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Coronavirus, a pandemic in waiting: Another step towards self-destruction?

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Between 23 December 2019 and 2 March 2020 (less than three months) there have been reports of around 90,000 cases of Coronavirus, and an estimated 3,087 deaths in 75 countries and territories around the world. Now consider that the pandemic of 1580, which began in Asia, took more than a year to spread to all continents, and six months to engulf Europe.

The spread of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) has invoked conspiracy theories and released crazies from asylums throughout the world. While I am not given to conspiracy theories, there is a serious question that has occupied some of my time over the past few years. The emergence of the Covid-19 virus has me returning to the question again.

On the face of it, the question seems quite straightforward. Will we, as human beings, destroy ourselves (or the earth) some time in the next 100–200 years? In that, which seems like a straightforward question, lies a range of questions and issues so complex that it may be necessary, sometimes, to separate the philosophical from the scientific questions – and ignore the silliness of conspiracies.

About five years ago, I was involved in an online conference or discussion, a round table of sorts, on the question of humanity’s future. The question, such as it was at the time, was whether we will destroy the world, drive ourselves to extinction, or at least be replaced by machines in most areas of life. My view at the time was that between nuclear war, genetically engineered viruses, artificial intelligence (AI) in the wrong hands, global warming, or an asteroid impact, we are bound to terminate our existence on the planet in the next 100–200 years.

The astrophysicist Brian May (yes, the guitarist from Queen) said at the time (in about 2015) that “the more we learn about asteroid impacts, the clearer it becomes that the human race has been living on borrowed time”. It all sounds terribly alarmist, except that important scientists have warned about our tendency to self-destruct. (Please bear in mind that only in my dreams am I a theoretical physicist with an interest in astronomy and astrophysics.)

Watch this clip on Asteroid Day, featuring Brian May:

 A couple of years before he died, Stephen Hawking, one of the great physicists of our time, said: “With climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, our own planet is increasingly precarious.” He went on to say that we would probably have to colonise another planet. As it goes, some billionaires have already intimated at colonising Mars, and have started plans for “commercialising space”. Elon Musk has spoken of a self-sustaining city on Mars. This is, therefore, not some conspiracy theory, conjured up in some basement. (Do I have a basement? I should check.)

Virologists have spoken about ‘civilisation-ending’ viruses

There are several dimensions to the discussion about humanity destroying itself or our planet. The Covid-19 virus, should it move from an epidemic to a pandemic, has the potential to kill off very many people. Scientists have been warning for several years that “a deadly pandemic is coming. It could be ‘flu, it could be something else. We know that lots of people will die.”

Yet, would life ever return to something resembling normal after a devastating pandemic? Virologists sometimes talk about their nightmare scenarios – a plague-like Ebola or smallpox – as “civilisation ending”. The Covid-19 virus could be one such plague. A lot of scientific achievements have been made since the Spanish flu killed an estimated 50 million people around the world in 1918.

By the end of February 2020, and in collaboration with the World Health Organisation, China had more than 80 running or pending clinical trials on potential treatments for Covid-19. 

Pandemics are typically associated with high morbidity, excess mortality, and social and economic disruption. Historically pandemics have announced themselves with a sudden outburst of episodes. In 2004, large parts of Asia experienced unprecedented outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza, caused by the H5N1 virus, the origins of which were identified in poultry. The virus crossed the species barrier to infect humans, with a high rate of mortality.

With the H5N1 pandemic in 2004, the WHO believed that the world was better prepared to defend itself against a virus with pandemic potential before it struck. This time, the Covid-19 virus really seems different, given high mobility and interconnectivity (essentially international travel and exchange). We can hang on to the words of the former WHO director-general, Dr Lee Jong-wook, who said, in 2005, that the world remained “extremely vulnerable” [and that] “no one can say whether the present situation will turn out to be another narrow escape or the prelude to the first pandemic of the 21st century.”

Within a short space of time, between the H5N1 virus of 2004, Swine Flu in 2009 and the Covid-19, at the end of 2019, we have witnessed a third likely global pandemic. This takes on special meaning when one considers that there were “only” three in the 20th century. Since about the 16th century there has been an average of three pandemics at intervals ranging from 10 to 50 years. But international travel means that a virus can spread around the world rapidly. Two years ago, one initiative tracked more than 200,000 flights (in the air) on a single day, 29 June 2017).

The Covid-19 virus spread from Wuhan in China on about 23 December 2019 to Senegal on Monday 2 March 2020 – where the most recent new case was identified. Although, between writing this and publication, things may change. Pandemics are remarkable for the way they spread to all parts of the world very quickly and cause illness in more than 25% of the total population. At the moment, the WHO has held back from describing Covid-19 as a pandemic – although that might simply be to prevent mass panic.

In short, though, between 23 December and 2 March (less than three months) there have been reports of around 90,000 cases, and an estimated 3,087 deaths in 75 countries and territories around the world. Now consider that the pandemic of 1580, which began in Asia, took more than a year to spread to all continents, and six months to engulf Europe.

Covid-19’s impact is, as previous pandemics have shown, human, social and economic with potentially harmful consequences for the environment – if or when contaminated items end up in landfills, rivers and streams…

While the aetiology of the Covid-19 virus may be found in animals, probably bats, probably pangolins, it is among humans that it has, so far, had disastrous outcomes. One problem is that we tend to wish away the idea that we are on a collision course with ourselves. We think we have all the answers.

There is a belief, expressed eloquently by Jared Diamond in “Collapse” (it would be disingenuous if I were to avoid the point that I don’t share all Diamond’s ideas) that society has achieved a scale, complexity and level of innovation that make us immune from collapse, to the extent that this belief has assumed the status of objective reality. But we are not unique, and we don’t have all the answers to all the problems that face humanity. We are probably not ready for (another) global pandemic. What remains fairly clear is that as a species, humans remain “extremely vulnerable”, as the previous director-general of the WHO said after the H5N1 pandemic five or six years ago. Here we are then, at the edge of a third pandemic in less than 20 years.

Finally, I remain convinced that we, humans, will destroy the planet by (either) nuclear war, genetically engineered viruses, artificial intelligence (in the wrong hands), global warming, or an asteroid impact in the next 100–200 years. I should add to that an increase in communicable diseases such as Covid-19.

But as my favourite physicist, the late Richard Feynman, once said, “anything can happen”, never mind what you think should happen. Covid-19 bears the threat of changing everything. All we can do is wait and see (and cover your mouth when you sneeze).

As for my belief about humanity’s future, I leave the final word to the late Stephen Hawking. “The genie is out of the bottle. I fear that AI may replace humans altogether.” DM

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