If there is a sobering thought about the coronavirus pandemic that has dramatically altered the lifestyle of people across the globe, it is that human life is very fragile. Yes, there has been large scale deaths from diseases, natural disaster, and man-made acts like genocide and war. However, these cataclysms don’t give a sense or awareness that human life could be vulnerable to extinction.
Pandemics are not new and have occurred from the time of antiquity. In 165 AD the Antonine plague (perhaps the first recorded pandemic) killed five million people across Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, and Italy. Since then there has been several pandemics of which the five major ones were: the Plague of Justinian from 541 – 542 which killed 25 million people, the Black Death from 1346 – 1353 (75-200 million deaths), the flu pandemic in 1918 (20-50 million deaths), and more recently HIV/Aids pandemic from 2005-2012 (36 million deaths).
The saving grace that stopped the deadly march of pandemics was that a vaccine was found to eliminate or suppress the virus. It is possible too that some viruses could have mutated to a less virulent form. With the coronavirus the race is on to find a vaccine that will halt its deadly march across the globe. For each day that goes by without a vaccine there is a likelihood for an escalation in the infection rate and death toll.
Pandemics like COVID-19 are not limited to viruses that originate from an animal source (zoonotic) or other environmental sources. Deadly viruses or bacteria like anthrax are human-engineered in a laboratory. A Vox website article titled, “Designer bugs”: how the next pandemic might come from a lab, provides information on the controversial top of lab superbugs.
Containing a virus like the one that has caused COVID-19 is contingent on four critical factors: i) identifying it, ii) stopping the spread of the virus, iii) implementing effective triage care for infected persons, and iv) developing a vaccine as quickly as possible. Not being able to identify the virus means is big disadvantage. Each of these has its own unique challenges. Stopping the transmission of the virus requires quarantine measures and triage care requires extra health care personnel and medical supplies. The time factor developing a vaccine to neutralize the virus is probably the most effective method of containing and elimination the virus. Any failure to achieve these four things causes the virus to progress from an epidemic and eventually become a pandemic like COVID-19.
Another critical factor in containing deadly virus like COVID-19 is by sharing information. Two entities that have that obligation and responsibility are the country where the virus first infected people and health organizations. The sharing of information is usually coordinated at the global level by the World Health Organization (WHO) and here in the US by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). WHO has the responsibility for designating virus infections as epidemic or pandemic. These organizations also issue guideline measures for preventing the spread of the virus.
Chinese authorities who were aware of the outbreak of COVID-19, delayed informing the world about the severity of a deadly disease spreading within the country’s borders — even trying to muzzle whistleblowers. The timeline for this failure began on January 5 of this year, when China identified cases of pneumonia related illness in Wuhan. Two days later Chinese authorities confirm that they have identified the virus as a novel coronavirus. At this stage countries around the world especially those that have frequent travel exchanges should have issued an alert for precautionary measures. The US for example did not do this.
It wasn’t until January 30th when the first case of the coronavirus was identified in the US that the Trump administration began to pay some attention to the coronavirus. One day later Trump announced that he will deny entry to foreign nationals who travelled to China. One month later on February 26, Trump announced a new coronavirus task force headed by VP Mike Pence. Currently, in the US number of COVID-19 cases have risen dramatically to 65,000 and 940 deaths. Globally it is 487,000 with 22,000 deaths.
It is not only China that has failed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the US has failed too. The consequence of this failure is the daily escalation of infection and deaths. More alarming is that the government seems to be struggling to provide the resources and supplies needed to contain the virus or flatten the escalation curve.
There should be no excuse for the failure of the US to respond adequately or be prepared to deal with the coronavirus. As early as January, the Trump administration was made aware of the outbreak of the virus in China and that it had reached epidemic proportions. Instead of putting in place measures that would prevent or contain outbreak in the US, Donald Trump himself responded that the virus outbreak was a “democratic hoax.”
If you listen to Trump at his daily press briefings you would believe that his administration is doing a ‘tremendous’ (a word he is fond of using) job. The reality though is there has been a lack of facilities and supplies (masks, respirators, and therapeutic medicine) needed for the containment of the virus. When questioned about this at his briefings, Trump states that he inherited a bad system and that other administrations did nothing.
The COVID-19 pandemic is the “writing on the wall” that the human life is indeed fragile and like the dinosaurs could become extinct. It portends an ominous message that there is no guarantee that life on planet earth is permanent and that we are vulnerable to extinction. Individually, we don’t live forever, however, collectively through procreation life on earth seems eternal for humans. That perception could be a false sense of security when we consider a super virus, an asteroid strike, and climate change.
What makes mankind vulnerable to a super virus that defies a cure or vaccine is our lifestyle. We have become obsessed with travelling from country to country for business and pleasure. In the latter case thousands of people cruise the world to satisfy their tourism appetite and for packaged entertainment on a ship. Like ants that eat the poison bait and returns to the colony to infect and eventually wipe out the colony, humans too travel to other countries get infected by a virus and take it back to their or other countries to infect the population. That is how a super virus could possibly make the human race extinct.
The extinction of other life species is not uncommon and has been going on for eons. So, it is not farfetched that humans could also be vulnerable. The most notable example of the extinction of life species is the mighty dinosaurs. Daniel Simberloff a professor of environmental studies and director of the Institute for Biological Invasions at the University of Tennessee has conducted extensive research on the rates and causes of species extinction underscores the extinction of species with this statement,
Pandemics by the way are not the only threats to human survival. Asteroid strike and climate change are the common ones we hear about. With climate change the concern is flooding and extreme weather that would make life unbearable for humans. And we don’t know if change could trigger changes in the atmospheric pressure and the chemical composition of the atmosphere that would not sustain life.
Yes, we live in an environmental bubble that has sustained life from the beginning of time. However, we live in a time when human actions could jeopardize the equilibrium of this environment – pollution from toxic gases, human engineered toxins, contamination of the food chain, etc. Steve Luby, MD, an epidemiologist and the director of research for Stanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health alludes to the fragility of the environment as follows,
Without a thriving biosphere, there is no human future. Also threatening that future? Our recently acquired abilities to destroy each other with nuclear weapons and lethal synthetic biology. As an example, CRISPR, a gene-editing technology, could be a force for good used to help eradicate disease or it could potentially be used to cause harm, such as by genetically modifying bird flu to become airborne.
There are encouraging signs that the coronavirus is containable as in China the number of cases has tapered off. The next time a virus emerges we might not be so lucky. If that virus packs a one punch knock out that kills people instantly and is transmitted by a number of ways – airborne, contact with humans and surfaces, and even contaminate the food chain, the human race could be in trouble.
Unfortunately, politics have interfered in the dissemination of information and international cooperation in fighting threats against human extinction. For example, not all countries are on the same page with climate change measures. Trump himself does not believe in it and one of his first act as president was to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Accord.
Our ability to survive on Planet earth is contingent on how well we are prepared to respond to the threats whether it be pandemics, asteroids, and climate change. A few decades ago, there was a plan to intercept asteroids on a collision course with earth and disintegrate it or shift it off course. That plan seems to have fallen by the wayside because of politics. It is also politics why some countries are on the same page with climate change measures. Trump himself does not believe in it and one of his first act as president was to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Accord.
If mankind is to survive extinction threats from pandemics, climate change, and even an asteroid hitting earth, more and better cooperation should be an imperative. The political differences of democratic vs communist countries and Republicans vs Democrats must be put aside. Survival of the human race is not a political issue it is a common sense issue.
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