Isherwood column COVID: The makings of a movie script
By Justin Isherwood
This COVID19 thing has all the makings of a movie script.
COVID19 has been imagined – popular movie scripts go here all the time – whether by nuclear threat, terrorism, asteroids, or some mass-killing disease. If our collective sense is movie scripts don’t happen in real life. It turns out they do.
The book End Times by Byran Walsh takes up the issue of super-threats; super volcanoes, super asteroids, rogue artificial intelligence, nuclear war or more likely, nuclear mistakes. The author follows pandemics as history records them, not hypothetical disasters but what happened to real human beings, some our immediate ancestors.
Walsh suggests historical and cinematic demise is often slanted to the famous. Like the two nuclear episodes of WWII as focus our attention despite many more deaths from the fire-bombing of Japanese and German cities than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. History’s great death events are often similarly focused, that we ignore the millions of deaths by less famous means.
As for volcanoes, Krakatoa comes to mind, less deadly as the climate altering, which was deadly. When it comes to death, tsunamis probably kill many more, with no warning. At least volcanoes act grumpy before they blow. Sometime the Yellowstone Hotspot is predicted to blow and render a big chunk of the American corn belt unproductive. The movie potential is great for special effects,
Artificial intelligence is a more recent movie script, futurists keep us in suspense at the possibilities. The more realistic threat is to the power grid from a massive solar flare. A threat not from, but because of our installed A.I. in many production processes, security, banking, machine management, all controlled by perishable microcircuits.
Disaster-proofing is to ask what doesn’t work when all the microchips fry? So maybe solar activity has remained normal in the context of the last several millennia. Do we build in non-digital “fire escapes” to keep things running, or do we play the odds?
“Malaria by estimates has killed off one half of all the human beings as ever lived,” I’m quoting from the book. That is one impressive statement, a very sobering reality. Malaria continues to kill a half million annually, generally unwitnessed and with little intervention. Malaria is just background noise and happens in places invisible to us.
World species continue their die-off, fairly witnessed as an apocalypse if another one of those invisibles, so our concern is marginal. After all, there weren’t that many rhinos in the first place or right whales or polar bears. Species is probably an unfair example of pandemic because unlike volcanoes and tsunamis, species extinction has a handle attached, that human behavior can change.
The Flu of 1918-1919 left 45 million dead, the figure is arguably a 100 million;1918 remains one of the heavies of pandemic threat.
The Antonine plague of 165 A.D. was either smallpox or measles, killed five million in the Mediterranean, this what fatally destroyed the Legions and doomed the Roman Empire.
The Plague of Justinian 541-542 A.D., 25 million, probably bubonic, killed half of Europe, records from Constantinople of 5,000 dead per day.
And then there is Good Ol’ Reliable, Black Death, 1346-53 Bubonic, 75-200 million. Not to forget an episode called the Third Cholera, 1852-60, a million dead in India. Was here a Brit physician John Snow identified contaminated water as the disease carrier, a scientific breakthrough that gained for humanity negotiable access to cholera. The flu of ’89, H3N8, one million. The Sixth Cholera 1910-11, 800,000,mostly in the Middle East and Russia, and the last American outbreak of cholera, 11 deaths. Seems we learned to boil the water and isolate the infected. Flu 1918, 45 million, oddly enough this flu killed the hardy while weaker patients survived. Still not understood. Flu 1957, about a million, Flu 1968, 1 million; HIV/AIDS 2005-2012, 36 million.
COVID19 spreads easily, many carriers asymptomatic, seemingly there is no concurrent immunity. As of March 29, the death total is 30,000, running 3500/day. WHO on March 3 put the mortality rate at 3.9 percent. Death rate of hospital admissions 15 percent – 50 percent of those on respirators die, 65 years and older 31percent of cases, 80 percent of the deaths.
First symptom to death averages14 days. By comparison the seasonal flu kills about 30-60,000, a fraction of 1 percent. Ain’t numbers fun?
As pandemics go, COVID19 is to this juncture minor league stuff, but frightfully expensive. COVID19 has some advantages previous diseases didn’t have; rapid transit, population, urban density and a lot of elderly persons.
To our favor we have better science, 44 vaccines are currently under trial, the world-wide web allows fact-sharing, and the science. We have with COVID19 reliable numbers. You probably haven’t heard the term fake-news lately. Cell phones are proving to be an efficient means of tracking the disease vector. And there has been open integration of regional, national, international methods and responses that is gratifying as it is enabling.
Commentators have noticed the benefit of a more rapid response from authoritarian regimes. The blunt force closing of cities and transport is more effective than a recalcitrant mediated civil process.
In the case of China, South Korea and Taiwan, now France, cell phones were used to identify and isolate vectors, and violators. As we are learning, constitutional protections don’t include the pandemic threat.
As for the movie script, we’re in it.