Pandora’s pandemic

It is March 2020 and a pandemic is declared. We are all part of a global lockdown. That is huge; we have never before had a global and domestic travel lockdown. Confined to our own home-bubble except for highly regulated essential movement. The virus has been analysed and found to have come from bats. Initial blame for the virus is that bats may have infected some other mammal that somehow found its way into a seafood marketplace in Wuhan, Central China. Further analysis of the situation is emerging to suggest that the virus released in the Wuhan seafood market may well have been a human to human transmission and so focus is now on the nearby biosecurity laboratory that studies bat sourced viruses. It may very well have been human curiosity opening Pandora’s box* of infectious diseases that has caused this pandemic.

If you are looking for any cosmic link to Wuhan being fated to be the spark to launch this pandemic, there are two. In the 1858 Treaty of Tianjin, ending the second Opium war that Britain waged on China. Britain demanded access to Wuhan, right in the heart of China, for trading purposes. Wuhan is strategically located at the confluence of the Han and Yangtze rivers and provided access to all the products and industry in central China. The weakened Qing dynasty had no choice but to agree and Wuhan became known as the Chicago of China as a vital trading post where several Western trading countries had land concessions and consulates. What the West finally imported from Wuhan 160 years later is a lesson for all bullies to be careful what you demand.

The second connection to Wuhan is that in 1911 the republican revolution of China was launched there. This liberal revolution led to the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, the last Imperial dynasty of China that had begun in 1644. That capitalist-based system was subsequently seen by Mao Zedong and his followers as a political virus and ridding the country of it resulted in a death toll in the tens of millions before it was isolated to the island of Taiwan. In the history of virus release, it seems Wuhan has history.

But how on earth did this current pandemic cause such a global lockdown after all the extraordinary development in medical science, healthcare and global communications that we have made since the outbreak of the Spanish flu in 1918.

The dawn of the age of Aquarius broke in the 1960’s in San Francisco, rose in New York’s production of Hair the Musical in 1967, was worshipped in Bethel N.Y.’s Woodstock and welcomed to the world by the Beatles in 1969 proclaiming ‘here comes the sun“. This counterculture was singing out for a global melting pot of coffee-coloured people. We wanted to travel; to experience other cultures; create fair trade to share the wealth of the first world with the third world. We were rebelling against greed and selfishness; against hate and prejudice. It all seemed so noble but it ended up with a McDonalds photo-bombing the Giza Pyramid. Where did it all go so wrong?

The era started promisingly bringing with it both jet travel and the internet to help make the global village vision a reality. But the word of warning to humankind is the power of the mathematical phenomenon called exponential growth. Start with you as one person infecting just two people who each infect two people, who each infect two more people and you now have eight people infected; three further steps takes it to 64. Three further steps takes it to over 500; a further three steps and you are over 4,000. And that is with each person only infecting two others. We see this phenomenon in the human population slowly growing from 1 billion 2000 years ago to 2 billion 200 years ago then escalating exponentially to 4 billion only 50 years ago to 8 billion any day now. The progression takes us to 16 billion in a matter of a couple of decades, if not controlled. The damage that such exponential growth does to our planetary body is the same as a virus does to our own body or an infected body does to an entire population.

Our civilisation moved from being a boutique world 50 years ago to being a hyper-store world today. Air travel has accelerated exponentially by 80% from 2004 to 2012. With the power of technology, flight data companies like FlightAware can tell us that on any average day last year there were around 10,000 aircraft in the sky at any one time. Jets consume 150,000 litres of jetful on a 10 hour flight. We have a floating plastic ‘island’ in the North Pacific that is over 1.6 million kilometres in area. We became a world focused on globalisation and perpetual population expansion, economic expansion and mass consumerism.

It was jet travel that spread the Covid-19 virus from Wuhan to almost every geographic cell on the planet; follow the pattern of this visualisation of a 24 hour pattern of global flight, with each yellow dots representing a flight, and you will essentially be watching the transmission of this virus. But it was the internet that spread the panic.

In my domestically locked-down state I decided to do a little virtual travelling to while away the hours. I went on a visit to San Diego Zoo which in the old world would have been a 12 hour flight to LA and a car hire to drive down the California Coast. Today I was there in virtually a minute. Searching through the live cam options I decided to have a look at the penguins. I had seen penguins here on the Otago Peninsula as they emerge from the ocean after a long days fishing watched them gather together apparently discussing the days fishing success before waddling up the sandbank to their nest to feed their spouse and young and settle down for a well-deserved sleep. The San Diego virtual experience was nothing like the real natural experience. In San Diego a kindly Zoo ranger sat on a rock beside a pond and threw out bits of food to the cluster of penguins surrounding her. All except one in the background, apparently quarantined behind a wall structure. After lunch they were allowed to waddle on the small rock surface or paddle around in the pond.

That pond may be safer than the ocean and it is much easier to be hand-fed by a kindly ranger than to swim all day in the ocean depths hunting food; but it is no life for a penguin. My lockdown, consisting of passively watching passive existence in a zoo on a computer, is no life for a human either. We cannot hide away waiting for the scientists to beat nature at its own game. The common cold is a coronavirus and we have no vaccine for that; likewise SARS from 2002, H1N1 from 2009 and MERS from 2012. All are a Coronavirus infection (as distinct from flu) and we have no vaccines for any of them.

I am reminded of the shark attack scene in the Danny Boyle Movie “The Beach”. After doing all they could to try to save the victim’s life, he was then isolated away in a tent so that the rest of the community could get on with their beach life; eventually, when his screaming became too much to listen to, he was put out of his agony in an act of mercy.

