COVID-19 – A few thoughts on the meaning of a global pandemic

The unprecedented global public health crisis we are now going through might be revealing something quite fundamental about our world and our fate.

We are all already quite saturated with information about the fast spreading pandemic of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), caused by the ‘severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2’ (SARS-CoV-2). At this stage there is no real point trying to add anything to this information deluge, especially when one has no real claim to relevant scientific expertise nor access to any information that is not in the public domain and already widely shared and commented in the media.

For what it’s worth, however, it may still be a good time to gather a few thoughts about what is going on, and about what promises to be one of the most momentous periods in the lives of all human beings, regardless of age and origin, who are alive today on the planet. This may be a right time, in particular, to start thinking about the broader meaning of the unfolding drama.

Human tragedy

The first thing to stress is that this pandemic is and will be a tragedy for millions of people around the world. Scientists everywhere are frantically trying to identify a possible treatment for those affected by the virus, and a vaccine for those who have not yet caught it, but these efforts will probably take months, maybe years, to bear their fruits. In the meantime, and even if some countries manage to ‘flatten the curve’ of the COVID-19 progression in the next few weeks, millions of people are likely to be affected either by catching the virus themselves or losing some loved ones.

A lot has still to be learned about the virus, but its contagiousness and its exponential growth in several affected areas already establish it as probably the most formidable enemy the human race has had to face for over a century. If containment efforts are insufficient or fail, it could totally overwhelm healthcare systems as happened in Wuhan and as is now happening in Northern Italy, with potentially disastrous consequences for the whole of society. Overstretched healthcare systems will inevitably be very quickly confronted with the terrible ethical dilemma of ‘triage’, as they will have to decide whom to (try to) save, and whom to let die. In addition, the virus could strike the world in several ‘waves’, as the Spanish flu did in 1918-1919, and in so doing break the back of many countries and societies. In order to avoid the worst, humanity today has no other choice but to wage all-out war on the nasty coronavirus.

Things falling apart

The second thing to observe is that the way and the speed with which the microscopic pathogen SARS-CoV-2 is shutting down the entire world is nothing short of stunning. What is happening now is unprecedented, and it is throwing the world into unchartered territories. Many governments around the world are being harshly criticized, and often with some reason, for not doing enough, or not doing the right thing, to fight the spread of the disease. In fairness, though, it’s worth remembering that nobody has ever had to manage anything like this kind of situation before, and that there is no established blueprint for dealing with it.

This microscopic infectious agent is in fact imposing itself as the ‘Great Disruptor’, and poses a formidable challenge to human civilization itself. Watching it unravelling our complex, globalized world so relentlessly and so quickly is terrifying and fascinating at the same time. Many probably now have the feeling that the world as we know it is blowing up, falling apart, breaking down, and most of us are not prepared, mentally and emotionally, to deal with this feeling. Beliefs and certainties are being shattered like never before in our lifetime, and this is causing much individual and collective distress and disarray. It will most probably continue to do so for a long time.

Bubbles popping all around

The third point, which is getting clearer every day, is that this health crisis is having and will have extremely severe economic and financial consequences. SARS-CoV-2, in fact, is the pin that is finally bursting the ‘Everything Bubble’, i.e. the set of massive and compounding asset bubbles that have been blown for over a decade in response to the 2008-2009 Great Financial Crisis, and that have underpinned the so called global ‘recovery’ and ‘growth’ since then. This Everything Bubble was always poised to burst sooner or later, but the coronavirus has obviously hastened the process. In response, and as could have been expected, the world’s major central banks are already trying to flood the global financial system with liquidities, just as they did after the financial crisis. However, their interventions are having little to no effect so far, as financial markets keep crashing further down in what seems to be an unstoppable system-wide liquidation.

In fact, monetary stimulus, even massive and on a global scale, is unlikely to do the trick this time. Unlike in 2008-2009 it is not financial distress that is causing an economic downturn, but the other way around. Suppressing interest rates and launching ‘Quantitative Easing’ (QE) on steroids will do nothing to restart the economic engine as long as shops and businesses have to remain shut down and people confined at home around the world. Economists and pundits are already arguing about the depth of the now inevitable global recession and the shape of the hoped-for recovery, but in fact what is growing increasingly likely by the day is not just a recession but an all-out depression, with all the possible disastrous consequences that this would entail. There again, political leaders around the world have no blueprint for dealing with this kind of situation, and many of the policy responses that will be proposed and adopted are likely to hasten the demise of the imploding global financial and economic system rather than to help salvaging it.

