Countless millions of words have been written and spoken about Covid-19. I’ve written a few myself despite having resolved not to – because countless millions of words had already been written on the subject. It’s a mono-crisis! By definition, they’re difficult to avoid. As I write this I look back and am surprised to find that I’ve written half a dozen articles around the coronavirus pandemic. Seems I’ve made a very poor job of steering clear. And here I am, doing it again. Because out of those millions of words there’s a couple of things that have caught my attention.
We are told that the Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented. And we are told that it will change our lives forever. Inevitably, I have questions.
Is it really unprecedented? Is the Covid-19 pandemic sufficiently different from previous pandemics to justify the claim that it is totally novel? If it is unprecedented what differentiates it from those previous outbreaks?
Will Covid-19 really change the way we live our lives? In what ways will it change our lives? Who will decide how our lives are changed?
Viruses are not new. Neither are pandemics. For as long as there have been people, there have been things trying to kill people. More accurately, there have been things trying to live and using people as part of that process. The big things use us as food. We’ve killed most of them. The ones we haven’t killed tend not to regard us as an easy meal. It’s as if they remember how many of them we’ve killed. They tend to give people a wide berth. Although they’ll still snack opportunistically on people who have forgotten how to think of themselves as food. Or who rely too heavily on the species memory of predators. Or who are just stupid enough to put themselves on the menu.
The little things – microbes – use us as hosts or just happen to share our environment. Sometimes, them using us as hosts or sharing our environment disrupts our life process. They make us ill. Sometimes, they disrupt our life process to the extent that it ceases to be viable. We then experience the ultimate adaptation to the environment we have unsuccessfully shared with the microbes. We die. Not surprisingly or wholly without justification we then tend to think of those microbes as being killers. Although there is no malice aforethought. There is no intent. The microbes aren’t trying to kill us; they are just trying to live. We are the killers. We try to kill them. Not that they’re offended at all. They don’t care. They’re microbes.
We cohabit fairly well with bacteria. We have to. They were here first – about 3.5 billion years ago – so we grew up together. We also have to live with them because they’re tough little buggers. They can survive extremes of heat and cold and pressure and exist in radioactive environments and the vacuum of space as well as in human bodies.
In fact, they are part of us. We are not entirely made of stardust. There’s a lot of bacteria in the recipe for a person. Roughly half of the collection of cells that make a person are bacterial cells. They’re on you and in you. Mostly, we get on fine. But sometimes we get bacterial intruders that break in and start vandalising stuff causing our other cells to react in a way that we call ill. That’s why you should never eat the peanuts on the bar which come with free faecal matter donated by strangers who think hand-washing is a poor use of their valuable time.
More commonly, it’s our own bacterial cells that cause the trouble by getting out of place. The bacteria that live quite happily in your digestive tract tend to start a riot if they get into your blood stream. If you’re going to be a doctor one of the first things you have to learn is that shite and blood are not a great double-act. If you see them together, one or other of them is up to no good. I don’t think it’s showing undue prejudice to say that it’s almost always the shite that’s the culprit. There’s a reason why the phrase ‘stirring the blood’ has positive connotations while saying the same of shite conjures entirely negative associations.
The verdict on bacteria is that they’re mostly OK, but they’re worth watching. Viruses are a different kettle of fish. Actually, science has now established that viruses are not kettles. Nor do they contain fish. Or evil spirits. But they’re very different from bacteria in other ways. They are smaller, for a start. And they’re less complex. But the most significant difference is that while bacteria can reproduce themselves – sometimes a bit too efficiently – viruses need a host. They latch onto other cells. Different viruses go for different cells in your body. Some attack blood cells. Some attack liver cells. Some, as we’re finding out, attack cells in the respiratory system. In doing so they almost always cause disease. They invade a healthy cell and reprogram it to make more viruses; killing the formerly healthy cell in the process. Or they turn the healthy cell into a malignant cell. A bit like being bitten by a zombie. Neither of which is a good thing. But being bitten by a zombie is less of a worry because they don’t exist, while viruses certainly do.
Viruses aren’t new. And they’re always new. Because they mutate. Like every other organism, they try to adapt to their environment. (Humans are different in that rather than adapting to our environment, we try to adapt the environment to us. This is not a viable strategy for species survival in the longer term.) Viruses are very good at mutating because they are very good at reproducing – so long as they have a supply of host cells. With evolution it’s not time that matters so much as the number of generations that the organism can pack into a given period. Each new generation is an opportunity for coding errors – some of which will be adaptive. If you are a creature that produces only one generation every 25 years then it will take a great many years to produce enough errors for the odds to tilt far enough towards the adaptive to result in a useful mutation. Which is tough luck if the environment changes at a more rapid pace.
