The zombie apocalypse is upon us. It is time to load up on ammunition, potable water and the dehydrated food they say will last generations. Of course, it also means cutting yourself off from the rest of humanity, as you can’t be sure when they will catch the virus and turn into a zombie. You might have to use the ax on the guy next door, who just moved in, so there’s no point in getting know him. It also ensures that whatever is turning people into zombies will not get to you.
We may not be on the verge of a zombie apocalypse, but there is a cornavirus outbreak in China that has spread to several other countries. The Chinese are taking it very seriously, warning people to limit travel and avoid the outbreak zone. They are saying the virus has mutated, but what exactly that means is unclear. There has been at least one case in the United States. The infected person had recently traveled to the outbreak region of China and developed the symptoms.
Now, it is highly unlikely that this will turn into a pandemic that wipes out a large swath of humanity, like the Black Death. It’s not impossible, but the odds are low because of modern technology. One reason the plague spread so easily is the poor sanitation in urban areas. People were exposed to all sorts of unhealthy things. They also lacked the medical care we take for granted. Mortality rates for plague today are about 10%, while they were as high as 60% in the Middle Ages.
Even as recent as a century ago, doctors were still blaming miasmas, bad odors, for various diseases. One reason the Spanish Flu spread so far is the general understanding of germ theory was in its infancy. Rather than isolating infected people and quarantining infected areas, people traveled as normal, spreading the virus all over the world in a short period. The Great War had millions of people moving from their homelands to foreign areas and the virus went with them.
That is the one connection between the last great pandemic and this new coronavirus outbreak in China. Every day millions of people leave their home area and travel to some new area for business, crime, tourism and so on. Humanity is probably more mobile today than at any time in history. Maybe there was more net mobility in the great industrial wars of the last century, but it is close call. The possibility of something really bad being spread by people is therefore at a peak.
Modernity may be the reason we are much more vulnerable to a civilization-wrecking pandemic than at any time in the past. A century ago, most humans lived in rural areas and farming was the number one employer in most of the world. Even industrialized nations still had close to half the workforce engaged in agriculture. Most men still had the wherewithal to maintain themselves in a pinch. The cities would be crippled by a plague, but the rural areas could carry on,
Today, 90% of western populations are dependent on the system to provide the basics of life, like food, water and heat. If enough people die from plague or even get really sick, the supply chain will break down. Given how near run all modern business is these days, the margin for failure is pretty low. A few weeks of failed logistics in the food business would leave whole communities starving. One water main break could cut off water to an entire city, if the work force has fallen ill.
Modern society could be like Jenga, the kid’s game where players take turns removing one block at a time from a tower of blocks. When everything is running as designed, removing one item does not cause collapse. If a few items stop working, then maybe it just takes one wrong failure for the whole thing to come down. For example, a pandemic plus a series of bad weather events leads to widespread food shortages, which in turn lead to civil unrest in major cities.
There’s also another angle to the risk analysis of modern society. Much of the infrastructure in America has been neglected for generations. Drive around an East Coast city and the roads are like the surface of the moon. Under those roads lie generations-old sewer, gas and water pipes that have been neglected. It takes a lot of manpower to keep them running. The same applies to lots of other basic infrastructure around the country. Manpower is needed to keep it functioning.
One reason for this is simple corruption. The ruling class no longer feels a duty to the societies over which they rule. They are extractive in nature, seeking only to skim and pilfer what they can from the people they rule. Another reason though is the collapse of social capital from mass migration and financialization. Most of the public stuff we rely upon is maintained by local communities. The obliteration of those over the last few generations is showing up in the infrastructure.
In a serious crisis, like a deadly pandemic, survival will depend upon communities voluntarily working together to provide the basics and care for the weak. For much of America, this is now impossible. In Europe, where 80-90% of people live in urban areas now dominated by foreigners, it would also be impossible. The point being, the cost of responding to a serious pandemic like the Spanish Flu is now much higher. In fact, we may not be able to react to such a threat.
Now, it is possible that like scarcity, humanity has overcome the threat of pandemic, through medicine and technology. The SARS outbreak killed 800 people, but in a world of billions of people, that is a trivial event. It’s three airliners crashing in a year. Just as we no longer prepare for famines in the West, we may no longer need to plan for another round of the Black Death or similar. Of course, people had similar thoughts before the outbreak of the Spanish Flu a century ago.
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