Coronavirus, in Perspective

Pandemics and all those other disasters

By J Brooks Spector 27 April 2020

Plumes of steam, gas, and ash often occurred at Mount St. Helens in the early 1980s. On clear days they could be seen from Portland, Oregon, 50 mi (80 km) to the south. The plume photographed here rose nearly 3,000 ft (910 m) above the volcano's rim. The view is from Harrys Ridge, 5 mi (8 km) north of the mountain. (Wikimedia Commons)

From the beginning of modern humanity until now, people have been forced to endure horrific disasters that have killed millions upon millions. Our newest disaster, Covid-19, has barely come close to many of these, yet it seems to completely overwhelm us. What’s going on?

Scenic Lake Toba and Samosir Island in the centre of it is on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It is the home for a bustling local tourism industry, featuring the local Batak people’s striking communal long houses, set on stilts. The Bataks are one of Sumatra’s main ethnic groups. They are now divided roughly in half between Muslims and Christians; the families who became deeply devout Christians in the middle of the 19th century, did so after — quite literally — cannibalising the first groups of German missionaries. The missionary order persevered, however, and the Bataks are now renowned as enthusiastic choral singers, traders and farmers who grow prodigiously sized vegetables. 

But about 75,000 years ago, Toba was not a lake, but instead was a majestic but volcanic mountain. Then, one day, it exploded with the force of one of the greatest super-volcanoes to have occurred during human existence – almost 100 times stronger than that of the much more famous Mount Vesuvius. The superheated, highly pressurised contents of its great magma chamber literally blew the mountain to pieces, shooting ash, noxious, poisonous gases, rocks and other debris thousands of feet into the air, and spilling vast amounts of pyroclastic flows onto the surrounding land (eventually helping turn the land into extremely fertile soil). The explosion left a huge crater that, in the ensuing thousands of years, filled with water and became the lake one can see now. 

The ejecta in the atmosphere soon circled the globe around the equator and beyond and blanketed the sun, leaving vast deposits of ash around the world, and producing years of freezing weather, beyond the poisonous gas clouds. (Think death of the dinosaurs as a parallel.) But, as things would have had it, small bands of modern Homo sapiens were just then moving out of Africa through the Middle East and onward to populate the Middle East, Europe, South Asia and beyond, through what has been termed a population bottleneck. What this has to do with the Toba explosion, of course, is that modern Homo sapiens might have been nearly wiped out by the effects of that blast, according to the views of some paleo-archeologists. 

A little less luck on the part of those original migrants and there might well have been no human race at all — or perhaps one confined to Southern Africa. That would certainly have registered as the mother of all natural disasters, at least from the perspective of modern human beings. (And any readers addressing the question might be puzzling it in a dialect used by Neanderthals or Denisovans instead.)

At this precise moment, of course, we are witnesses to a great natural human tragedy, a still-ongoing one. In fact, epidemiologists are beginning to predict the possibility of a second (and maybe a third) wave from the Covid-19 pandemic, with the second one worse than the one we are in the middle of now. 

At the time of writing this, the global number of those affected was pushing three million, with some 200,000 fatalities, while in America, the number of those infected has reached a million, with fatalities moving on towards 60,000. When that happens, we shall unhappily note that the figure has achieved a higher toll in just four months than was the comprehensive count of  all American fatalities during the entire course of the Vietnam conflict of the 1960s and 70s. (Vietnamese deaths were several orders of magnitude larger, of course, at around 3-million according to some estimates.)

But human losses and misery from a vast litany of natural and man-made disasters over the course of human history far exceeds even the most pessimistic death toll being offered for Covid-19. Even without including man-made disasters such as several global wars and industrial scale genocides, the number of fatalities from the most destructive floods, famines, endemic diseases and plagues, earthquakes, tidal waves, and volcanic eruptions is an astonishing one. 

While some of the following are guesstimates, the weight of numbers is more than astonishing. Consider just some of the most appalling disasters on record. In China, in 1931, floods killed roughly 4-million; and the 1887 Yellow River floods killed 2-million. And an earthquake in 1556 in Shaanxi, China killed about 830,000 and the more recent one in 1976 in Tangshan led to 655,000 deaths. Elsewhere, the still more recent Haitian earthquake killed somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 people and a 1920 quake in Haiyuan, China killed 273,000. Much earlier, quakes such as one in Antioch in Syria in 526 AD killed about 300,000 and one 400 years before in the same location killed about 260,000. 

  

As far as vast famines go, the three biggest ones in China in 1958-61, 1907 and 1876-79 killed somewhere between 15-43-million in the first, 25-million in the second, and between 9-13-million in the third. And, of course, there have been many horrific famines in India, in Ireland, and elsewhere as well. In India, some 11-million people perished in the Chalisa and Doji bara famines at the end of the 18th century, 10-million died in the Bengal famine of 1770, and somewhere between 1.5-million and 3-million died in the 1943 famine in Bengal. 

Meanwhile, the great volcanic eruption of Krakatoa between Java and Sumatra of 1883 killed up to 120,000 people, some 50,000 perished in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, and about 100,000 may have died in the Minoan era volcano of Santorini in the 16th century BC. In our own time, the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean accounted for 227,898 victims in Indonesia, Thailand and elsewhere.

