The current COVID-19 pandemic caused by the corona virus SARS-CoV-2 is a massive event for our societies. I envisage it to be transformative and to be differentiating between societies as they take different paths with respect to human lives, economy, and personal freedom, to name some important ones.
Whatever the eventual historic evaluation of this event will turn out to be, here and now it is commanding. It does tax many aspects of our society and of every individual. It exposes mechanisms, within societies, groups, and all the way down to myself.
This pandemic rises fundamental questions about values, sense, goals, and ways, throughout the layers of humankind down to myself. And it asks for perspectives.
A short look back
Pandemics have accompanied humankind throughout time, many other species as well, and some were much more massive than what we experience today. The most severe ones in historic times are the plague, or Black Death, that devastated humanity in several waves, the biggest ones, in the years 541-542 and 1331-1353, killing an estimated 40% and 25%, respectively, of the World population at that time. More recent pandemics include the 1918-1920 influenza, the Spanish flu with an estimated 17-50 million deaths, and the 2009 flu pandemic, the swine flu with 0.15-0.575 million deaths [Wikipedia]. Besides these irregular events, there are periodic infectious diseases like the seasonal flu with an estimated 0.3-0.65 million annual deaths, and we often do not even take note.
COVID-19 to date (March 28, 2020) claimed some 30’000 lifes. Compared to the seasonal flu that rolls through the World every year or the Spanish flu some hundred years ago, this appears small. Why then the turmoil?
First and foremost, past waves of seasonal flu and the Spanish flu are all historic and final numbers are available. In contrast, COVID-19 has just set off, in December 2019, and we have no clear imagination of where it will lead. It is a new disease caused by a virus with so far little known properties, for which we do recognize a frightening potential, however. And the death toll rises rapidly [e.g., Johns Hopkins University].
As a backdrop, look at the seasonal flu. We know a lot about the viruses that cause it, their characteristics, and the ways of their propagation. They are not particularly deadly, just about 1 in 1’000 infected persons dies, and, importantly, there are vaccines available. Still, seasonal flu extracts a heavy annual toll, both in lives and in economic cost.
In contrast COVID-19. Most importantly, the virus is so new that there is no vaccine, yet. Then, mortality is much higher than for seasonal flu, by at least a factor of 10. The same is true for the hospitalization rate, which is also by a factor of about 10 higher. With this, already moderate infection numbers can overwhelm health care systems, which in turn causes the mortality to increase still further. These three aspects alone suffice for the COVID-19 pandemic to reach a scale that is comparable to that of the Spanish flu, if it is allowed to expand unimpeded.
Humankind today is in a situation that is very different from the one a century ago with the Spanish flu.
But, humankind today is in a very much different situation from the one a century ago with the Spanish flu. First the negative side. The population today is much larger, 7.8 billion vs 1.8 billion back in 1918, it is much more concentrated in large cites, which in addition have much higher densities. This greatly increased the local infection rate. Then, global traffic has grown dramatically, both in volume and in speed, which in turn led to greater speed and global reach of originally local infections. On the positive side, our health system together with the underlying scientific understanding is very much stronger and more comprehensive. Of equal importance are the communication systems that today are so much faster, more direct, and more pervasive. These two aspects – the health and the communication system – offer the tools to eventually win against COVID-19.
Defense against infections – our immune system
All life has defenses against pathogens and infectious diseases, at least in rudimentary forms. They are collectively called the immune system, and they allow a deep insight into how evolution works.
Propagation of an unknown virus in our society
With SARS-CoV-2, a virus appeared that is sufficiently different from anything our immune system can handle readily.