The Price Tag
The influenza epidemic of 1918 — as most of us are remembering or discovering right about now — killed about 50 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1920. At that time, the world population was perhaps about 1.8 billion people (as opposed to today’s approximately 7.8 billion people). So to achieve the same statistical impact, a pandemic today would have to kill about 200 million people (or approximately 2/3 the population of the US). Spread of the disease was greatly aided by military deployment at the end of WWI, and by the poor physical condition and abysmal living conditions of troops in the trenches. So far, Covid-19 is not even remotely in the league and hardly merits comparison. However, that could change. Like the old Carpenters song, it’s only just begun.
My second reaction to Covid-19 was one of puzzlement or frustration (I’ll maybe write about the first reaction some other time). All around me, people were not only scared or appalled, but bewildered, outraged, shocked. What a freakish thing to happen, how unfair, how incredible, how surreal! A pandemic? A Plague? How mediaeval! Who woulda thunkit? How could that happen here?
I have on several occasions bitten my lip and stayed silent. When friends are scared and upset, is not the time to be lecturing. But between you and me, dear reader, I did find myself wondering what planet they’ve been living on for the last few decades. Because on the planet I’ve been living on — a planet dangerously overpopulated at almost 8 billion souls, its every ecosystem fraying at the edges — a pandemic has been predictable and predicted for decades . In fact, when you think about it, it’s pretty much inevitable. It’s pretty much the price tag on “the way we live now.”
Why? For a start, pandemics and cities go together like peanut butter and jelly. It’s hard for a pathogen to make the ratings as a plague or pandemic without a large population to infect, and cities gather those large populations within a convenient radius, offering so many interactions and chains of transmission. Increasingly, cities are the way we live now.
Consider just one continent for an example: back in the 1800s, more than 80 percent of the US labour force was agricultural, i.e. they lived and/or worked on some kind of farm, in small to mid-sized rural communities. The remaining 20 percent or so lived in cities. By the early 21st century, less than 2 percent of the US labour force was agricultural, and the remaining 98+percent lived in cities or suburbs.
Cities, and particularly slums, epidemiologically speaking are for people the equivalent of feedlots for cattle, hogs, or salmon. Density is very high, and only heroic engineering measures and fantastically complex supply-chain logistics keep any city from becoming, almost instantly, a slum. Slums are an ideal laboratory for the evolution of novel diseases; so are feedlots and other industrial-scale animal husbandry facilities — but I’ll get back to those in a minute.
We know from first-world mortality stats that many people living in modern citified, industrialised nations are not well-fed in the nutritional sense; while they may eat copiously, their diets do not conduce to health. With their general health impaired, they are desirable targets for any opportunistic virus. (In poorer, less industrialised nations, it is lack of food that contributes to mortality, rather than excessive or low-quality food; but the human organism is also weakened and vulnerable.)
Smokers in particular are vulnerable to respiratory viruses of the SARS class (of which Covid-19 is one). People whose lungs are weakened and immune systems provoked by chronic air pollution are also more likely to succumb. The success of first-world medical systems in keeping large numbers of people alive into their 80’s means that we have a larger population of frail elders than most human societies historically have maintained. Many aspects of modern life, in other words, render large numbers of people easier prey for pathogens, while also corralling them in close quarters.
To make matters even better (from the virus’s point of view), humans are now gadding about the planet at an historically unprecedented rate. IATA proudly announced in 2017 that the number of global air travellers exceeded 4 billion for the first time ever. This means that we don’t need the extraordinary circumstance of a world war — as with the 1918 flu — to spread a virus around the planet in record time. We’re geared up to do it every single day.
Some of my friends and neighbours were upset partly because their air travel vacations had been disrupted by Covid-19 border closures and flight cancellations. Some had trouble getting home, or were stranded in distant spots. They didn’t seem to make the connection between (a) the rapid spread of a novel coronavirus and (b) the unprecedented air-travel culture that they themselves were participating in even as it happened. They experienced anxiety and even outrage that “normal life” had been disrupted, without apparent awareness that the life we know as “normal” is actually a core contributor to the problem.
That’s the most uncomfortable thing about being — or even listening to — an environmental data scientist, epidemiologist, climate expert… it’s not just that they’re describing scary things that are likely to happen — it’s that you can’t escape the itchy, uneasy knowledge that we are all part of The Problem. It’s no wonder people don’t want to listen. I suspect that my friends don’t want to admit to themselves, or to anyone else, that their enjoyable air travel habit is a contributing factor to the spread of disease. And yet, you know, it really is.
But air travel is not the only C21 human habit working overtime for the viruses. We can never do just one thing, as Garrett Hardin astutely remarked; and we can never blame just one thing, either.
Most of the pandemic-worthy viruses are spillovers, i.e. they have crossed species boundaries from non-human to human hosts. Many of the more powerful influenzas have been avian in origin, though some readers may remember “swine flu” which was a spillover from domesticated pigs (recombining with some other influenza strains to create a new and improved version).
