I hope pessimism is not contagious
When I was an adolescent, I used to enjoy watching horror movies – The Exorcist, Hallowe’en, Texas Chainsaw Massacre – you name it; I probably watched it. However, like many other adults (I suspect), I could not watch them now… Irrespective of whether it is a sign of emotional maturity or mental fragility, I generally have no desire to watch unpleasant things happen to people anymore; life is unpleasant enough. However, despite this, I decided to watch Contagion on DVD recently. (N.B. Do not read more than the first paragraph of the Plot section of the Wikipedia page if you have not seen the movie).
I suspect that most people who have seen the movie The Day After Tomorrow will have been amazed by the special effects; but completely unconvinced regarding the plausibility of the scenario. There were grains of truth in it (such as networks of buoys monitoring our oceans to detect any evidence of changes to thermohaline circulation patterns). However, most people seem to agree that the movie was ruined by the implausibly sudden climate change. Indeed, the implausibility was relentless; with the storyline getting more and more improbable as the movie went on – I really do not know what the Director was thinking…
Contagion – on the other hand – is completely plausible; it dramatises a contagious disease pandemic disaster scenario that has, in fact, already happened: Forget Swine Flu, Bird Flu, or SARS; the Spanish Flu pandemic (in 1918-20) killed 50 million people – a full 3% of the global population at the time – without the aid of globalised air travel to help spread the infection. The main reason that most people have not heard about it (or don’t talk about it); is that it happened at the same time as the First World War. However, more than twice as many people expired after catching Spanish Flu than were killed during the 1914-18 war. In fact, Spanish Flu killed almost as many people as died as a result of WW2.
Contagion is particularly scary because it includes all these historic facts; but it is also scary because of the way it has been crafted. There is nothing implausible about it; it could happen tomorrow and – despite the fact our governments know this – they cannot prepare for it any more than they have already done. So, are we ready for it? No, we are not; and we will never be ready. It is a global threat with consequences at least an order of magnitude greater than a major volcanic eruption on Iceland and, worse still, we have no early warning system for a flu pandemic.
Spanish Flu killed 3% of the global population – equivalent to over 200 million people today. However, today, it is considered that improvements in worldwide health care and access to medical facilities could offset the massively increased risk of rapid transmission of infection due to air travel. Based on all of this, in 2008, the World Bank estimated that a global flu pandemic could kill as many as 70 million people (i.e. 1% of the World’s population). The World Health Organization is more optimistic: Citing a figure of only 7 million, they say it is almost impossible to say how many would die because there are so many critical variables (including incubation period, ease of transmission, rates of infection and/or recovery, etc).
Experts reckon that we would be much quicker at isolating and replicating a vaccine for any new global pandemic; but that success in bringing it under control would largely be down to the general public being sensible.
Sadly, our inability as a species to work together to mitigate anthropogenic climate disruption reminds me of jokes about being unable to extricate oneself from a paper bag and/or organise a decent party in a brewery… So, when told that the consequences of a flu pandemic will largely be determined by the extent to which the general public exercises common sense, I am inclined to respond by uttering four simple words: “Beam me up, Scottie!”
However, I cannot end on such a note of desolation… I think we must all try to find a positive way to look at things… and indeed earlier this week I found myself feeling very glad to be here at all… It is 50 years ago this week that four Russian Nuclear Submarines left their base in the Arctic carrying torpedoes with nuclear warheads. When eventually located by US Forces, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the Subs (B-59) came perilously close to firing its “special weapon” and, had it done so, the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD) which kept the peace throughout the Cold War would almost certainly have become a reality. The fact that the Russian Subs had nuclear torpedoes was not known until 2002, when it emerged that the Commander of the Russian Fleet, Vasili Arkhipov, on board submarine B-59, over-ruled the vessel’s Captain and Second Officer – who had wanted to use them.
As it happens, having unknowingly avoided nuclear annihilation, my parents went on to conceive me a few years later… So, if humans can have the sense to step back from the brink of WW3, we can but hope they will step back from the brink of ecological catastrophe: We can do nothing to prevent an Icelandic volcano eruption; and we cannot eliminate the possibility of a global flu pandemic. However, we most certainly can, if we so choose, stop the unabated burning of fossil fuels from devastating the Earth’s current capacity to support life. Therefore, I will end with the words of a famous prayer accredited to the German theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.