Pandemics Aren’t New
On Wednesday of this week, New Zealand went into lockdown.
All schools, childcare, and universities have been closed. Except for those working in ‘essential services’, everyone’s at home. There’s a new phrase too: the bubble.
Stay Within Your Bubble
The people we live with are our bubble. Keeping inside this bubble keeps us safe. If we don’t move outside the bubble, we can’t get sick. Interactions outside the bubble – work, school, or shops – are either banned or limited.
The purpose of the bubble is to stop the disease spreading; to keep the case numbers low. And (hopefully) reduce the number of deaths.
It’s a scary time.
I’m going to try to update this blog weekly as we go through the lockdown. Partly for me, as the process of journaling is therapeutic. And partly for you; so you know you’re not alone. Because we’re all in this together.
How Did We Get Here?
It was the week before Christmas. I was walking to work, earbuds in my ears and listening to a podcast, as I usually do. “Doctors report a novel strain of pneumonia in Wuhan province,” said the newsreader, before moving quickly onto the next story of the day.
I stopped, removed my earbuds and stared out at the sea. I wonder how big this could get?
Back in the eighties, when I was about oh, 13 or so, I was (as usual) at the library, when I saw on a table a Newsweek magazine. The cover story: EPIDEMIC. The mysterious and deadly disease called AIDS.
It was the first time I’d ever heard of AIDS. The first time many people had heard of it; until this story, AIDS had barely hit the headlines.
Well, we all know about AIDS now. In the early 90s, just before the first anti-AIDS drugs emerged, I worked as a physiotherapist on an AIDS ward. Such a sad place: full of pallid, skeletal young men, coughing and dying.
Since reading that article I’ve been fascinated by epidemics: how they begin, how they grow, how humans respond to them, and how they change societies. A strange fascination, perhaps.
A Pandemic Was Only a Matter of Time
Many diseases are zoonotic. Zoonotic diseases are infectious diseases arising from animals. They happen when a bacteria or virus, happily living in its animal host (general doing very little damage) mutates sufficiently to take up residence in humans.
Sometimes, a pathogen jumps species through an intermediary host (this happens with the more deadly strains of flu) or jumps from an animal directly into humans. You’ve heard of rabies? Well, that’s zoonotic; transferred through the bite of an infected animal.
Zoonotic diseases, especially those that cause pandemics, aren’t new: the Bubonic Plague, (caused by bacilli Yersinia Pestis), came from the fleas that live on wild rodents in Asia and North America. The fleas spread to rats, and from there to humans. And so the Black Death arrived.
So pandemics aren’t new.
But right now, there’s two reasons a pandemic’s likely. First, people like to travel. Diseases can spread rapidly.
Secondly, humanity’s population is growing.
We’ve got an ever-increasing need for food and an increasing need for land. Humans are pushing into wilderness areas. But the wilderness isn’t empty. It’s full of animals and insects and ecosystems that are host to millions of bacteria and viruses.
A bacteria or virus does no harm to its natural host. They’ve adjusted to each other over millennia. But humans have no inbuilt resistance to these pathogens: they make us sick. Actually, they make us very sick.
It’s the combination of increased zoonosis and international travel creates the ideal conditions for a pandemic.
But if I’d read the books, others had too. So how did this get so bad?
Humans are Naturally Optimistic
Humans are naturally optimistic. And we’re forgetful. The worst outbreak my generation’s seen is measles. I’m too young to remember polio or smallpox, and the Bubonic Plague is just a history lesson.
Also, we were complacent. The media focussed on the numbers of the day (‘only 100 cases, what’s the problem‘?) and ignored the trend. Because 100 cases today means 130 tomorrow; 180 the next day – and so on.
There was prejudice. We saw the numbers coming out of China. But hey, that’s China! It’s miles away. Something like that could never happen here.
There were lies: it’s no worse than the flu. More people die in car accidents. It doesn’t hurt the young. We preferred wishful thinking to grim reality.
And before you know it, the numbers started to rise.
And now I’m here, in lockdown.
Chances are, so are you.
At the time of writing, around 20% of the world is in lockdown.
I hope you’re doing okay.