Viruses mutate at a very rapid rate relative to humans. Which makes them very dangerous. Or not. Because some of the mutations make the virus less aggressive while some make it more aggressive. Evolution is always random. It’s only the products of the process which look as if they were manufactured according to a plan. Because the virus mutates so rapidly it can be difficult to produce a vaccine to combat it before it has done significant harm to populations. The best way by far of dealing with viruses is to cut off their supply of healthy cells susceptible to serving as hosts. Basically, this means maintaining strict separation between the people who are hosting a population of the virus and people who are potential hosts for new populations. That means everybody.
Not everybody may be infected. Not everybody may be a viable host – some people are naturally immune. But absolutely everybody is either potentially infected or potentially a host for infection. So the only way to stop a viral infection becoming a pandemic is to create and maintain a minimum amount of space between individuals. All of them! All of the time! Which is problematic – because humans are social animals. Because we’re social, and because for a relatively brief period of the planet’s history we’ve been uncommonly good at manipulating our environment to serve our purposes as well as uncommonly bad at predicting and managing the consequences, there’s a lot of us. An awful lot. In at least two senses of the term.
As an alternative to separation by distance, we can introduce physical barriers with a view to preventing transfer of viruses between host and potential hosts. But this comes up against the human proclivity for rubbing up against each other’s naked bodies for pleasure and procreation – and not infrequently for profit. We’re not very good at resisting this temptation. And not very reliable when it comes to maintaining the integrity of those barriers.
The viruses take full advantage of our human folly. They’ll probably win in the end. But there’s no reason we shouldn’t put up a fight. Which we should be able to do. Because viruses aren’t new. We’ve been fighting them for a long time. We should start getting good at it any time now. They have genetic mutation. But we have science. They can only do what they’ve always done. We can develop new weapons to use against them.
Pandemics aren’t new either. There are two examples of viral pandemics which spring immediately to mind. A strain of influenza called ‘Spanish Flu’ killed around 30 million people worldwide in 1918/19. And the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic is another mass killer. We are constantly under threat of a lethal viral pandemic. But, like people who live on geological fault-lines or the slopes of volcanoes, we somehow manage to disregard the risk. We ignore the threat; usually until it’s too late. As a species, we are like adolescents. We imagine ourselves invulnerable and immortal. Nature tends to remind us we’re not. But we’ve yet to grow up enough to heed the warnings.
Strictly speaking, then, it is not true to say that the Covid-19 crisis is “unprecedented”. There may be some sense in which it is true. But this is less to do with the virus and the pandemic and more to do with the way we have responded.
First off, there’s the fact that we did respond. And the fact that we responded relatively quickly and at a level which if not quite global was at least a messy approximation of a global response. In the past, there may have been viral epidemics to which we didn’t respond at all. Because we couldn’t. As a species, we had neither the knowledge to recognise a viral disease or how it functioned and we had no tools with which to fight it even if we’d been aware of what it was. That viral infections didn’t wipe us out long before now isn’t down to our intervention but to the fact that for most of our history we lived in small, nomadic groups that avoided contact with other groups even if by chance they happened to cross paths. (Actually, if they were avoiding each other then they would tend not to cross paths in any literal sense. But you know what I mean.) With a global population numbering single digit millions, group-isolation was the norm even if self-isolation wasn’t practised or possible. A virus could wipe out an entire kin-group or tribe. But it would then run out of hosts and die. There may be lessons to be learned from this.
Those were conditions in which herd immunity might actually work. Natural immunity could leave a few members of the kin-group alive and able to rebuild the tribe with some of that naked body rubbing I mentioned earlier. Herd immunity can’t work when the herd numbers the entire species. Which is pretty much the case in our massively connected world. There may be lessons to be learned from this.
In the ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic the response was poorly informed and piecemeal. In the case of HIV/AIDS the response was disastrously slow and in many ways reluctant; with a lot of denial. There are definitely lessons to be learned from both of these precedents.
What makes Covid-19 “unprecedented” is the fact that it was identified so quickly and its behaviour understood and its spread predicted. We were ready for it. Almost!
This ability to predict, not necessarily the appearance of a deadly virus in humans, but what happens next is what’s unprecedented. What you can predict, you can manage. And what you can manage, you must. How we manage viral pandemics in future is what will change the way we live our lives. Maybe.
When a politician – or a scientist, for that matter – declares that the world will be different due to some event or development, the first question must be “Will it?”. We are not that great at learning lessons. And quite outstanding at forgetting them once they have been learned. We still build communities on flood-plains beneath volcanoes and on top of bits of the planet’s surface which are likely to open up and swallow an entire city, or shake it to rubble. How many bloody wars did it take before the people of Europe learned the lesson and took steps to prevent any more? How long was it before enough people forgot that lesson so completely as to allow the tragicomic fiasco that is Brexit? Will we learn the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic? There’s reason to be sceptical. Will the lessons stick sufficiently to be effective on an ongoing basis? There’s cause for doubt.
