The novel coronavirus is often compared with the 1918 flu pandemic. They were new diseases, difficult to diagnose, and had no known treatments. Both occurred during times of extreme inequality. In 1918, risk factors for complications and death from the flu were crowded conditions, poor nutrition, malaria, and TB.
In 2020, complicating risk factors included crowded conditions, obesity, lung disease, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and suppressed immune response system resulting from various medical therapies.
Another difference between the two pandemics is that people in the 20 to 40 age group were at most risk for complications and death from the 1918 flu, whereas the 2020 coronavirus puts those 60 and older at greatest risk. In 1919 the estimated deaths from the flu were around 20 million. Today’s estimates are about 50 to 100 million among the then 1.8 billion people.
We are all rightly focusing on how to restructure our social lives and economic production given the coronavirus pandemic. Still, we don’t know or think about what lies ahead from this disease—pandemics have long-lasting effects.
Laura Spinney in her book, Pale Rider, noted that the 1918 flu resulted in a surge of post-viral depression, and likely altered the post WW I peace negotiations because of President Woodrow Wilson’s prior stroke. She speculated that this was probably related to his bout with the flu, thus clouding his negotiating skills.
A 2006 study using Census data published in the Journal of Political Economy by Douglas Almond found that babies born in 1919 had less educational attainment, increased rates of physical disability, lower income and socioeconomic status, and higher transfer payments compared with other birth cohorts.
There is one more important difference between now and 1918—climate change. A warming planet interacts with the on-going mutation and spread of microbes and contributes to sea-level rise, the fueling of more intense storms, and droughts.
People often say we have to save the Earth. Not so! The Earth will go on just fine without us. The issue is preserving the current biosphere that supports us and the plants on which we and other animals depend.
We can’t eliminate pandemics. However, by reducing population density, travel, and close contact with wild and farm animals we can better control pandemics.
We need to improve sanitation, maintain adequate supplies of protective gear for those in close contact to infection, be ready with widespread testing and contact tracing, be prepared for vaccine development and global distribution, strengthen global disease surveillance, and have a centralized rapid outbreak response strategy. These would require substantial monies and they would be maintained even when there have been no bio-threats over an extended period of time (much as we do with defense arsenals).
Regarding climate change, even if we do nothing, according to BP estimates for 2016 given then current consumption rates, oil and natural gas reserves will be depleted in about 52 years, and coal will be depleted in about 114 years. Unfortunately, while climate change is taking place in the blink of an evolutionary eye, it is far too slow to shock us because our brains are designed to focus on immediate threats.
Instead, we see climate change more as an annoyance, not as catastrophic. We go about our daily business as the oceans warm, become more acidic, and their oxygen levels decline. Meanwhile, the Tundra, Amazon, Australia and the American West are consumed by wildfires, and sea levels rise, flooding coastal cities. These risk more people succumbing to heatstroke and famine, disease, mass migrations, and political conflict that will eventually reduce the size of the human population (and many other species).
Addressing pandemics and climate change is a formidable undertaking that requires a global social movement involving grassroots activism and inter-governmental collaboration that will challenge the mass-production era.
As Carl Sagan wrote about the famous photo of Planet Earth as a pale, blue dot, taken by Voyager 1 from 3.7 billion miles away: “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.”
Our window is closing; what shall we do?