‘They’ have arrived

Overall, and this is where the broader meaning of all this may start becoming clearer, it looks like we might finally be getting caught up by what we have been trying to ignore and dismiss for decades: the limits to economic growth that some systems scientists have been warning us about for several decades. We have managed to push back these limits for a while through debt-fueled financialization, globalization, liberalization and ‘technologization’, and also in the last decade through monetary adventurism. All we have managed to do in the end is to convert the world economy into a ‘bubble machine’, in which GDP grows essentially as a result of debt-fueled asset bubbles being blown, and periodically goes up in smoke when those bubbles burst. These tricks have however largely played out, and they have stocked up problems that are now overwhelming our capacity to address them. The ‘Limits to Growth‘, in fact, have finally arrived. They don’t look exactly as expected, and they happen to be wearing a face mask, but they have arrived.

System failure

The coronavirus crisis is what reveals this arrival. It does so by exposing, as pointed out by Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, “the vulnerabilities inherent to several conditions unique to our modern technological era, and often extolled as markers of progress“, and which include “just-in-time supply deliveries; rapid urbanization; the extended lifespans of an aging baby boomer generation; and unparalleled human mobility“, among others. In fact, and as American anthropologist Joseph Tainter diagnosed already some time ago, human societies historically tend to fail through the very same processes by which they succeeded, or thought they were succeeding. This is why, actually, societies are typically clueless about what is happening to them when these processes cease to produce success and start inducing failure, and why they are inevitably caught unprepared when things start to unravel.

Those who pay attention have for a long time understood that the processes that were producing the ‘success’ of modern industrial societies were also, and at the very same time, sowing the seeds of their demise. They have for a long time noticed that the unravelling had already started, and that it was gathering pace. The COVID-19 crisis could now be the trigger of an acceleration of the process of societal failure that Tainter called ‘collapse’, and that he defined as a sudden and major loss of sociopolitical complexity – or it could just be a foretaste of things to come. The former is looking increasingly likely, as the damages inflicted by the microscopic infectious agent on pretty much all aspects of our sociopolitical complexity are now compounding by the day. But the latter still remains possible, as we could still pull a few more tricks to delay the unavoidable a bit further. If that happens, expect the world to become for a short period of time an even more ‘bizarro’ and dysfunctional place than it already is – before the inevitable onset of what Nate Hagens has called the ‘Great Simplification‘.

Fight of the pathogens

Beyond all this, however, it is getting more and more difficult not to see this incredible assault on human societies worldwide as a way for Mother Nature / “Gaia” / the Earth system, or whatever you want to call it, to fight its own worst pathogen, i.e. Homo Sapiens. Indeed, the ‘conqueror of nature’ also happens to be the worst ever source of Earth system degradation, and the degradation he relentlessly causes is now reaching critical points in many ways and tipping the system dangerously off-balance. We now understand ever more clearly that the Earth system is a living system, and as such it was always poised to react at some point in order to restore its balance, one way or another.

There are, broadly speaking, two main mechanisms by which a balance is maintained between the multitude of living things that are part of the Earth system. The first is the mechanism of ‘predation’, by which living things eat each other, the bigger ones generally preying on smaller ones. The second is the mechanism of ‘infection’, by which living things poison each other, the smaller ones being in general the most dangerous. The ‘homo’ species were initially entangled in this web of life, and their numbers as well as their impacts on their environment were kept in check through both predation and infection. However, through their command of fire and mastery of energy, humans have managed to establish themselves as the ultimate predators in the animal kingdom, and hence to free themselves from the threat of predation by other species. Therefore, the Earth system’s defense against its Homo Sapiens pathogen was always likely to take the form of an infection.

Whatever happens now with the COVID-19 pandemic, and even if we manage to control the damage this time, this unprecedented episode should be a warning to all human beings that Mother Nature’s pushback might have started. The pushback will not stop at that, as the Earth system has to defend itself against its pathogens just as we have to defend against ours. Notice, by the way, how the map of the Coronavirus infection shows that the most affected areas seem to be precisely those that are most responsible for the degradation of the Earth system: China, Europe, and very soon North America – as if Mother Nature had decided to focus its revenge on the main culprits of its own ills…

The ‘Revenge of Gaia’, in fact, is and always was inevitable. One way or another, the Earth system will restore its balance, and it will do so by either taming or terminating Homo Sapiens. This might be the most important lesson of what we now have to go through. Ultimately, this is what we really have to prepare for, and what we will have to adapt to if as a species we want to have a chance at survival.

