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A Tale of the Past? The Mindset that Enables the Spread of Pandemics

Posted by Didi Gorman on

By Didi Gorman

Didi Gorman, Wise Choice Market's blog writer

I’ve been reading a lot about plagues recently, in particular those that occurred in the Middle Ages.

I’ve always found this subject fascinating in its own right, but it was the relevance to our current-day reality that had triggered my sense of urgency. It wasn’t just pure academic interest that led me into this research, but my need for reassurance.

I needed a confirmation that COVID-19 was just some kind of an unfortunate glitch; that with the help of our 21st-century science, technology, medicine, and knowledge of hygiene, we’d soon be able to put this freak episode behind us, unlike those medieval, backward folks, whose deplorable living conditions, primitive medicine, and poor infrastructure guaranteed repetitive, devastating outbreaks.

I needed to know we were different.

So I started reading up on the subject.

But what I discovered wasn’t at all reassuring.

Science, technology, medicine, and hygiene have indeed advanced immensely in the hundreds of years that separate us from the Middle Ages, but what hasn’t changed that much, unfortunately, is the frame of mind that had enabled past viruses to spread on a global scale.

Before I address that, here’s a summary of the generic life-cycle of an ancient plague:

1) Somewhere in the world a person becomes infected with harmful microbes (possibly of animal origin).
2) That person becomes sick.
3) The disease is passed on to other people through close contact.
4) It then spreads to other places via trade, travel (or conquest).
5) The local population has no immunity to the new microbes.
6) Many people die, mostly in densely populated areas.
7) Social order is destabilized and the economy collapses.
8) Violence ensues.

The similarities to COVID-19 make me squirm. Are we indeed all that different?

I’d like to look closely at point #4. Out of all the above, it’s the one that makes all the difference between a local disease and a widespread contagion.

Thankfully, we don’t go around besieging walled cities and catapulting infected corpses over their walls nowadays (Black Death, 14th-century Europe), but we sure do engage, more than ever before, in extensive international trade and tourism.

There is an obvious element of free choice here. It suggests that we have brought pandemics upon ourselves through our collective choices. It also implies that we could have prevented the global spread of diseases if we had made different choices. Our insatiability to travel the world, to expand commerce and to increase gain had gotten the better of us.

As of this writing (September 2020), the province of Quebec in Canada has yet to recover from the massive outbreak of Coronavirus following the March Break. Travelers came back from vacation abroad, and along with lovely memories and souvenirs, unintentionally brought with them the virus. The disease spread like wildfire (excuse the cliché) in the province, prompting an unprecedented lockdown, months-long school closures, the shutting down of the economy, and thousands of unnecessary deaths.

As great as international tourism and trade are, they are a mixed blessing – COVID-19 has hammered home this message in the past few months.

We’re paying a price for all this connectivity; very much like our medieval ancestors. Perhaps we’re not that different, after all.

I’m not advocating against international travel or trade. I do think, however, that some reckoning is in order. We cannot afford to ignore the consequences of our choices – both personal and collective. Could we perhaps limit unnecessary travel? (Don’t jump. I didn’t say ‘eliminate’ travel.)

For as long as we keep travelling the globe, trading massively with other countries, and overpopulating the planet with more and more humans, future pandemics are just a question of time.

Now allow me to fret.

Will we have to shut schools down for months on end after every vacation (because of tourism) from now on?

Will we still have jobs if we keep halting the economy with each outbreak?

Will we still be able to pay our taxes if we don’t have jobs?

If we can’t pay our taxes, how will the state support the ever-growing number of unemployed people, or manage to keep the public sector afloat?

Are these scenarios all that improbable?

Perhaps they won’t happen exactly like this, or not just yet; not during COVID-19 or COVID-20 or COVID-21. But is it really that hard to imagine that by COVID-30, in ten years from now, we’ll be too exhausted from frequent instabilities following each resurgence, to keep society from descending into chaos?

Will we still be living in a safe world? Or will despair and conflict prevail?

*      *

It’s widely believed that progress is inevitable and that History always moves forwards: the future will be better than the present (which is better than the past).

What we need to realize, though, is that History is not necessarily linear. It may go forwards or backwards or in circles or in whichever trajectory humans may hurl it.

There’s no guarantee the dark periods from our past will not be repeated.

I will end my doomsday prophecies here, but I’ll leave you with a question.

Has COVID-19 been just a blip or a preview of what’s to come?