You may have read articles like this one that point to different ways of recording COVID-19 mortality in different jurisdictions. The concerns raised about variability in data collection are mirrored in commentaries by pulmonologists and other clinicians who have observed many flu seasons. This perspective is easily missed by those who focus on the characteristics of the specific virus rather than the bigger picture of the global patterns of flu infections.
A few people, including some clinicians, are dismissing the notion of a pandemic on the basis that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes the disease) is just one small part of the annual cocktail of influenza like viruses and nothing to worry about is misleading. I find it interesting that even some pulmonologists can get caught up in this level of siloed reasoning, along the lines of “we’ve always had different strains of the flu, and this is simply yet another bad flu season”. This line of reasoning does not explain why locally, in some places, thousands of people are severely ill and dying, to the point where healthcare services are completely overwhelmed.
The WHO on influenza
Seasonal influenza is characterized by a sudden onset of fever, cough (usually dry), headache, muscle and joint pain, severe malaise (feeling unwell), sore throat and a runny nose. The cough can be severe and can last 2 or more weeks. Most people recover from fever and other symptoms within a week without requiring medical attention. But influenza can cause severe illness or death, especially in people at high risk (see below).
Illnesses range from mild to severe and even death. Hospitalization and death occur mainly among high risk groups. Worldwide, these annual epidemics are estimated to result in about 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness, and about 290 000 to 650 000 respiratory deaths.
In industrialized countries most deaths associated with influenza occur among people age 65 or older (1). Epidemics can result in high levels of worker/school absenteeism and productivity losses. Clinics and hospitals can be overwhelmed during peak illness periods.
Overall, globally, the COVID-19 mortality thus far is only a small part of a much bigger picture of respiratory deaths – but only because China, and now more and more countries, are adopting “extreme” measures to reduce the spread. The interesting question is, why are these measures necessary? Why have they not been necessary in earlier bad flu seasons?
I think the answer to that question has three parts:
Some flu seasons or pandemics are not only bad, they are very bad, as the history of pandemics teaches us.
The people alive today simply have not experienced any really bad pandemic in their lifetimes, and hence the “surprise”. Modern medicine has left people in the false belief that there is a pill or vaccine for every possible dangerous infectious disease, or that one can always be developed just in time.
UPDATE (22 March 2020): To understand the difference between a flu season and a pandemic, watch this advice from Prof John Ashton, a UK public health expert.
Now people are waking up to the fact that health professionals are not always “in control”, and that their own behaviour actually matters, i.e. contributes to or can reduce risk exposure.
This is scary for “civilised” people who believe in “leaders” and “authorities”.
The positive effect is that the current situation is one of the rare moments where neurotypical people get a glimpse of the collective delusion known as civilisation and the dangers associated with faith in “leaders” and “authorities”, including the myth of “being in full control” typically peddled by such people.
Our technological capabilities provide us, including health professionals, with more data than ever.
Our analytical tools allow us to ‘see’ many of the pathogens that make us ill, and modern media delivers the images into every office and into every home.
This again is very scary for “civilised” people, in particular if you can see and read about dying people on a daily basis.
The positive effect is that people are made aware of the fact that all humans are more or less equally exposed to the risks of many pathogens, and that wealth and money may not offer much if any protection – and may actually increase some risk factors. According to the laws of probability, we might see a few heads of state or heads of corporations die, to reinforce the message.
The hyper-social busyness of civilisation has far outpaced our capacity to comprehend the effects of our behaviour,
… and it has turned what was perceived as a “competitive advantage” in relation to other species into a relative disadvantage in relation to viruses in particular. So far I am not seeing this framing amongst the medical experts, but there is no shortage of people who see the virus as a welcome relief from busyness as usual. Mental health and suicide statistics point towards social/cultural environments that are in conflict with human biological needs.
Beyond the increasingly visible destruction of the non-human natural environment and significant increases in severe weather events and ocean acidification, what has changed? I think there are several factors that come together, with a collective effect not dissimilar to the multiple stressors that contribute to the species extinction rates of insects, birds, and various marine species:
- Human population growth, roughly doubling every 50 years, and now starting to flatten, indicative of the extreme pressure we exert on our ecosystems.
