Putting the life back in science fiction

The inevitable Covid-19 post
March 20, 2020, 6:14 pm
Filed under: disasters, Hot Earth Dreams, livable future, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

There’s not too much I can say about Covid-19, but there are some things that need to be said.

First, stay safe.  This is going to go on for months, and it’s unlikely we’re going to go back to things they were the way before even after there are effective vaccines, treatment, and herd immunity.

Second, right now, the scale of the response to Covid-19 appears to be greater than what we’d need to adapt civilization to climate change if we started right now.  So if anyone posits that we’re all doomed because we can’t mount such an effort, point to what’s happening now and ask them about the basis for their belief.

Now granted, the Covid-19 response is not sustainable, for reasons I go into in Hot Earth Dreams.  In that book I compare cities to coral reefs.  Both are metastable, composite, living structures that depend on the constant input of energy and circulation of nutrients and organisms (often the same thing for the carnivores consumers).  Cut off the circulation and especially inflows and outflows to the outside, and both systems will fall apart in short order, simplifying down until they’re sustainable within their new boundaries.  For reefs, that means that, if you boxed up a reef in a tank without circulation and food inputs, almost everything dies and what’s left is largely microbial life.  For a city under a dome, almost everyone dies, and if anyone does survive, they’re in a village farming the ruins.  This is the extreme, but the problem facing pandemic control is to keep the virus from spreading by minimizing human movement and contact, without so strangling necessary movement of food, water, and supplies that people starve.  Striking this balance successfully for months to a year or more is going to be really interesting. Doable, but really interesting.

No matter whether polities pull it off while minimizing loss of life or not, the result will shape politics.  In some places, strong men will use the emergency to boost their own power, whether they’re effective or not.  This is apparently happening in Israel right now, where Netanyahu is clinging to power on a platform of something like “don’t depose and prosecute me while I’m dealing with this heaven-sent new emergency.”  Other countries may look at how Singapore, South Korea, and China dealt with it, and more emulate their system of a surveillance state with local democracy overseen and limited by a higher level bureaucracy.  Indeed, if Biden wins the election and the US Congress doesn’t manage to find it’s ass with at least one hand, I expect something like this to be installed in the US, again because we’re going to be dealing with the problem of rapid-moving pandemics as long as there are billions of people in the world and cheap air travel, and we’re getting an epic-level demonstration of why a lack of good governance is a very bad thing indeed.

Third: one big, unsolvable problem is that Chinese horseshoe bats (multiple species) reportedly have thousands of endemic coronaviruses circulating and recombining within their populations.  It’s something like their version of colds.  Almost all of these viruses are not capable of infecting humans, but some are, sort of.  This is where SARS came from originally (SARS and Covid-19 are as close to each other as strains of flu).  However, the viruses closest to SARS-CoV-2 in horseshoe bats don’t produce Covid-19 exactly.  They’re also transient in the bats.  The virus appears to have jumped to an intermediate host (perhaps a pangolin, although the pangolin coronavirus found so far isn’t SARS-CoV-2 either) and jumped from there to a human.  Or it’s entirely possible that the final SARS-Cov-2 recombined into being inside an early human host.  Getting confused?  Well, the same process happened with SARS too, with an ephemeral bat virus infecting a civet that got sick with SARS (the intermediate host that made lots of copies of a single virus) and passed it to a human.  And Chinese people who live near horseshoe bat roosts apparently show antibodies to various bat coronaviruses.  In other words, bat coronaviruses infecting humans appears to be a natural process that’s been happening for…centuries? Millennia?  Up until now, it was a rural problem for a few villages, but with global civilization, it can now spill over and rapidly blow up into a pandemic.   Getting rid of the bats almost certainly won’t solve a problem, either, because that problem is ultimately too many people moving around the world too fast and in too close contact.  Worse, there are other viral sources in the world, and we do desperately need the insect-eating ecosystem services that bats provide, because insects transmit a whole host of illnesses on their own.  We’re entirely embedded in the biosphere, and randomly killing off bits of it for greed or fear backfires, often lethally.

Finally, as many know, I’m fond of the metaphor of the Four Horsemen: Epidemic Disease, Famine, Social Unrest, and Death, that ride together.  This is NOT to say that Covid-19 is the start of the apocalypse, but it does show how the metaphor works.  When there’s an epidemic, or food shortage, or a war, the other two problems show up, and if they’re not dealt with rapidly, a lot of people die.  So for example, if a pandemic showed up and went uncontrolled, a few people would hoard resources for the purpose of price gouging and profiteering (the normal causes of famines), as people got sick and died there would be a breakdown of social order, potentially extreme enough to lead to a civil war, and a lot of people would die, some from the disease, but perhaps more from the resulting famine and war.  Or you could start with the war.  Or you could start with the crop failure.  For any of the three causes, the way people actually died as a result (for instance, being shot while looting because they’re desperate for food) might have little apparently to do with the ultimate cause (the pandemic that shut down food shipments and the resulting hoarding).  With Covid-19 so far, we’ve seen a very mild version of this play out, with people hoarding toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and food.   Don’t take this lightly, because in a more serious situation, the Four Horseman can bring down civilizations (as apparently with the classic Maya–this has been used as an explanation for how the lowland Maya collapsed, starting with an epic drought and going from there). Rather, look at it as a worked example of another endemic human problem.

The effective responses to these problems as they arise, oddly enough, are very Christian: band together in community (even if you have to maintain physical distance), take care of each other, share what you have, punish and exclude people who would cause problems, or welcome them in if they stop causing problems and make restitution for what they’ve done.  That’s what we need to do, going forward.

And stay safe out there, okay?


5 Comments so far
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‘And stay safe out there, okay?- – You too!

Comment by SFReader

What are your thoughts about the fact that the 1918 flu killed several percent of the world population and things went back to normality pretty quickly? Are we just too interconnected and propped up on complex systems now for that to be the case?

Comment by Tony

My general thought is “normal compared to what?” We’ve got a telescoped view of what happened 100 years ago. Around 1918, the Soviet Union came to be, more or less, and WWI ended, so I’d suggest that things did not at all go back to the way they were in 1917 or 1914.

I don’t think 2021 will be the same as 2019, if that’s the question. What will change in the short term and revert, and what will change on a longer term basis? That’s what we’re negotiating right now. I will say that, given the way Covid19 cases are growing, the next month will likely be pivotal for what happens the rest of the year. Unless something different and worse happens after that, which is also entirely possible.

On Facebook, I’ve been hammering the STAY HOME message, and I still think that’s the best advice for dealing with Covid19. I’ve got to go out a couple of times in the next week, but otherwise I’m pretty much housebound.

Comment by Heteromeles

Noooo question, stay home and the next few months are going to be bonkers. And a lot of people will die.

I can’t help but wonder if this will be a step change in intercontinental mobility…

Comment by Tony

Stay safe as well, please. I’m a bit torn about intercontinental mobility, but I do hope it increases resilience, which means, perhaps, working with less massive multinational supply lines. That needs to happen anyway to deal with climate change. We’ll see.

Comment by Heteromeles

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