Like many of you, I’m wondering how long I have to live like Matt Damon’s character in the 2015 film, The Martian.
Those of you who have read this page are familiar with my concept of Micro-industrialization. The social science literature describes several predominant modes of subsistence: hunter-gather, horticultural, agricultural, industrial, and post-industrial, all of which overlap to varying degrees. Post-industrialism currently predominates in the developed countries where there are a much greater proportion of services than manufacturing. Micro-industrialization would predominate when industrial economies no longer have the energy required to mass produce services and goods either because accessible, affordable fossil fuels run out or because humans elect to eliminate them to mitigate climate change. Either way, the focus of production would likely focus on food, clothing, shelter, primary health care and public health initiatives, basic transportation, and communication. This is because renewable energies would not be able to fully replace the loss of fossil fuel energy in the foreseeable future.
The COVID-19 pandemic could be an unanticipated driver of micro-industrialization. If we look at some of the major past pandemics we would see that they have played out over years. The Antonine Plague (165-180), Plague of Justinian (541-542, with recurrences to 750), the Black Death (1347-1351, with recurrences over the next 200 years), and the 1918 Flu (January 1918 to Dec 1920) are all good examples.
These would suggest that once COVID-19 peaks and the number of outbreaks then begins to decrease, we will still not be “out of the woods” for a long time. There will continue to be the likelihood of outbreaks if public health preventions are removed, at least until there is a vaccine. But this could take up to a year-and-a-half. Even then, the virus could mutate and return (though not necessarily as virulent) much like the flu. Of course, given our scientific knowledge of microbes, epidemiology, and public health, we could shorten the duration of pandemics. This would naturally depend on our leaders relying on science to make health care policy decisions. Very unfortunately, some do not, such as Trump, Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Boris Johnson (U.K., though he since converted), and Recep Erdoğan (Turkey), to name a few. The HIV/AIDS pandemic (1959-current) is a good example of how religious and cultural beliefs undermined the widespread implementation of public health initiatives to stem this disease before the development of effective drugs.
This begs the questions of how long can we psychologically and physically stand staying sheltered, and to what extent can the economy bounce back to its former status given the heightened risks of future pandemics and climate change. There are no clear answers right now, but it behooves us and our leaders to give these a lot of thought in terms of what the science tells us about this disease.
We are all anxious to return to Earth.
 As I stated on my COVID-19: Drivers & Implications page on this blog, “Epidemics are unpredictable–they can erupt anywhere. However, we know that they are fostered by population density (7.3B people worldwide concentrated in urban areas), proximity to and the eating of domesticated or wild animals (factory farming and people encroaching into wilderness areas risk infection), and a warming climate (tick and mosquito borne illnesses)–all greater factors now than in the past.”