Covid-19 is sweeping the world in the form of a grim reaper, scything the old and chronically ill as it passes. In Memes, Society and Human Evolution identified eight grim reapers that could setback human progress as we reach the environmental limits that Earth can support: war, revolution, famine, plague, natural disaster, economic malfunction, shortage of raw materials and environmental damage. Plague was conceived as being a less serious threat. I reasoned that, because we now live in such an interconnected world, there is less opportunity for pathogens to develop in isolation and therefore less risk that a virulent pathogen will wipe out large numbers of humans. If a pathogen is too potent it will kill its host before it has the chance to spread. Initially, therefore, a pathogen must allow a fair chance of human survival in order to allow its own propagation. A pathogen which develops over a long time in an isolated community will gradually increase its virulence as the community develops its own immunity. If this pathogen is then released to the world it can be devastating.
But today few communities live in seclusion, so a plague, such as the Black Death, which could kill a huge percentage of the population, is highly unlikely. The worst epidemic in modern times is the 1918/9 Spanish flu outbreak; it had a mortality rate between 1 and 6 %, leaving 17 million to 100million dead. Yet Covid-19, even though the likely death rate is much less, threatens to be much more disruptive. What I hadn’t foreseen was that improved medical technology would create a bottleneck to the passage of the disease.
Hospitals have only so many critical care beds equipped with ventilators. In order that their health care systems aren’t overwhelmed, all ‘advanced’ countries have adopted the strategy of limiting human contact in order to prevent the rapid spread of the disease. This could only be achieved by shutting down much of the service sector of the economy. Pubs, restaurants, hotels, airlines, trains, airports, travel firms and sports bodies have all seen their businesses disappear overnight. In the West the service sector is by far the largest part of the economy. As a result, Covid-19’s long term economic effects are likely to be much more significant than the impact on the nation’s health.
We didn’t have ventilators in 1918; the Spanish flu swept through the population but the nation’s economy was only slightly dented. The UK government is talking of a few months to get over the effects of the disease, but this is based on hope rather than any reality. There are about 4000 critical care beds in England. Figures of 250,000 potential deaths have been banded about. If each patient that died spent 4 days in a critical care bed, the disease would have to be delayed for 250 days – almost 9 months – if critical care capacity is not to be exceeded. The economic disruption of such a delay would be catastrophic.
It seems that grim reapers don’t act independently. In this case plague may well lead to economic malfunction if the wrong decisions are taken by our government.