Evolutionary processes challenge us to strengthen us and improve our ability to survive.  Evolution favors the healthy over the sick, the strong over the weak, cooperation over isolation.  Evolution doesn’t reward bad choices with good results.  Evolution forces us to change whether we want to or not.

What has humanity done with our gift of intelligence?  We’ve created a global economy that is driven by financial profitability rather than greater health and happiness.  We have created a situation where living longer is more important than living better.  What if our lifespan was shortened to 60 or 70 years instead of 80?  Modern medicine would consider that a failure.  It would mean that some people will die much earlier than others.  Since I am 60 I know I am included in this group.  Less medical action would mean that child mortality is higher because  weak children won’t live to become adults.  Being a parent I know the fear of losing a child.

What if humans recognized value in the struggle to live?   What if medicine and medical treatment were simply basic care not procedures directed towards profit or simply the extension of life? Is health an entitlement or is it something we must work towards?   If we truly valued human life we would do everything we could to ensure that each child born had the best opportunity to succeed in living a healthy life.  We would do everything we could to help every woman plan her family size and avoid unwanted or unintended pregnancies.  We would do more to ensure access to healthy food and clean water.  We’d stop facilitating economic exploitation of developing nations at the expense of environmental degradation.

Why do we cling to the idea that we must live longer no matter the cost, no matter the discomfort, no matter the destruction our food and lifestyle causes?  Scientists in genetic engineering are working to make some people disease free, allowing those that can afford the technology to live perhaps well into their hundreds.  The idea that the science of genetic engineering will bring benefits to all of humanity that it will not be abused is just another dangerous fantasy of “progress”.  It’s another “fountain of youth” that doesn’t exist.

Governments measure the progress of a nation by adult life span and child mortality even though neither of these measure the quality of life we live.  We place value on the accumulation of money rather than how we spend that money.  We eat food that is unhealthy for us and supports an agricultural industry that is destroying soil and water quality making it harder for future generations to survive .  Does the average lifestyle of an American demonstrate that we really care about improving our health, that we want to live better?  If it were true we would be eating and acting very differently.  What we call a health care system is an industry focused on treating disease not curing disease, because treating a disease for the rest of our life is very profitable for those selling the drugs.  Across the world and even in our own country many people do not have access to even basic health care because doctors, hospitals, and medicine are for those who can afford them.  Health care is not a right, it is a privilege in America, which may be why so many Americans are less healthy than ever.

Humans view death differently than most other species.  We developed language and rituals to deal with our fear of mortality.  We not only want to live longer but we want the quality of our life to be easier.  We call this progress, something for which no other species exhibits much concern (that we know of).  Every life form wants to live and reproduce, but only humans think about progress in life.  Strangely we don’t seem to act in ways that actually improve the quality of our life.  We don’t want to change a lifestyle that feels safe and secure.  This is our biggest problem but it comes to us naturally. 

It’s normal for us to fear the death of our children, Homo sapiens are programed to respond this way.  Humans have larger brains requiring our children be born immature in order for their head to pass the birth canal.  Human offspring remain immature much longer than those of other primates requiring parents to care for our young much longer in order for them to survive.  Nature ensures we care for our young by creating strong emotional bonds between parent and child, and this is why we suffer such extreme emotional pain when our young are threatened.

The human mind is able to create belief systems.  Beliefs are concepts that go beyond what we can see and experience directly.  Perhaps something in our enhanced neural network and ability to imagine gave us this ability, but in its current form many of our belief systems may actually work against our survival.  We believe humans are special, endowed with some right or purpose to take what we want from the earth and ignore the cost.  Our civilization currently exploits the earth’s biological systems beyond their ability to renew themselves.  We can ignore or deny the damage our lifestyle causes.  It’s doubtful that we are going to change and it is probably already too late.  Our species has thrived because of exploiting fossil fuels.  We’ve been successful in expanding our population to its current level, which is well beyond what natural resources can sustain.  If we were honest we would see that our current behavior is threatening our children’s future and may even be the cause of our extinction.  Considering our inability to realistically address climate change I think humans have become our own worst enemy. 

Consumption of energy dense fossil fuels is threatening the health of our planet.  We know this but yet we delay in making the necessary changes.  The majority want change but business and government are out of our control.  We aren’t able to stop the damage caused by corporate profiteering.  We’ve been lazy with our democracy, left weakened politically now impotent to control the massive consolidation of wealth and power that is taking control of resources and industry across the globe.  We rightfully are concerned about dangerous dictators and autocrats but we ignore our own lack of effort.  Fossil fuels have given humanity unprecedented access to resources including food, exploding the human population exponentially within less than 100 years.  We’ve used our large brains to develop technology and science that now threatens to destroy much of the life on earth.  We are causing the sixth great mass extinction event.  We know this is true but we ignore the threat!

Evolution favors species that are most capable of survival.  Nature provides the opportunities and every species decides how to exploit them.  Will we use our opportunities wisely?  Nature will favor the species that survive the challenge of living.  Perhaps we should stop and consider what actions will actually help us survive and what actions will make survival more difficult.  No species is entitled to life.  We all earn our place in the grand web of life on earth.  We all must work to survive.  Evolution favors those that survive…plain and simple.   Extinction awaits any that don’t pass the tests.

We need to understand that infectious organisms are nature’s way of reducing an unhealthy population.  We will not become healthier under the current industrial food and agricultural systems that continue to damage the environment.  The threat of a pandemic is much greater because we refuse to address the causes of climate change.  Yes, in the short term we can take steps to survive an emergency, but in the long term the only way to reduce the threat is to address climate change.  We need to immediately change our lifestyle particularly the food we eat the products we buy.  We need to live better not longer lives.  We need to ensure the renewal of natural systems upon which life depends.  We need to consider technology carefully and not simply let the “market” (or those who profit from buying and selling) decide for us.  The longer we wait the more likely we will face a pandemic or a world war.  Either way evolution will have the last say.

3 Replies to “Global Pandemics”

  1. Excellent! I have these thoughts. However am never quite as able in my expression of these thoughts as you are here. Very well said, Mahalo!

  2. Thank you John. Sometimes these thoughts are just too dark to let out! We’ll see what others think. I made lots of edits and hopefully the piece is more coherent as opposed to hand waving!

  3. It seems that the more voraciously we consume and pollute, the more we demand the privilege of extending our years. A few extra birthdays before reverting to star dust. And to what end? An even bigger personal boot-print on the face of the living world.

    I think those of us in the highest-consuming percentiles, if we’re fortunate enough to enjoy a full and healthful life, should if anything strive to minimise our impact in the years of graceful decline. It’s the least we can do. The gift of life gets handed on, and we can thank our lucky stars we were here at all.

    Thanks Jody for another stimulating and fascinating post.

    Chris (56)

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