If the way we live our lives is to be changed by Covid-19, what will these changes look like? How will the changes be implemented or enforced? Who will decide? These are all valid and urgent questions. Needless to say, they are questions left unanswered by our political leaders. “Life will be different!” makes for a nice bit of rhetoric. After that, it gets controversial. And controversy is to be avoided… like the plague. That doesn’t stop us speculating. Indeed, it makes speculation essential. I’m sure the politicians would much rather we weren’t talking about long-terms plans. I’m certain they’d rather we settle for the well-worn mantra of ‘now is not the time’. If now is not the time, then when? When they have decided for us? When their ‘solution’ is a fait accompli and the mantra changes to ‘there’s no going back’? I don’t think so!
One thing that is going to have to change is the relationship between the government and the governed. There will have to be greater mutuality and cooperation. People are going to have to be able to trust their government with extraordinary powers. Governments are going to have to win that trust and in turn put trust in communities and individuals. What is true within nations also holds for relationships between and among nations. If I tend to think and speak in terms of Scotland this is not due to any narrow nationalism as the shallow-minded will undoubtedly insist. It is simply that Scotland is where I live. It’s the place and the politics with which I am familiar. While the measures necessary to develop the means to defend against viral pandemics may be the same for everybody and every place, the manner of their implementation will differ according to local circumstances. Each legislature; each national community of communities will have to produce similar outcomes in their own way.
What has to happen? What has to happen to enable that to happen or to make it happen? These are the key questions. And the answers are not hard to find. The answers are staring us in the face. We are living in the middle of the answers.
As I was writing this, I heard a news bulletin on the radio which included a report of some British politician talking about the need to step-up measures to deal with the pandemic. Whoever said this is, of course, the kind of turdwit who must immediately be denied any influence over public policy. The notion of an escalating response to a viral pandemic is triple-distilled idiocy. If you’re responding, the virus is ahead. If the virus is ahead, you’re losing. If you’re losing, you’re dying. The idea of escalating measures is the witless offspring of an unspeakable liaison between political cowardice and administrative incompetence. It is a plan for doing too little too late. It is madness!
What the lessons teach us is that it is essential to get ahead of the virus. If developments are allowed to dictate the response then ‘control’ is handed to to the virus. Because the virus dictates developments. It proceeds in a fixed way. It does all the escalating. Why would we wait to see what the virus does when we know precisely what it will do if we wait? And what it will do is become more lethal and more difficult to stop. Perhaps unstoppable! Or only stoppable at the kind of cost we cannot contemplate without ourselves becoming as heartless and deadly as the disease. At the first mention of militarily ‘sanitising’ swathes of territory, it’s over for us.
We know what stops the virus. Separation. Isolation. Quarantine. We need to develop ways of doing this without creating fire-blasted wastelands between communities. Because if we don’t develop the civilised alternative then we can be certain that the barbaric one will be deployed. Or it will be planned for. It will become a contingency. At which point it becomes a question not of whether or when it is deployed but how do we stop it.
If the very moment the existence of the virus was announced the entire world had gone into complete lockdown, the virus would have disappeared in a relatively short time. How quickly would be a function of factors such as incubation period, detection delay and much else. How effectively the virus would be eradicated is entirely a function of how complete the lockdown is. If we are serious about developing the means to prevent a future viral pandemic, we must steel ourselves to the task of setting up systems whereby lockdown on a global scale happens in a matter of hours, not days or weeks. And certainly not on any kind of escalating basis. Every nation must be able to physically isolate itself from all other nations in four hours or less. Every community within the nation must have the capacity to seal itself off from other communities. Every household and workplace within the community must be able to cut itself off from contact with the rest of the community. Every individual must be educated in ways to secure their own isolation to the greatest extent possible. There can be no compromise on this. Every compromise is a crack in the armour which the virus will exploit.
Some will claim that this would require a world government. Possibly a global dictatorship. The opposite is true. It requires a more cellular organisation with decision-making distributed throughout. A global dictatorship would be impractical and quite possibly lethal, quite apart from the political considerations. The more centralised the decision-making and direction the more general – and therefore deadly – the consequences of any failure. And there will be failure. The trick is to succeed big while failing small. This is achieved by cellular organisation.
If drastic military measures are unthinkable then draconian political measures are at least unacceptable. The aim – the challenge – must be to create the capacity to respond appropriately to an outbreak of viral disease anywhere in the world without destroying the best of what we have.
I know that what I suggest is technically possible. Whether it is politically feasible very much depends on all of us. The people. For sure, if it’s left to the professional politicians and technocrats and hidebound bureaucrats it won’t happen. They can be relied upon to create a system with as many loopholes as the tax system. If we don’t demand better, we’ll get only what’s on offer. And what’s on offer is nowhere near good enough. I said earlier that if life post-pandemic is to be different, and if we hope the difference will be something that we can live with as well as survive by, then it will need a wholesale redrafting of the relationship between the governed and their government. It just happens that this wouldn’t be such a bad idea even if there wasn’t the looming threat of a global killer plague.
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