“We drive by a fire station on our way to work every day. We see the fire fighters sitting around, doing nothing all day and getting paid for it. We even envy them. We do not think of the times when they are called upon to save lives, putting their own on the line. Some of us believe that we should allocate less resources for fire fighting. Until wild fires devastate whole neighbourhoods.
Likewise scientists employed by the government to track and study pandemics might look as if they have nothing better on hand to do. Until the next big virus comes along….. “ : Barack Obama, on hearing of the Trump administration‘s proposed 2020 budget cuts of $1.5 billion for the CDC (Centre for Disease Control) and $450 millions for the NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)
It is 1598 and a boat from a large sailing ship beaches itself on a deserted island in the Indian Ocean, that we know today as Mauritius. Sailors jump out, wade ashore and begin exploring the surroundings. As they cut through the undergrowth, they see something they haven’t seen before – a huge ugly blunt-beaked bird, standing a metre tall, with brown feathers. The bird seems docile, as if it is domesticated. Having never come face to face with a predator, it makes no attempt to flee, seeming completely unafraid of the visitors.
They name the bird the “Dodo”.
Mauritius is soon transformed by the men from the ship. Over the next two years, more ships arrive and soon there’s no place for the dodo to go. The men slaughter the dodos indiscriminately for their meat and the animals they had brought with them (the dogs and the rats that had stowed away in their crates), they eat the dodos’ eggs. In less than a century, the entire species disappears. The last dodo was sighted in 1688.
At the time no one believed that the dodo could be absolutely wiped out as a species. The word “extinction” hadn’t yet appeared in the world’s lexicons. Why would God create an animal, some thought, only to let it die out?
It took another 150 years for the dodo to be officially declared “extinct”.
Today we know a lot more about what drives animals to extinction. We have also become aware of the pressures that have started to bear down on our own species and it’s fragile longevity. Yet, we think of ourselves as invincible, too smart to go the way of the dodo.
It is the summer of 1918. Phillis Brown, the daughter of a British army officer, lives in an upscale neighbourhood in the heart of London. When the First World War broke out four years ago, she joined the Volunteer Aid Detachment, where she still works as a nurse, taking care of wounded soldiers returning from the Western Front in France.
In the autumn of 1918, the howitzers finally fall silent across Europe and Londoners begin to pick up the pieces and get on with their lives. Phillis hears pre-school children in her neighbourhood singing a strange new nursery rhyme. When I was a kid growing up in India, I was made to sing the same song, quite unaware of what the words really meant…
Ring-a ring o-Rosies, pocket full of posies
And we all fall down
I had a bird and it’s name was Enza
I opened the window
And in flew Enza!
As the war is drawing to an end, Phillis notices more and more of the returning soldiers having severe breathing problems. No one has a clue as to what the disease is but whatever it is, its deadly. Some of the soldiers have a dark purple flush spreading all over their bodies. Their lungs are filled with a kind of sticky pus and they gasp and wheeze as they try to breathe, their eyes filled with the kind of terror one feels when one is unable to understand what is happening to him.
The soldiers die in the hundreds, their screams caught inside their choked throats. After that those who come to visit them – their relatives and friends – they begin dying and their friends and relatives and theirs and theirs. Phillis realizes that this a mysterious infection of some kind, which starts with a head cold.
The winter of 1918 is now around the corner when one day Phillis catches a chill, followed by high fever and a dry cough. In order not to infect her family, she moves out and begins living in a nearby boarding house. Two days later aged just 20, one chill evening a week from Christmas, Phillis Brown breathes her last.
It is estimated that 50-100 million people died in the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic that is now known as the “Spanish flu”. More people died of this disease than all the fatalities from the two World Wars combined.
The COVID-19 infections crossed 1 million worldwide today. There is yet no cure, not even a vaccine for those who haven’t yet got it. How long, before it crosses over from 1 million infections to 1 million kills?
The COVID-19 pandemic – a common flu with a tweaked DNA that triggers acute respiratory distress syndrome or asphyxiation – makes one wonder about coming close to extinction. You are infected by just being in the same room as an infected person who is simply breathing normally. Contrary to what was known just a few weeks earlier, the COVID-19 does not need someone to cough or sneeze next to you.
