THE FUTURIAN #4
It is nearly the two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has demonstrated that pandemics are never just an isolated health-related event; the effects of pandemics ripple across society. We will discuss some of the effects of COVID-19 on the present moment, bring up the growing numbers of epidemic events from the recent past, and explore the possible implications for the future.
All over the world, massive transformations have occurred in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; some of these transformations have led to unexpected and unpredictable second-order effects. Governments have mobilized large amounts of resources to manage the effects of the pandemic and successful government “intervention” on a mass scale has further weakened the ideas behind the currently dominant economic system, neo-liberalism. COVID-19 has shown us the power of human technological cooperation, especially when directed at a common cause. A vaccine was developed in record time — could such global cooperation and investment happen again to combat climate change? The pandemic has further exacerbated nascent social tensions and has widened economic inequality; this is reflected in the culture wars around masks and vaccines. I provide a final example: COVID-19 has accelerated the movement toward the adoption of digital technology; human social interactions have moved to smooth and contagion-free digital spaces.
The past two decades have been a particularly fertile time period for new epidemics and pandemics to emerge. Some notable ones include SARS (2002–2003), Swine Flu (2009–2010), Ebola (2014–2016), and MERS (2015-present). The past two decades points to a trend that could continue on into the future.
Human activity is increasing the chance for new significant pathogens to emerge and spread among human populations. A larger segment of the human population is moving into middle-income status and the consumption of meat and carbon-intensive goods and services is increasing. To meet the demands of the former, the demand for meat, human beings encroach into the natural environment. As contact between human beings, their livestock, and wildlife become more frequent, there is a higher chance for unknown diseases to jump from wildlife to human beings or their livestock. The common practice of factory farming is a risk vector. An article in The Guardian from October 2021 reports on the numerous types of Avian flu circulating in factory farms, some of which can infect and kill human beings. In our interconnected global world, if a new pathogen jumps from an animal species to a human being, then there is a great risk of its spread to other human populations due to urban density and travel between urban centers. Our inability to respond adequately to climate change is also a problem. Not only does it lead to unpredictable migrations of wildlife into new habitats, but global warming could release deadly pathogens from the past that are frozen beneath permafrost in the Arctic.
For all these reasons and more, international organizations and experts are ringing the alarm bells on the potential for future epidemics and pandemics. Even amidst the current pandemic virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the current pandemic is “not necessarily the big one” thanks to its lower fatality rate. The Preventing Pandemics at the Source coalition likened the world playing an “ill-fated game of Russian roulette with pathogens.” Our current mitigative measures do not directly challenge current systemic risks and vulnerabilities. Without a radical change in the status quo — and such a transformation seems to be without political will — we can reasonably expect to be plagued by another epidemic or pandemic in the not-too-distant future.
Given the threat of another epidemic or pandemic in the horizon, we need to focus our attention on the future. What can we expect from future pandemic diseases? How will they impact human societies? We are mired down in the experiences of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Our imaginations of future pandemic pathogens are captured by our cultural imagination of COVID-19 in the present. Direct analogies and comparisons may lead to misguided preparations for the future.
In Epidemics and Society: From the Black Plague to the present, Yale historian Frank Snowden presents an extensive history of epidemic and pandemic diseases, paying close attention to their social effects. His study reveals that each epidemic has its individual characteristics, trajectories, and cultural and societal significance. He offers a large list of factors to consider when comparing epidemics and pandemics. Some of these factors include 1) case fatality rate of the disease, 2) nature of the symptoms of the disease, 3) age profile of the victims, 4) class profile of those affected, 5) mode of transmission, and 6) how the disease is understood by the population. This is not an exhaustive list.
A few examples will demonstrate the irreducibility of epidemics to another. Smallpox was a highly transmissible disease that spread primarily by droplets, spreading easily in environments with close social contact. Smallpox was a terrible disease to suffer from due to its symptomology, which left patients scarred and defaced, giving it the secondary appellation “speckled monster.” In contrast to the terrifying smallpox, there is tuberculosis, which was initially seen as a desirable affliction. Social constructions of tuberculosis changed with the advancement of understanding. Tuberculosis, or “consumption” was initially thought to be a hereditary condition, afflicting the creative and beautiful. Once it was found to be transmissible, tuberculosis came to be understood as a terrible and undesirable illness.
The social conditions engendered by the current pandemic are based on COVID-19’s own unique features. COVID-19 spreads through droplets in the air and has a two-week incubation period, making it highly transmissible. In response to COVID-19’s unique mode of transmission, a large number of governments all over the world have imposed nation-wide shutdown mandates to combat spread in workplaces, restaurants, service providers, and other social settings. Mitigative actions ended up in undemocratic results. The shutdowns let to the acceleration of digital adoption across society, which benefited already powerful and capital-rich big tech companies and the shareholders that own them, while shutting down small businesses. The divide also grew between the largely well-educated white-collar workforce, who was given the privilege of working from home, while the not-as-well-educated blue-collar workforce was forced to stay at home and make do with government assistance, if any. Alternative narratives have sprung up to explain COVID-19’s emergence, such as the Great Reset, which claims that political and economic elites conspired to create COVID-19 to consolidate their power. The actual results of COVID-19, interestingly, seem to affirm the veracity of the narrative.
COVID-19 still continues today and could end up endemic — a permanent reality. While we manage the wounds left by the current pandemic, we must remain vigilant for new epidemics and pandemics on the horizon. However, our experiences from COVID-19 cannot condition our responses to the new pandemics and epidemics to come. Each pandemic and epidemic is a unique event and should be understood on its own terms when planning mitigative actions.
© Kevin Jae 2021