By Edgar Kaskla
“Nobody saw this coming.” That is the phrase that the president insists on every time that he steps up to a microphone. It also happens to be wrong.
For dozens of years, scientists — from epidemiologists to climatologists — have been aware that the risk of a pandemic was increasing every year. The world was overdue for such an outbreak; after all, the influenza that killed so many happened a century ago, in 1918-1919. Moreover, the world today is much more connected, much more linked in terms of travel and trade than it was a hundred years ago.
But that is not all. Unlike many politicians who like to ignore realities because they do not comport with their interests in promoting economic growth and development, scientists have long feared that climate change would facilitate such a pandemic.
There are a number of factors that have come together to create such a “perfect storm” scenario. First, the changes in weather and climate means that bacteria, viruses, and other potentially dangerous organisms can live in environments where previously they could not. There were geographical limits to the spread of disease because the organisms could not survive long enough for them to spread too far. Disease vectors like rodents and various insects like scores of species of mosquito could also now live in places where previously they could not.
Remember the 2016 Zika virus scare? In the Long Beach/West Orange County area, we have monitored the risks of West Nile virus for years now, also spread by a mosquito that once could not live here.
Second, as population has expanded globally, the interface between humans and nature has been pushed closer together. Again, scientists have long worried about people coming in contact with bacteria, viruses, and the like, that might live in host animals but people had little contact with those animals living in deserts, savannas, deciduous forests, or deep jungles. Now that divide has been breached by more than the small groups of indigenous people who still live in direct contact with that environment.
Third, people and the products that we make and use now means that there are millions of contact points throughout the world. We live in a globalized system that reaches far beyond the virtuality of being able to traverse that world using the internet. People move around for business, they move for leisure, and goods that we need (and many we don’t) are manufactured through an elaborate network of production chains that cross the world.
Our connectivity stretches way beyond the president highlighting the fact that travel restrictions to and from China were announced at the end of January. Researchers and foreign intelligence had picked up that something big was happening in China as early as late November and early December. The warnings went out. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) issued travel advisories early in January 2020.
Unlike previous pandemic threats like Zika, like Avian and Swine flu, SARS and MERS, this is the real deal. Everyone feared that any of these previous encounters with disease could have been that big one, but luck and some useful measures kept the spread of illness relatively under control. Relatively. A cousin living in Estonia succumbed to swine flu when that outbreak hit a decade ago. He died at age 40.
The current plan to stay at home and to socially distance when together with other people will have to go on for some time. The current outbreak has yet to peak even in places a few weeks ahead of the United States like Italy and Spain. It will get worse before it gets better. The best case scenario puts us at the middle of May. It will not be Easter, as the president fantasized this past week.
Sadly, we will have to get used to this. It will happen again. We have been living on borrowed time already, and these types of pandemic outbreaks will become part of the social fabric of the 21st century. We have messed up the climate sufficiently to all but guarantee that new normal.
I have been teaching a course called “The Politics of the Future” since 1999. Every semester, there is mention of a coming pandemic, not caused by client change, but facilitated or enabled by it. I did not get to give that lecture because our university has been shut down, so I am writing this instead.
Edgar Kaskla teaches in the political science department of California State University, Long Beach. You can reach him at Edgar.firstname.lastname@example.org .