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COVID-19 is America’s Wakeup Call
We humans are reminded from time to time that we are like the alien invaders in the 1953 movie “War of the Worlds”. They were defeated not by man, but by Earth’s most powerful lifeforms, single cell bacteria and even smaller viruses.
For the record, Earth is not a friendly planet. Over its history, “Mother Earth” has made 99.99% of every living creature that has ever tried to live on it extinct.
Natural selection is a cruel process far more powerful than the hubris of mankind. We argue about a couple of degrees of change in climate on a planet that would be perfectly happy to look like Mars or Venus where all of life on earth would either be freeze dried or boiled into lobster bisque.
Viruses have no cure. You endure them until you develop antibodies by recovering from the disease. A vaccine can help by triggering the immune system response under more benign circumstances, but it’s essentially the same thing. The entirety of treatment is symptom relief. Most of the time it means staying hydrated, reducing fever and relieving congestion. In more acute cases, medical science aids you with more aggressive forms of symptom mitigation.
Here’s some harsh reality to us humans who like to think we are apex creatures. It doesn’t matter how this started. It doesn’t matter what narrative spin you try to put on it. What does matter is that the planet just reminded us who’s really in charge here.
Unlike the other creatures we share the planet with, we human beings process these events both physically and psychologically.
The physical science of the strain of an organism from the coronavirus family called COVID-19 is straightforward. It is a highly infectious virus that has the potential to affect as much as seventy percent (70%) of all humans on the planet. It is not particularly more dangerous than other viruses that cause cold or flu like symptoms for most people. Science indicates that eighty percent (80%) of the people that encounter it will become mildly sick and then recover.
What makes this or any virus worrisome is that they are Earth’s agents of natural selection; if you like, the planet’s microscopic grim reapers. They disproportionately kill the weak among us. In the case of COVID-19, it attacks our lungs causing us to have difficulty absorbing oxygen, which in turn places stress on our internal organs. It places humans with advanced respiratory issues and those with weakened immune systems and organs at risk. People like cancer patients bombarded with chemicals that poison their systems hunting for cancer cells; or people with malnourished bodies which is also a form of weakened resilience against microscopic attack.
In first world countries with strong medical systems that provide good acute care, your chances of survival are pretty good as long as the system isn’t overwhelmed. In places where care must be rationed, your chances diminish proportionately. At some point science catches up to the pathogen and you get vaccines. The world isn’t there quite yet, but it will assuredly happen, none too soon.
From a scientific standpoint, this virus will follow the path of every other virus. It will race though humanity infecting at its best efficiency. It will do so until it saturates at around 66 to 70 percent of candidates in whatever geolocation it is active, at which point it will top out as it finds it more difficult to find new hosts that do not already have antibodies to the strain. And then it will disappear.
In the case of COVID-19, a mishandled containment response in the first location where it emerged combined with the travel technology now available to humans has caused the number of locations where the virus has a chance to blossom to multiply. What would have been a local epidemic a couple of decades ago will now be a global pandemic because a platoon of patient zeros managed to spread around the planer in aluminum tubes at around 600 miles per hour.
It’s ironic really. We are the vectors of our own vulnerability. That does seem to be the enduring story of how Earth employs pathogens. Not just against us, against everything that’s ever been alive.
What does distinguish humans from every other creature so far, is that we react to Earth’s challenges not just biologically by surviving or dying; but psychologically, by interpreting events and assigning philosophical meaning to them. We come face to face with breakdowns in the ground rules and assumptions of life we thought were immutable, just like we don’t realize that solid ground will liquify in a major earthquake.
We humans are creatures of fearful herd mentality. We panic about unknown things and place the blame for them in the inane corners of our minds.
Yup it is stupid to blame COVID-19 on Donald Trump. It is also stupid to blame COVID-19 on the Deep State. It didn’t start here and it wasn’t deliberate. Mkay?
Yes, it is really stupid to think the applying essential oils to certain body parts will immunize you from the virus. The Iranians have since wised up about that. But we will grasp at hyperbole because we are scared.
The last great pandemic that struck the earth was a century ago. The 1918 Spanish flu infected one third of the human race and lasted two years from 1918 to 1920. Like COVID-19, the Spanish flu virus affected the upper respiratory tract causing severe lung complications in the afflicted at a time when medical science was much less advance than the ability to DNA sequence a virus rapidly like we have now. People died like flies, between 20 to 50 million of us.
Coming just after the end of World War One, it was a devastating blow to a world still reeling from the carnage of trench warfare. It’s scary. And we humans rightfully fear that it might happen again.
The Chinese government officials were first fearful of a breakdown in the perception order in Wuhan and failed to organize their response before it was too late to prevent patient zeros from reaching other pockets of the planet to infect.
Clearly an error, the Chinese central government’s follow-on response was quite impressive, to me anyway. Draconian in some ways? Yes. But they did recognize the speed that the contagion was capable of and were feverishly proactive in terms of containment and treatment. They cut off an entire province of their country containing 350 million people, the equivalent of the entire population of the United States, in an effort to prevent the virus from reaching the entirety of their population. They built medical facilities, almost overnight, a testament to China’s reservoir of economic power to respond to existential crisis.