The virus, a microscopic parasite that has the ability to survive outside a host body for 3-4 days, deposits itself in the cells that line your throat and lungs and turns them into mini corona virus factories that churn out even more viruses that infect more cells, all the while disguising itself as a normal microbe, one of the many harmless microbes that already live inside you.
Soon your body is hijacked and you don’t even know it. That’s just the incubation period, when there are no symptoms, not even a sore throat or a cough.
5 days into the onset of the infection, your immune system begins to fight the virus. You start getting the chills of fever, perhaps aching muscles, a sore throat and dry coughs too. You begin to lose your sense of taste and smell. Your immune system is now beginning to overreact. It is causing inflammation inside vital organs within your body, filling tiny sacs that hold oxygen in your lungs with water, in much the same manner as HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) afflicts alpine climbers. On X-rays, your lungs begin to exhibit dark patches – a sign that pneumonia is setting in. You try to take deep breaths in order to breathe in some air but you only wheeze. Your chest feels like it is in a vice grip.
At this point, if there is no emergency room doctor to insert a tube down your throat and connect you to a ventilator you will see a gaunt man in a cape holding a long scythe hovering near your hospital bed, waiting to snip the thread that connects your soul to your body. If he has his middle finger raised as in the image above, you are history.
When there are millions like you across the world, it is a pandemic and that’s what it is getting to right now.
The good news – so far, natural cataclysms have never wiped us out as a species, although a super-volcano in Indonesia 76000 years ago almost did. The eruption (known as the ”Toba Event”) and the ejection into the Earth’s upper atmosphere of volcanic ash created a 1000-year long cooling cycle that left only a few thousand human survivors in the whole world.
Pandemics too are natural disasters that have the ability to wipe us out as a species but somehow we have managed to survive those as well.
During the beginning of the Dark Ages, 540-542AD, the “Plague of Justinian” decimated the population of the region in and around the Byzantine Empire, around the same time that an Icelandic volcano erupted, blanketing the earth’s atmosphere with ash and bringing on a decades long winter. While the plague remained active for two centuries and took 100 million lives in Europe, the sudden cold caused by the volcanic eruption decimated crops the world over, triggering famines and taking another 100 million lives.
800 years on, around 1350AD, we had the bubonic plague known as the Black Death or Pestilence, in Eurasia,. Within just three years, a third of the world’s population (200 million) had perished.
But just because we’ve never been completely wiped out in the past, doesn’t mean we won’t be in the future. The threat of new potentially deadlier existential threats have appeared over the horizon. Climate change, drug-resistant viruses, nuclear war, large asteroid impact, out-of-control artificial intelligence, super volcanos, coronal mass ejections (solar flares) – these are very real threats of the modern age that could wipe us all out completely.
Historical record shows that once every thousand years, an event has occurred that has wiped out a sizeable percentage of the human population. Occasionally a mammoth cataclysm like the super-volcano in Toba has brought us a hair-breadth from extinction.
Dr Simon Beard, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk in Cambridge, thinks of himself as an optimist, but in his work he spends most of his time trying to figure out how the world might end. He says that an existential threat does not necessarily mean every last human being will die out. It could instead be something that destroys civilization as we know it. Humanity may just make it but we could be reduced to a handful, surviving at the subsistence level of hunter-gatherers who roamed Africa 100,000 years ago.
The two above mentioned plague pandemics started at European ports, carried in by merchant ships that had stowaway rats which had plague-infected fleas. In the case of the COVID-19, Chinese scientists suspect the source to be pangolins, a species of ant-eater that is highly sought-after in China for it’s meat and scales.
If only the Chinese would stop eating crazy shit like cockroaches and snakes and dogs and pangolins, maybe the world would be a safer place. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was caused by the Chinese eating civets that in turn had transported the virus from horseshoe bats to humans. Goddammit, who eats civets? We gift our women with jackets lined with civet fur but we have to wait till the Chinese have eaten them first.
If one were to follow the thousand-year thumb rule then it is now time for the next big one. Will it be the COVID-19?
I already know the answer of course, but I am in self-isolation, twiddling my thumbs. I am 65, with lungs damaged by years of smoking. I am a stereotypical COVID-19 virus’s dream victim. I am morose. I am suicidal. I am homicidal. Leave me alone.