If we were to simply look at diseases, the death toll is even larger – and almost impossible to appreciate. According to some estimates, TB accounted for hundreds of millions of deaths over the past 200 years globally, while smallpox has killed some 300-million over the past 120 years, measles some 250-million in the last 150 years, and malaria over 200-million throughout the 20th century. (NB: These are estimates.) 

And all of these catastrophic totals do not even include 100 and 150-million who perished in the Spanish flu pandemic years in the immediate aftermath of World War I, as well as various incarnations of bubonic plague causing unfathomably vast numbers of death and misery over the past 2,000 years or so across Europe, the Middle East and Asia.  

In the face of all these truly monstrous numbers littering human history, what accounts for the near-global alarm over Covid-19; the astonishing energy going into tracking the victim numbers on an hourly basis; the vast energies devoted to understanding the mechanisms of the virus leading to possible cures or prevention; and the virtual paralysis of the economies of many countries?

There seem to be several factors at work here. First, of course, is its worldwide impact. Within just a few months, Covid-19 has reached every continent save for Antarctica, and more than 180 nations have recorded victims. This virus seems particularly able to leapfrog borders with little difficulty, creating new hotspots in different cities, almost simultaneously. 

Then there is the reality that it has become nearly impossible (unless you are a solitary hermit living among the Tibetan Himalayan Mountains, with no access to radio, television or online connectivity), to avoid the constantly evolving news about the virus, the pain and suffering it is causing, its impact on politicians and, in many cases, their startling ineptitude in responding to the challenge, and the obstacles in developing a vaccine, let alone a cure. 

It is a cliche that we live in an interconnected world, but the truth of this observation is nevertheless abundantly clear. Wherever and whenever photographs or video footage are shown on news broadcasts or social media, anyone moving about outside of their homes seems to be wearing a mask (and often gloves). Normally bustling streets around the world are nearly deserted, and nearly every part of our social, educational and economic fabric globally has been disrupted — if not downright shuttered. 

This writer has been no exception, writing on Covid-19 and its repercussions frequently since earlier this year.

But the killer app for Covid-19’s effect upon us, so to speak, is that we all live in a world where we believe — or at least almost believed until earlier this year — that humankind had achieved a kind of mastery over disease, and almost over death itself. Virtually every illness to come along has been beaten into submission through radical, revolutionary types of surgeries, genetic therapies, drugs and other treatments. Treatments thought to be science fiction such as the manipulation of individual genetic data in a patient’s cells are on the cusp of becoming regular treatments. 

Accordingly, the sudden, seemingly inexplicable explosion of an unstoppable Covid-19 onto the world stage from some unknown reservoir somewhere in central China seems a refutation of everything we have come to expect about our medical and scientific prowess. It is almost as if Prometheus’s gift of fire to humanity — in that powerful Greek legend — had suddenly spluttered out and we were thrust, once again, back into the dangerous darkness with no way out of the danger from this new virus. 

The onset of Covid-19 has also created a real space for crackpot science and foolish nostrums (including some purveyed by political leaders around the world); has let loose xenophobic attacks as part of dark fears of “the other”; and it has seemed incapable of being stopped, even at the cost of anaesthetising the globe’s economic life. 

So far, at least, something that is just a nano-speck’s worth of ribonucleic acid and the merest smudge of lipids and protein — something not even truly a living creature — has cast a dark shadow over the very idea of progress in the world. In some ways, we now live, metaphorically at least, at a time back before Prometheus’ gift of fire. And many of us are gripped by fear of what happens next.

Simultaneously, and not surprisingly, far too many people are suffering from an overload of information to go along with their fear of the inescapable virus, and an inability to come to grips with the challenges of coping with that fear and then going on with life. In a curious way, the lifestyle advice columnist at The Washington Post, responding to growing anguish from her readers, has attempted to steer people back to a calmer,  and emotionally safer space. As she wrote: 

“So instead of living in a macro place of hopelessness, please push yourself deliberately to a micro place of purpose. (It’s a Wonderful Life captures this, and gets quite dark before it lightens.) Thinking this way is not denial. It’s living life on what has been the normal human scale since there were humans. ‘Online worlds’ are so recent as to be a nanosecond’s worth of history.

“And, with all due respect, I think the online worlds phenomenon is as guilty of bombarding you with urgent problems as it is of sheltering people from them …

“We now have immediate and constant access to information without proportionate access — not even close — to ways to respond usefully to it.

“So. First thing I suggest is unplugging. Not permanently, just until you feel less overwhelmed and anxious. Be local, be present, be productive, be generous with your time and effort toward your immediate environment. And when you resume paying attention, choose responsible sources and set limits … Then, if and when you’re ready, pick one or two ways you can work toward the general good that will allow you to see the impact of your efforts.”

A diet of simple Panglossian optimism will not, obviously, vanquish the legitimate fears about this new pandemic, but taking legitimate precautions and moving beyond the constant fear of the virus, can be our salvation until such time as medical researchers relight the pre-Promethean darkness. And maybe one should limit immersing oneself in the endless television and internet news to a few hours a day as well? DM

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