I’m tired of hearing that what is happening regarding Covid-19 is “unprecedented”.
Unprecedented (adjective) – Never done or known before. For example ‘the government took the unprecedented step of releasing confidential correspondence’ Oxford online dictionary.
What exactly is unprecedented with Covid-19? The disease? The global spread into a pandemic? Our dependence on vulnerable global supply chains? Our pathetic level of essential supplies? Our much-needed and in some cases belated response to it? The necessary physical distancing imposed by a Level 4 lockdown? etc. … What exactly?
To proclaim that what we’re experiencing and need to do expediently in response to the Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented is, apart from the details, such as vulnerable global supply chains and the lockdown and the effects on us personally and the economy, pure nonsense. For a reality check, look at Wikipedia – list of epidemics, you can see that widespread disease dispersion has happened multiple times during recorded history. Microbes were here first and have been competing with everything else since.
The often referenced (so-called) Spanish Flu during 1918-1920 caused an estimated 17- to 100-million deaths worldwide. But look at the outbreaks of other diseases; many are still ongoing.
I read a book called Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs, Mark Olshaker and Michael T. Osterholm. The book was published in 2017, but some parts read as if it could have been written yesterday; “There is a naïve belief that the kinds of supplies we need to respond to a pandemic, such as medical products, drugs, vaccines, and N95 respirators—commonly known as face masks—will be a click away on the Internet. Not so.” And, “… we have to understand that we humans and animals start out at a disadvantage. As a species, we reproduce on average about every twenty-five years, the rough definition of a human generation. Microbes, on the other hand, can reproduce about every twenty minutes. By our standards, they are hyperevolutionary. So you can see that in this war, ours is not the dominant or strategic form of renewal.”
Let’s paint a picture of our world scene. We have rapid regional and global travel, where exotic pathogens are no longer restricted to small remote clusters amongst wild animals and perhaps villagers. With our rapid transport, we can have those animals alive or dead, along with their captors, in a village or city market within hours, and visitors to those markets and their contacts dispersed still further. In such markets, the variety of species is vast and their housing conditions often unsanitary, cramped, and with different species in close proximity. The conditions under which these animals are housed and processed and their human traffickers work risks inter-species and intra-species cross-infection. A useful metaphor here is to think of each animal, whether insect, arachnid, reptile, bird, fish, mollusc, …, and human as virtual test-tubes for breeding pathogens. With each cross-contamination between test-tubes, we risk the pathogens mixing to emerge in new and potentially devastating forms. But it is not only in the developing world where problems arise; in the so-called developed world, we have industrialised farming practices with thousands of chicken, pork, and beef test-tubes living, eating, and defecating in cramped conditions, with their human test-tube hosts moving freely in and out of and amongst those environments. Now add to these ad hoc laboratories of pathogenic mutation risk, the over-prescription of antibiotics (and other medicines), in both animals and humans, in both developing and developed economies which accelerates antibiotic resistance.
When you couple pathogen hyperevolutionary advantage, where a beneficial (not to humans!) pathogen mutation can replicate quickly, modern travel which can have infected people, mosquitoes, or other infected and contaminated vessels in another country or other side of the planet within hours, our seeming cavalier attitude to spreading pathogens far and wide, the difficulty in developing effective vaccines and the length of time (12-18 months, if ever …) that it takes to do so, the fact that pathogens will have mutated before the vaccine is widely available rendering them ineffective, the lack of will and lack of financial incentives for developing vaccines, the logistics of scaling up vaccine production and then distribution to 8 billion people, the result is not unprecedented, it is inevitable, it is us as a species setting ourselves up for extinction, or at least a major culling. From Deadliest Enemy again, “When we attempt to assess the risk of another 1918-type influenza pandemic, keep in mind the points we made earlier: that we live in a globally interdependent world, with widespread rapid travel and many concentrations of people, pigs, and birds living in close proximity. Thus, that world has become a hypermixing vessel—one with about three times the human population of 1918.” And “Of all the issues before us, pandemic and epidemic is the issue with the highest ratio of global seriousness to policy attention: that relative to its significance for humanity, there is no issue that gets less attention.”
So to clarify midway, the effects of widespread disease and our much-needed responses may be unprecedented to current generations, especially those in the developed nations, but disease, epidemics, and pandemics and therefore Covid-19, are not unprecedented.
To use such broad and indiscriminate terms such as unprecedented is to reveal our equally indiscriminate and muddled thinking. To claim that the Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented is to attempt to absolve the proclaimer, more widely our leaders, and also ourselves from responsibility. The authors of Deadliest Enemies predicted the inevitability of a pandemic(s) in 2017. They are not alone; a multitude of others have been banging that warning drum for years as well. It is not a question of if an extinction-level health-event will happen, but when. Have another look at that Wikipedia article. Pathogens have been our ever-present nemesis since our mutual beginnings, and since we have had the technology and skills, their occurrence, recurrence, and effects are both predictable and have been predicted.
Imagine if you will, a new pathogen, one that is highly contagious, one whose symptoms take a long time to manifest and which is very deadly, but not so deadly as to kill off its hosts before its hosts can infect many many others. This Goldilocks (not too hot and not too cold) pathogen is likely amongst us today, and if not quite ripe for global domination, is only a few (of its own) generations away from shuffling its genetic code into our armageddon.
But there is a huge disconnect, a huge miscalibration between what is lethal to us and what grabs our fickle and self-indulgent attention – from Deadliest Enemies again, “Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi, the charismatic and highly respected chief health minister of South Africa, has been outspoken in trying to warn the world of the renewed threat posed by tuberculosis, which, without treatment, kills about 45 percent of its victims. He points out that 4,100 people die every day from the disease. And yet this is one of those examples of our emotional disconnect regarding the most likely threats. We are terrified of Ebola but ignore TB on the same continent. And make no mistake; TB is a much more likely large-scale killer in the West than Ebola or Zika.”
To wrap up, because I didn’t want to write a book, have you thought about our blinkered approach to the Covid-19 pandemic compared to what our strict, by comparison, Health and Safety regulations (rightly) impose? We’ve in effect become obsessed with what happens at work and virtually nonchalant about everything else. And what about business continuity?
Apex species, really?
So, when we make it out the other side, what is our world going to look like, and what are you going to do?