Impressive, most impressive. Whatever else you might want to say about your views on China on matters of global power and economic competition, this was a set of initial conditions and a sequence of responses worthy of studying both inside China by the Chinese, and by the rest of the world.
The most important lesson to be learned is that the Chinese did not panic. Vast as it was, they worked the problem and are continuing to do so. These lessons should, if the rest of the world is paying attention also with clear heads, turn a pandemic into an outbreak episode.
And the world does seem to be. Countries are treating this seriously and making the best individual preparations they can. Some are still hanging on to grudges like the Iranians refusing humanitarian assistance from the United States. But these offers remain open to be reconsidered later; because, in the end, we humans have a tendency to be able to set pride aside every now and then.
There is no need to let this degenerate into a problem where a new William Shakespeare will compose a volume of lamenting Sonnets. Better to remember our description in the “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”.
“Earth – Mostly harmless.”
The Global Economy Assumption
The outbreak in China exposes one of the 21st century’s real soul-searching questions. We humans, for the better part of four decades, have been moving towards an ever more interdependent global economy model. It’s been taken to the point that critical items in the supply chain of essential to the ability of humans to sustain population levels far above Earth’s natural limits can be put at risk by a disruption in one corner of the world.
We first saw this with oil starting in the 1970’s. Now it includes active ingredients for medicines, supplies of refined rare earth materials, components and subassemblies of manufactured goods, and other things. The world has found it convenient to play a game of shifting where these items come from to where they cost least to produce, places where labor slave-level cheap, and/or where governments are permissive of environmentally caustic practices, think of that as the ultimate poisons offset shell game. It has made the entire planet’s global stability dependent on a concentrated set of points of risk.
This is not a good thing for the human race.
The assumption that hyper-interdependent globalization is an aggregate net good needs to be re-examined. The bottom line is that we have placed our existence hostage to single mode of failure vulnerabilities and those little itty-bitty bugs just sent us a wakeup call that this is very bad risk management plan for our species.
It will require a change in economic philosophy and a capital investment in infrastructure to ensure that everything critical has at least three or more independently sustainable sources of supply on the planet’s surface; but if we do not heed this warning, shame on us.
A minimum of one per continent sounds comfy to me. I don’t even care if some of these pieces are owned by the same multinational company in each critical silo. This is about ensuring the endurance of our species and it’s not like we have not undertaken big things by granting land from horizon to horizon to either side of the rail line right of way in the past. If that’s what it takes, there should be consideration of such things in the narrative.
Yes, it means that we will have to find ways to make automation plus labor equalize with lowest cost labor solutions from production in many cases. Yes, it also means we will have to come up with ways to refine or manufacture some of the most toxic things the human race needs in better ways. Is that type of investment unattractive if the proper set of economic incentives are put in place to make them happen? Of course not! We just need to be creative enough to think out of the box. That’s how you improve the human condition.
The Trust in Education Assumption
One of the more interesting things about COVID-19 is that it generates unanticipated consequences. The case of education in China is a particularly interesting example. According to satellite photography, Chinese air pollution has dramatically improved because of the virus. The streets are empty and people don’t drive their cars unless they have to. They are sheltering and one of the adaptation to that is that most education is converting to remote teaching over China’s internet.
Among the stranger effects of this is that China’s education system is now sharing their internet with China’s social media system. And it’s causing some teething pains worth looking at. China is a totalitarian universe when it comes to its internet. Everything is monitored. Everything is tightly censored by programmed algorithms. These algorithms are designed and optimized to manage social media conversations. In China’s social media, certain words and phrases set these censors off. Well it turns out, many of these words and phrases are also part of the Chinese educational system’s curriculum. What is being revealed by this experiment in blending two universes on the same platform is that the algorithmic filtering for one universe interferes with the legitimate uses of the other.
It’s a total clash of cultural norms made transparent in an electronic petri dish, because of microscopic planetary bugs. I suspect that we will see some of the same disparities between universes if and when remote teaching of primary and secondary education impacts other countries that adopt similar “shelter from the virus” strategies to reduce transmission and infection rates. Be prepared for more parents and governments scrutinizing what has been happening in our schools.
Is that so bad? Probably not. We don’t really know how much of a disconnect between home norms and school norms exists that our children are exposed to. We are about to find out. The more interesting question is when we find out, what will change? I suspect more than we realize. Then again, I also believe that this unplanned episode of transparency and accountability is probably a good thing in the long run. Overdue. It would not be poised to happened were it not for the planet forcing it to happen.
The Ides of March
The patient zeros have long since arrived in their seed locations across the planet. The World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), and every other national health agency across the globe now seem resigned to the fact that planet Earth will have its way spreading this bug, along with many other ones, into our lives.
The questions of the month of March are,
Do our medical systems have the capacity to handle the surge in acute cases that may arise?
Are our people prepared to calmly endure the voluntary precautions that will be asked of them to help minimize the size of that surge?
We shall see.
Dennis Santiago is an author and commentator on national policy and global stability issues. His subject matter expertise was developed during the Cold War as a strategic warfare systems analyst, missile defense architect, and arms control analyst. He is the author of the US Imperfect Defense Theory of Strategic Missile Defense. Dennis has worked on conventional warfare, nuclear warfare, and asymmetric warfare. His expertise includes combat aircraft, ordnance, electronic warfare, command and control, campaign design, and game theory.