The conditions under which we “factory-farm” animals provide the ideal breeding ground for novel diseases — some of which will be potential spillovers. The inhumane crowding, unnatural feeding, and extreme stress to which factory-farmed livestock are subjected, makes their populations just as prone to disease as the inmates of any concentration camp or horrific 19th century prison. Imprisoning large numbers of living creatures in very close quarters has always been a recipe for pathologies: the Atlantic salmon being “farmed” (i.e. CAFO) on the BC coast and in other locations are sickly, and require constant inputs of chemical biocides and antibiotics to survive their unnatural captivity and overcrowding (they also contribute to parasite load and associated pathologies among the wild salmon population, but that is a whole other story).
Many people — not just me — have called CAFO and factory-farming a game of Russian Roulette that so-called “advanced” nations have been playing, recklessly, for many decades. There have been some narrow escapes, some dodged bullets: avian virus outbreaks that fortunately did not jump to human hosts, but necessitated enormous culls of factory chickens.
The informed reader might object at this point that the Wuhan outbreak of Covid-19 was apparently triggered by the introduction of bushmeat (wild animals hunted or raised for food) into a large and poorly-regulated wet market. But there’s a deeper story under that surface narrative. In the 1990’s, as the Guardian reports, the Chinese government chose to emulate the American “agricultural revolution” of the 1970s. Earl Butz in the US memorably told US farmers to “get big or get out,” and Chinese smallholding farmers got the same message.
Smallholding farmers were undercut and pushed out of the livestock industry. Searching for a new way to earn a living, some of them turned to farming “wild” species that had previously been eaten for subsistence only. Wild food was formalised as a sector, and was increasingly branded as a luxury product. But the smallholders weren’t only pushed out economically. As industrial farming concerns took up more and more land, these small-scale farmers were pushed out geographically too — closer to uncultivable zones. Closer to the edge of the forest, that is, where bats and the viruses that infect them lurk. The density and frequency of contacts at that first interface increased, and hence, so did the risk of a spillover.
In other words, while Chinese people have for millennia traditionally eaten many species that Westerners usually don’t eat, it is only recently that edible wild species on the periphery of wilderness were subjected to the desperate exploitation of ex-farmers who had lost their livelihoods to giant agribusiness. And it is only recently that China has opened up its industries and markets to foreign investment; its industrial agribusiness sector is heavily influenced and driven by global capital. Industrial agribusiness is strongly implicated in the generation and spread of novel zoonoses (human pathogens of animal origin, aka spillover viruses). [It’s worth noting that the AIDS epidemic also may have originated at the interface of jungle and market, with the intensifying hunting of primates by humans in Africa for bushmeat or for sale as pets.]
When various people worldwide wrung their hands over the wildfires in Australia and remarked that they were unprecedented [true], appalling [check], tragic [and how], but also shocking and oh so bizarre, I felt frustration and — true confession — anger. Those wildfires were, and are, and unfortunately will continue to be, entirely predictable consequences of global climate change. They are, if anything, an indicator of worse to come. To pretend that “no one could have foreseen” or that they are arbitrary one-time “act of God” events, or “surreal” or “bizarre,” is deeply irresponsible. These are not “black swans” — if I may bend a metaphor, they are indicators of a genetic drift in which all our swans are turning black.
Now I have the same feeling about Covid-19. Many people are in shock, wringing or waving (as well as washing) their hands: how could this happen? Who could have foreseen? How appalling, how surprising, how bizarre! But it isn’t really surprising or bizarre at all. We have set up the preconditions for recurring pandemics by a series of choices: decisions made by governments, by individual citizens, by humanity en masse.
We have chosen unregulated industrialism (or had it forced on us by those who profit most from it). We have chosen not to restrain our propensity to procreate. We have driven small farmers out of business and forced peasants into the cities — or to the edge of the wild. We have chosen to ignore countless warning signs. We want to eat lots of meat, but we want it to be cheap. We want cheap air tickets too, so we can fly all over the world whenever we like for business or pleasure. I’m sure you could add your own items to the list of risky choices we’ve made. But there ain’t no free lunch: for all those choices there is a price tag, and one of the invoices has just been presented. (There may be other and larger invoices still in the mail.)
All too often, the invoice gets presented to someone else — costs are notoriously externalised, so that those who pay the highest price for these choices are not those who benefited most from them or did most of the choosing. But in this case, these chickens (or bats?) have come home to roost with all of us, everywhere. We don’t get to shuffle this CODB off onto someone else.
We don’t like it, of course. No one living on credit wants to be reminded that the bill is coming due.
I completely understand not liking it. I don’t like it either. What I don’t understand is being surprised.
Outbreaks of zoonotic illness are baked into the way we produce meat: inappropriately applying industrial models to biotic systems. Their escalation to pandemic status is almost guaranteed by our frenetic and constant global travel. Pandemics are a logical consequence of how we live: our numbers, our lifestyle, our diet, our 4 billion passenger trips per year, our factory farms.
Should a lifelong smoker be shocked and surprised at developing emphysema late in life? Without a change of direction, Covid-19 will assuredly not be the last pandemic, and it may not be the worst.
So please, dear friends, could you stop telling me how weird and bizarre and shocking this all is? This is the world we have chosen; if we don’t like it, we should consider making some different choices.
[NOTE: “Shocked, Shocked”… a tagline from Casablanca, in which a lenient and somewhat corrupt police official says he is “shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here” — when he is obviously well aware of it and has been turning a blind eye for years.]