Some perspective on our current epidemic….
The 1918 flu epidemic killed over 650,000 Americans and something like 20-50 million worldwide. There has been a fourfold increase in population since then. That scales up to 2.5 million Americans dead and 80-200 million dead globally if the same thing happened today.
The Asian flu of 1956-8 killed almost 70,000 Americans. (I was born in 1956.) That’s almost exactly the most recent projection for COVID-19 in the US today… except we had half the population then. It subsided in our collective consciousness so quickly I didn’t even know about it growing up.
There were tragedies and traumas but the world did not end. Economies recovered quickly. A few months later, life was back to normal. The individuals and families who lost, lost terribly but to society as a whole, it was just a nasty road bump. The ability to recover from such trauma is built into our DNA. Our ancestors, going back as far as you care to trace them, had to deal with epidemics, famines, droughts, wars, violent natural disasters and wandering mega-predators without the benefits of modern medicine or government. If they couldn’t, they didn’t survive.
Survival itself is a pretty amazing thing.
It would be nice if we took the lesson away from it that we need to be capable of surge capacity in our medical systems. It would be nice if we kept native production of vital emergency supplies going instead of relying on foreign suppliers who might themselves be taken out by a pandemic. It would be nice if people saw the value in having supplies on hand to be self-sufficient for a couple weeks as FEMA recommends.
I’m not holding my breath. It is human nature to have interest spike almost instantly and then decay over time. Pretty soon the greater efficiency of the just in time economy overrides the memory of shortages and deaths. We’ll go back to keeping on hand the minimum required for our immediate needs and if something bad happens… well either it won’t happen again or we’ll just get by with what we have.
Material hardship has not been common in the American lexicon for many decades.
The costs of building a serious strategic reserve, of maintaining surge capacity beyond immediate needs and of sourcing essential supplies locally instead of the cheapest bidder in a far off place are immediate and certain. The potential for death and disruption seems far off and (we tell ourselves) might never happen again.
When it does hit, that sense of denial doesn’t evaporate immediately. Actions are delayed because it can’t be that bad. Actions are delayed because there is a high cost to taking action if it turns out to be a false alarm. We are dragged reluctantly into a disaster mindset. Some people never get there.
In that sense, caution always loses, personally and culturally. It is why we still live in flood zones, in the shadow of volcanoes, in areas vulnerable to storms, and on top of earthquake faults without a thought to what may happen. The convenience of now always overrides prudence and we don’t prepare. We assume the government will fix our problems but the government suffers from the same biases that we do.
About all we seem to keep from our experience is knowledge of how to fight the previous pandemic. Not the will to prepare for the next one.
And there are a tiny few who go to the opposite extreme and keep a well-stocked and armed bunker to hand. They are free to do so but for most people, I don’t think it’s a particularly useful approach. We’re social critters and our fate is attached to that of our society. Diverse skillsets and points of view coupled with reciprocal altruism is how early man survived and how modern man will as well. Individuality blended with a dollop of social responsibility.
In 2015, Bill Gates is prescient in his discussion of the next big pandemic:
This was from a month ago…
Take these words of wisdom from someone who has been there, done that and got the T-shirt.
I’m going to share my story in the hope that it will help you count the blessings you have right now. Also, if a 25 yo woman who didnt know shit about shit could make it through while in a foreign country and with access to much in the way of resources, you can make it through this.