- A 10-fold increase in air travel over the last 50 years; just watch the activity at Flight Radar to get an intuitive feeling for the level of busyness, even with the current reductions/restrictions in place.
- Increasing levels of urbanisation, exemplified by the mega-cities in China, resulting in hyper-social busyness related to work and commuting.
It would be highly surprising if these conditions do not lead to increased collective intelligence and evolutionary success amongst viruses that have discovered humans as a habitat. These viruses are not out to get us, they are developing symbiotic relationships with humans. Note that SARS-CoV-2 is provoking deaths and a human response that works directly against the three trends above.
UPDATE (28 March 2020): This interview with Prof Kim Woo-Ju, South Korea’s leading COVID-19 expert, provides an excellent overview of the latest understanding of SARS-CoV-2, and it also mentions the global increase in air travel as a major challenge in dealing with pandemics.
His warning: “The moment we become arrogant, we´ll lose”.
Given current human population numbers, any attempt to bring back air travel and busyness to pre-COVID-19 levels will be increasingly suicidal for the human species.
The positive effect of the cultural changes induced by COVID-19 in record time is that pollution levels and green house gas emissions are sinking at record rates, far beyond what environmentalists and climate activists would have imagined possible even a few months ago. The fear induced by the data our technological capabilities serve us on a daily basis (part 2 above) acts as a strong force against reverting to busyness as usual, and the risks will increasingly lead to (a) an appreciation/re-discovery of human scale, including strong social norms against super-human scale groupings of humans, and (b) strong social norms against all forms of deception and manipulation of data, because at the limits of planetary capacity deception is a recipe for collective suicide within a single generation.
What makes viruses so intelligent relative to humans?
The answer may surprise civilised humans but it might not have surprised pre-civilised humans. Viruses are not organised hierarchically and they do not pretend to be in control of anything – they don’t suffer from a collective learning disability. Instead they can be considered experts at mutation and creation of diversity at rates that the genomes of “higher level” life forms can’t. SARS-CoV-2 has figured out a very effective combination of infectiousness, incubation period and mortality.
The intelligence of complex life forms that manifests in neural networks is usually quite limited. Only the human capacity for complex material cultures, which depends amongst other things on the dexterity of human hands and on the anatomical features that enable human language, have allowed this intelligence to accumulate and scale to collaborating groups of humans in ways that are impossible for other primates.
The exciting aspect about the human capacity for culture is that via a series of accidental discoveries and inventions, and driven by the suicidal busyness of civilisation (cancerous myths of superiority that have infiltrated human societies around 10,000 years ago), we have created a global network for sharing knowledge and misinformation. We now learn that it takes viruses like SARS-CoV-2 to put this network to good use, and to shift cultural norms away from sharing misinformation and towards sharing knowledge. There will be many further learning opportunities beyond COVID-19.
Planetary intelligence is achieved by creating a feedback loop of mutual learning between the rapid learning cycles at the smallest scales and learning cycles at human scale, which are now amplified via a global digital network at super-human scale. We are learning the hard way that messing with that network for misinformation and attempts of hierarchical control works against humans and the entire planetary ecosystem.
As humans start to re-familiarise themselves with human scale, a new generation of children will be taught corresponding values, and the interest in super-human scale control and hierarchical power structures will fade and will become a taboo. It will be important to preserve accurate recordings of what happened to “civilisation”. As a result, the risks of “civilisation”, and in particular the risk of super-human scale conflict will be reduced significantly. It takes “leaders” to persuade and manipulate people into going to war, and once people with “leadership aspirations” are again recognised as the biggest threat to society, our capacity for culture may once again make us more intelligent than the other primates – but still not as smart as our little invisible friends.
There is no competition for collaboration at human scale 😀.
Together with our viral and microbial friends we are not that stupid after all 😜.
We are starting to experiment with ways to reduce interactions to human scale and are starting to learn. We may even learn that there are many different ways to contain the virus, but a focus on human scale and a bias against super-human scale busyness will be the common thread through all these approaches. When I wrote this article on collaboration for life six months ago, I could not have imagined how close we are to the proliferation of new human scale cultural species.
To close off, here is some good advice on staying safe from an [obviously autistic?] clinician with a special interest in material science and engineering, who is now doing a video series on COVID-19: