Pandemics are never far away

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Yesterday Ebola, today Zika. Among the major risks that could trigger or participate in a collapse of civilization, pandemics are not the least. However, the idea seems absurd in our rich and industrialized countries…

What if industrial civilization was above all the one that knew how to control epidemics? Thanks to advanced medicine, the discovery of vaccines and antibiotics, or the invention of the sewer system, we have done away with the Black Death that decimated the European population in the middle of the 14th century or the Spanish flu of 1918.

But for how long? Is it possible that our countries will suffer epidemics or pandemics again (when the epidemic crosses borders)? Please note that we are talking here only about communicable diseases
, because everyone knows that the prevalence of non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases or the effects of pollution, is exploding in industrialized countries(1).

The technological bulwark

If we look closely, at the present time, all the ingredients for a pandemic are present: high population density, rapid and globalized supply chains, mass tourism, rapid urbanization, loss of biodiversity (which has a buffering role), emergence of new diseases (e.g. Ebola, Hepatitis C, AIDS), global warming, etc.

Finally, the only bulwark that protects us from pandemics is our technology, and in particular emergency medicine and hygiene measures (e.g. sewage treatment). A 2010 study showed that the areas most susceptible to the risk of lack of drinking water are the most populated, i.e. China, India, the Eastern United States and Europe(2)! Of course, the researchers specify that the technological level of a country considerably reduces this risk (which excludes the United States and Europe from the risk zones today). But if we take into account the end of fossil fuels and the possibility of a collapse, this bulwark could very quickly blow up and expose our countries to a very high risk of a pandemic.

Another way to illustrate this technological bulwark is to imagine what would have become of the Ebola pandemic without the massive use of suits, masks, plastic gloves or sterile syringes? And if the financial or energy system collapsed, what means would we have to curb the epidemics? Without cash, there is no comprehensive, rapid and coordinated response possible. This was one of the main lessons of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic(3). Without oil, how could we transport doctors, isolate contaminated individuals or transport essential equipment?

When the epidemic causes the collapse

We all have in mind images of zombie movies or disaster movies in which a severe pandemic causes millions of deaths and shakes the world order(4). In reality, for this kind of plague to trigger a civilizational collapse, there is no need to eliminate 99% of the human population, only a small percentage can suffice.

Indeed, when a company becomes more complex, the specialization of tasks becomes more and more advanced, and key functions emerge that the company can no longer do without. This is the case, for example, of the road transporters who supply the country with fuel, of certain technical posts in nuclear power plants, or of the engineers who maintain computer « hubs », etc. For systems scientist Yaneer Bar-Yam, « one of the most profound findings of complex systems research is that when a system becomes highly complex, individuals become important.(5) »

According to Jon Lay, head of a comprehensive Exxon Mobil contingency plan that simulated the effects of a return of the 1918 flu, « if we can persuade people that it is safe to come to work, we think we will have about 25% absence(6) ». In this case, if everything is done to preserve important positions, there will be no serious consequences. « But if we have 50 percent no-shows, that’s a whole different story. » And if the sick are joined by those who stay home for fear of contagion, the cascading effects on the economy could be catastrophic, especially as the quarantine measures will be severe. After a few days, the entire system may shut down and not restart properly, or not at all.

In 2006, economists simulated the effects of the 1918 flu on today’s world. The result: 142 million deaths worldwide, and an economic recession that would cut the world’s GDP by 12.6%(7). In this scenario, the mortality rate was 3% (of those infected). However, for the H5N1 or Ebola virus, this rate can exceed 50 or 60%…

Some may argue that in the Middle Ages, the plague decimated a third of the European population without wiping European civilization off the map. Certainly, but the situation was different, the societies were much less complex than today. Not only were the regional economies compartmentalized, reducing the risk of contagion, but the population was made up of a majority of peasants. However, a reduction of one third of the farmers reduces the agricultural production by one third, but does not cause the disappearance of vital functions to the whole society, as it would be the case today. Not to mention that at the time, the survivors could still rely on unpolluted and diverse ecosystems, potential new arable land, abundant forests and a stable climate. Today, these conditions are no longer met.

The epidemic is part of a collapse

Before the industrial revolution (our technological bulwark), Europe suffered many economic and demographic catastrophes. A study published in 2011 was able to highlight the chain of causation of disasters. The sparks have always been climatic disturbances, which degenerate into famine. It was the latter that subsequently triggered social unrest, wars and epidemics, and ultimately reduced the population(8).

Understanding pandemics and their role in collapses is not intended to frighten, but to make us more lucid about the risks we face. It is also a question of becoming aware of what is hidden behind the myth of progress that is so well established (and so sweet). It prevents us from facing the facts, and therefore from designing realistic policies. Catastrophic and enlightened policies.

Notes et références
  1. A. Ciccocella, « La vraie raison de la diminution de la durée de vie », Reporterre, 30 janvier 2016.
  2. C. J. Vörösmarty et al., « Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity », Nature, vol. 467, n°7315, 2010, pp. 555–561.
  3. Never again, The Economist, 21 mars 2015voir par exemple, World War Z (2013) de Marc Forster, ou Contagion (2011) de Steven Soderbergh.
  4. Voir par exemple, World War Z (2013) de Marc Forster, ou Contagion (2011) de Steven Soderbergh.
  5. Cité par D. MacKenzie, « Will a pandemic bring down civilisation? », Scientific American, n°2650, 5 avril 2008.
  6. Cité par D. MacKenzie, 2008. Op. Cit
  7. (7) Id.
  8. D.D. Zhang et al., « The causality analysis of climate change and large-scale human crisis », PNAS, 2011. Vol. 108, n°42, pp. 17296–17301.

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