This pandemic is a serious threat, but any time of threat is also a time of opportunity, and in particular a time of political opportunity. Politically the WHO organisation decided that this virus needed to be branded in a way that did not assign blame on any of WHO’s sources of income. So this virus was market-positioned as the new improved SARS, now to be known as Covid-19. Neat, catchy and appealing to the target market. The right balance between alarm and hope. I like it.

In respect to the clear message of the spread of the Covid-19 virus through humans around the globe there have been two distinctly different responses by nations. In general terms these align with the political bias of the country, taking their lead from the different political structures of the two economic giants of the world, USA and China. China is a social democracy where the government, while allowing what they see as a necessary capitalist ‘virus’ to exist, keeps it firmly under control. The USA is a liberal democracy where corporate ‘donations’ to political candidates, all the way up to the $1.6 billion dollars that the two main candidates in the 2016 US election spent, give the corporate donors significant leverage over the decisions of government. China went into immediate and severe lockdown particularly at the epicentre. Business simply shut down. Health was more important than wealth. The USA stayed open for business, saying it was not serious, it was more important to keep trading than to take a day off. Until so many workers got sick and unproductive that the “Boss” ungraciously accepted the ‘sick leave’ disruption but warned he wants them back at work very quickly. The billionaires’ club need their businesses to keep running.

Modern China evolved from the austerity of hardline communism under Mao Zedong to the social democratic system of China’s Government today. You certainly cannot argue with the economic success of that system as we have seen China emerge over the last four decades from an impoverished nation to an economic powerhouse. The Western economic powerhouse of the USA has operated, since its foundation, under a liberal democracy.

Today the whole world is being tested on which system, social democracy or liberal democracy will emerge from the Covid-19 challenge in strongest health. Will the USA President retain his position as economic leader of the world? Or is there a new sheriff in town? We don’t like having our personal freedom restrained for social good but on the other hand, personal freedom is so often abused by individuals to the great cost of society. Not least the freedom to breed beyond the parents, or the planet’s, ability to support those children with the basics of a healthy life. In local politics we will wait and see whether, when we go to the ballot box, PM Jacinda will be seen as a Joan of Arc or a Florence Nightingale; Head Nurse of the National Sanitarium who’s job is now done and done well, or CEO of NZ Inc. whose job is yet to be done.

We have a perception that viruses are by definition malevolent. In fact many are simply benign and some are actually an essential part of life, performing vital functions. But all life forms live with the reality of viruses. In many cases they form a natural culling process; and being natural this is for the greater good. And it is not only nature that culls life forms. We humans, who were given reign of all the birds and beasts, will regularly cull wild animals when they are becoming so numerous as to cause ecological damage. We need only recall humans deliberate release in 1997 of the cruel rabbit hemorrhagic disease (RHD) virus to cull the rabbit population in New Zealand.

The earth is a living organism and has strong immunity, but it still needs to take appropriate measures to maintain its good health. When humans become the problem for the health of the earth then it is nature which is called on to resolve the problem. While records were not accurately taken, analysed and shared globally a hundred years ago, our best estimates today are that the Spanish flu killed about 2% of the world population. Initial data from China suggested that was similar to the Covid-19 impact. Two percent does not sound a lot but that was approximately fifty million people worldwide. If this Covid-19 virus cannot be contained and has the same impact as the Spanish flu, that would equate to a culling of 150 million people off today’s global population of 7.5 billion. Pro rata, that would be 26 million from China; 6.6 million in the USA; 1.3 million in the UK and 100,000 in New Zealand. On the plus side 1.3 billion of the healthiest people in China would survive, over 320 million of the healthiest Americans and 4.9 million of the healthiest kiwis would also survive. The ‘median human’ on the planet would be slightly younger and notably healthier and, probably, more controlled with their consumerism. Natural selection is about the survival of the species, not the individual; it has always been thus. Modern healthcare should minimise the human impact, allowing for those who, given age and health, would have died with Coronavirus but not primarily of Coronavirus. The biggest impact will be the global economy across all age and socio demographic profiles as the world consumption of disposable goods and air transport shrinks to a level that Gaia can more readily cope with.

Footnote:

*The story of Pandora’s box begins after the victory of Zeus and the Olympians over the Titans in the war of the Gods, Zeus gave Prometheus and Epimetheus, even though they were Titans and Zeus was Olympian, the task of creating the first creatures to live on Earth. Prometheus asked Zeus if he could let man have fire. Zeus refused as fire was only for the gods. Prometheus ignored Zeus and gave man fire anyway. For this, Prometheus was punished by torture.

This torture of Prometheus wasn’t enough for Zeus who believed that humans should also be punished for accepting the gift of fire from Prometheus. To punish man, Zeus created a woman named Pandora. She was created to look like the goddess Aphrodite. She received the gifts of wisdom, beauty, kindness, peace, generosity, and health from the gods.

Zeus brought her to Earth to be Epimetheus’ wife. As a wedding present, Zeus gave Pandora a box but warned her never to open it. Pandora, who was created to be curious, couldn’t stay away from the box and the urge to open the box overcame her. Horrible things flew out of the box including greed, envy, hatred, pain, disease, hunger, poverty, war, and death. All of life’s miseries had been let out into the world. Pandora slammed the lid of the box back down. The last thing remaining inside of the box was hope. In spite of all the ills of life, mankind will always have hope.




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