Why society was not ready for a pandemic

contagious jonah berger

In 1918-1920, in just 2 years, the “Spanish flu” or “influenza”, according to various estimates, killed 50 to 100 million people. 100 years have passed, and we are still wondering how this could have happened. Scientists were able to artificially reproduce the Spanish flu virus, but they did not understand where it came from and why it suddenly stopped. There are only guesses.

Over these 100 years, mankind has come a long way, made many scientific discoveries, there has been such a powerful technological breakthrough that not a single, even the most radical, science fiction writer could have imagined.

However, in 2020, the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic broke out, for which our “advanced”, launching ships to plow the expanses of lifeless space, mankind, was practically not ready. An ordinary virus, the smallest creature, clicked on humanity’s nose so tangibly that all this feigned “scholarship” collapsed at once, the economy collapsed, and many states were on the verge of collapse.

Why did this happen? Why, 100 years after a devastating epidemic swept the world, have we not learned any lessons? In her book Pandemic, Sonya Shah, a science journalist and writer, develops one curious hypothesis – we cannot effectively fight pandemics until we fully understand the value of human lives. Only when commercial interests are lower than the life and safety of each individual citizen, then we can oppose something effective against “invisible killers”, viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi.

Sonia Shah argues that modern people have much more opportunities to take effective measures in the shortest possible time, but, as practice shows, we regularly miss them. There is a clash of interests of different groups, and often this harms the interests of the overwhelming majority of people. An inadequate response to a threat helps spread the pathogen.

For example, in New York in the 19th century, the selfish interests of a group of people held back measures to counter the spread of cholera – because of this, people continued to get sick and die. Then people used heavily polluted groundwater for drinking. New Yorkers complained about the disgusting taste of the water, which was teeming with fecal bacteria. At the end of the 18th century, there were proposals to build a municipal water supply system to supply residents with clean water from the freshwater Bronx River, but this project got in the way of the vested interests of a group of individuals. New York State Senator Aaron Burr, Republican, was about to create a bank to counterbalance the Federalist bank. The establishment of a private water company under the bank would help to facilitate the registration of the bank. As a result, Beck did everything to hack the initiative to create a municipal water supply in the bud, and New Yorkers suffered from poor water and cholera outbreaks for another 50 years. The Manhattan Company, a private water company created at the bank, was looking for ways to reduce costs, because of which the city’s population was forced to drink dirty water, but the bank, which later became known as JPMorgan Chase, was enriched.

Quarantine was resorted to in Venice in the XIV century during the outbreak of the plague – the city was closed for forty days (quarante giorni – “forty days”), and this was an effective means of containing the epidemic. However, as commerce developed, quarantine interfered with the interests of more and more people. As early as the end of the 18th century, during outbreaks of cholera, many declared that it was useless and constituted a violation of trade. Moreover, many, including prominent physicians of the time, believed that diseases were the result of a bad atmosphere and miasms, and were not transmitted from person to person.

The more seriously the society takes the threat, the sooner the source of the pathogen is identified and stopped, the less damage will be, both to human health and to the economy as a whole.

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