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NEXT: What if There Were Another Global Pandemic?

David Staley David Staley NEXT: What if There Were Another Global Pandemic?Photo via Flickr.
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This year marks the centenary of the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, a global pandemic that killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people worldwide. The deaths caused by the Spanish Flu occurred at a time when the Earth’s population was under 2 billion, meaning upwards of 5 percent of the world’s population were killed by the pandemic. (And for you hockey fans, the flu pandemic lead to the Stanley Cup being cancelled, the only time that had occurred until the player lockout of 2005).

There were something like 670,000 Americans killed in the pandemic, which led to a reduction in U.S. life expectancy by 12 years. To this day, it is not entirely clear to historians or epidemiologists where the flu originated, although one theory holds that the disease was first noticed in Kansas and then spread by American soldiers to France fighting in the First World War.

The possibilities of another global pandemic of the magnitude of the 1918 version happening today seem disconcertingly high, at least according to some experts. “The Institute for Disease Modeling predicts that a severe flu pandemic could kill more than 33 million people in just 250 days.”

The emergence of drug-resistant “superbugs” is causing alarm in the public health community. Last fall, doctors in China found a new strain of pneumonia that proved both deadly and drug-resistant. Indeed, as more drugs are being deployed to combat virus and bacteria, some strains are evolving such as they are becoming resistant to our antivirals and antibiotics. Bill Gates is certainly among those who fear such a pandemic — he has stated publicly that there is a strong possibility of a flu pandemic that could kill millions — and he’s using his philanthropic powers to head off this possibility by funding research on a universal flu vaccine.

Keep in mind that global travel today is much more widespread, common and more intricately connected than it was a century ago. If global pandemic spreads through human contact, then our interconnected global networks would make the spread of deadly disease that much easier.

On the other hand, the public health infrastructure today is much more sophisticated than it was in 1918. There was nothing like the Centers for Disease Control at that time, for instance, although I note that the CDC announced in February 2018 that it’s “dramatically downsizing its epidemic prevention activities in 39 out of 49 countries because money is running out, U.S. government officials said.”

What if another 1918-scale global pandemic would occur today? What would be the geopolitical, economic and cultural consequences?

There would be an effort to affix blame, to identify the source of the pandemic. This may prove as difficult as determining the location of the Spanish Flu outbreak, but this would not prevent conspiracy theorists from identifying the culprit, with social media amplifying both real and fake sources of information.

Any area so identified as the source of the global scourge would likely be quarantined and ostracized from the international community. A global pandemic today would surely mean restrictions on travel, with national governments throwing up all sorts of barriers to outsiders entering a country, which could accelerate global trends toward nationalism and “Us First-ism.” Global trade would certainly be impacted, with a recession or depression a distinct possibility.

Given how disease already seems to flow through pressurized cabins, I suspect that air travel would be dramatically reduced, or that airlines would issue filtration masks (for an extra fee) for those who did fly.

It is common in images from the 1918 pandemic to see first-responders wearing surgical face masks. What would the 21st century version of this be? An enterprising company might get to market quickly with personal filtration/respiration masks, but it is just as likely that there would be disreputable players selling faulty masks as well. (Remember the fake solar eclipse glasses?) Like the gas masks that covered the faces of doughboys in WWI bunkers, global cities would be peopled by those masked citizens who dare walk in public.

In some cities, there will be a rush to identify and create “antiseptic spaces” for public gatherings. These “clean spaces” would be scrubbed down with bleach and disinfectant to give the appearance of being an oasis in the midst of the pandemic. Would sports venues be so cleaned up, or will there be a dramatic fall in sports attendance, as people stay away from public places? Starbucks and other “third spaces” may wish to aggressively disinfect themselves to encourage customers to frequent a “safe” and antiseptic space.

As a global phenomenon, would there be some sort of global cooperation and coordination to combat the outbreak? If so, will the U.S. have the will and the resources to lead here?

Or, might an emerging power like China step in and assert global leadership? If that were to occur, what sorts of post-pandemic geopolitical consequences might this entail? The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness (CEPI) is working to develop vaccines for a number of potentially pandemic diseases. CEPI is funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Economic Forum, and the governments of Norway, Germany, Japan and India. It is possible that global leadership in combating pandemic disease will fall to other countries.

If a similar percentage of Americans died today as died in 1918, that would be over 2 million of our citizens. How would such a staggering number of deaths be met by our society? One response might be a rise in self-sufficiency and social isolation. Schools would be closed —supplemented by more at-home and online learning— and businesses would probably insist that their employees engage in more telecommuting.

It is possible that, in America, another response to the crisis would be a WWII-like, all-hands-on-deck, public “pandemic mobilization” campaign. That citizens would set aside the partisan squabbles that are causing so much dysfunction in American public life, and instead work together to combat a common, indiscriminate, external foe, something like what happened (briefly) after 9/11. Would our nation come together to meet the challenge? Or would today’s fractious political environment exacerbate the epidemiological threat, with each side blaming the other, with one side seeking action from government authorities while the other descends into a “pandemic survivalist” mode?

David Staley is interim director of the Humanities Institute and a professor at The Ohio State University. He is president of Columbus Futurists and host of CreativeMornings Columbus.

The next Columbus Futurists monthly forum will be Thursday, June 21 at 6:30 p.m., at the Panera Bread community room (875 Bethel Rd.) The evening’s topic will be “The Future of the Air Force’s Science and Technology Strategy.”

The next CreativeMornings Columbus will be Friday, June 15 at 8:30 a.m., at The Grandview Theater. Annie Pierce will speak on the theme “Craft.”

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