In the meantime, everything in our world is now in flux. What was left of ‘certainty’ has died, victim of respiratory failure. Almost anything is possible, and pretty much nothing is predictable – except that the next months are going to be a wild ride and that the world will probably look very, very different a year from now.

In the meantime, also, millions of people are being locked down across the world, hoping to escape an invisible yet relentless enemy which they know is inexorably getting closer and closer. Millions more will be in the same situation in a matter of days or weeks. Good luck to all of them, good luck to all of us, and let’s hope that we will be able and willing to understand the true meaning of all this once the crisis recedes.

 

Illustration: Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU),
https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6

6 thoughts on “COVID-19 – A few thoughts on the meaning of a global pandemic

  1. Dear Paul,

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    Like

  2. Dear Paul, I am afraid I have to accuse you, in this article, of a failure of imagination.

    First of all, you take a very hard view of the Gaia metaphor as something that could have intentions. This is an incredible stretch of the metaphor and those who attack its applicability will have every reason to attack your thinking. There is a lot of difference between something being called a “living system”, where the term “living” can afford you a lot of wiggle room and something being aware enough to have intentions.

    Secondly, your use of literary metaphor. Gaia is a bad one for the reasons outlined above. A better metaphor would be the horsemen of the apocalypse: death, war, pestilence and famine. Death is the outcome, while the other three are the mechanisms. So in your article, we can have war, persilence and famine as “mechanisms by which a balance is maintained between the multitude of living things that are part of the Earth system”.

    Now, you mention predation and infection, i.e. being killed by something big (predation) or something small (infection) in order to take over some of the resources under your command. In current human terms, these correspond to war and pesilence respectively (war is within-species predation but it works fine as a metaphor, by removing the threat of other big species we have simply substituted one big creature threat for another).

    You also mention the Great Simplification with respect to our own social complexity. However, you fail to note that we are creating a Great Simplification right now in terms of the biosphere as we are stacking up biomass of humans and the handful of species we consider useful to the detriment of the vast majority of the rest. Effectively, we increase complexity in our society (broadly meaning humans, the human trade system and their helper species) while decreasing it outside of it. This, in turn, is a huge boost for all the “pest” species that thrive on these suddenly super abundant species (oligocultures would be a fairly apt term). We fight them with toxins and antibiotics and this further drives down the decline in complexity of the outsider species. One possible effect of this Great Simplification of the biosphere can be beautifully summed up this quote from Prax, a character in “The Expanse”:

    “[The cascade is] …the basic obstacle of artificial ecosystems. In a normal evolutionary environment, there’s enough diversity to cushion the system when something catastrophic happens. That’s nature. Catastrophic things happen all the time. But nothing we can build has the depth. One thing goes wrong, and there’s only a few compensatory pathways that can step in. They get overstressed. Fall out of balance. When the next one fails, there are even fewer paths, and then they’re more stressed. It’s a simple complex system. That’s the technical name for it. Because it’s simple, it’s prone to cascades, and because it’s complex, you can’t predict what’s going to fail. Or how. It’s computationally impossible.”

    Prax is talking about an artificial biome on Ganymede but we are currently working hard to reduce the Earth’s biosphere into a simple complex system.

    Going back to literary metaphor, you mention that “Gaia” might “react” with a pathogen. However, you are thinking as a modern human, with a full belly and mostly aware of “active” threats, i.e. something that comes and does something nasty to you. Gaia doesn’t need to do stuff, “she” already provides us with stuff that we take for granted and simply withholding it is enough. Famine, this poor, overlooked horse-entity of the Apocalypse whom you have so undeservedly neglected is the major killer of living things. Not having to constantly worry about where your next meal comes from is a highly anomalous state of affairs, applicable only to modern (we are only talking decades here) humans and their helper species. Where famine goes, pestilence and war are swift to follow. If the enormous and enormously complex system that provides food to our species (and hangers on) starts cracking (and there are a ton of possible reasons why it might), famine will be the first rider (but far from the last) to get to work.

    Like

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