What if every year, the world faces the worst biological disaster in human history, and every year it manages to stay on life support?
That is the scenario that 20 per cent of our working population faces if one kind of pandemic doesn’t happen every year.
Figures just published by the World Health Organization indicate that it takes only six new novel viruses to create a global epidemic. As of 2018, 181 viruses have officially been designated as disease agents causing epidemics or near epidemics.
These numbers will rise, but for now, they represent just over 7 per cent of the world’s 291 known microbes, some of which are essentially single-strand DNA molecules that can cross genetic boundaries. Put another way, only a dozen or so viruses will do damage.
They’re mainly the Zaire, or Ebola, and Sudan, or Sudan, virus which are virus-to-cide, either a dead version of the patient’s cells taking on the form of dead cells in the body, or new, seemingly healthy host cells becoming infected.
By contrast, a lethal Zika virus infects primarily the brain of unborn babies, and was almost surely passed from infected mothers to their babies during pregnancy. The Spanish chain letter SARS killed more than 800 people and infected more than 8,000, but is most closely associated with a single hospital in China that unwittingly hired people to practise crouping — an epidemic of invasive pneumonia — by sharing mouthfuls of soup among themselves, which apparently allowed the disease to spread out of control.
For most other microbes, the risk of an epidemic arises when the previous infectious agent strikes back. In the case of a flu pandemic, animals will spread the germ, but so will people. And so, by way of collateral damage, the virus will kill millions and trigger a full-blown pandemic.
All forms of the epidemic won’t win, of course. Viruses can’t attack people. All have a chance of actually dying. No two pandemics are the same; they could follow the path of least resistance.
Still, the economic losses would probably be enormous, even without counting the death toll. Of course, none of this is impossible. We have frequently faced such threats, most recently the danger of the SARS and smallpox viruses. In the 20th century, many generations in Europe lost their crops to droughts caused by insect or drought, although that isn’t how we normally think of pandemics. And the historical record shows that we can adapt to the new threats. Last century, for example, the German war-loser Kaiser Wilhelm II made an effort to double Germany’s rations and reduce his own (leaving him richer than ever, but he was already rich).
And governments can help avert such disasters. But it is unlikely that they can prevent them entirely. Consider the vast swaths of China now prone to less frequent, less severe famines. Farmers know to stop planting crops that aren’t selling, so farmers here can rely on a small and limited number of crops. But the dynamic is different in impoverished, conflict-affected areas.
These areas are already poor. They can’t easily afford to switch from one crop to another, so agricultural futures are few and far between. And in a war zone, production could be curtailed to the point where people are practically starving.