COVID-19, Review, Spotlight

Humanity’s Greatest Foe: Pandemics Through the Ages

A review of Plagues and Peoples by William McNeill, Anchor, 365 pages (1998)

Readers seeking a longer historical perspective on the coronavirus pandemic would do well to consider William H. McNeill’s brilliant book, Plagues and Peoples. Originally published in 1976, Plagues and Peoples shows, in less than 300 pages (not including the appendix, notes and index), “how varying patterns of disease circulation have affected human affairs in ancient and modern times.” Not everyone, understandably, will wish to dwell upon the endless series of calamities infectious diseases have exacted in our collective past. The uncertain, terrifying ordeal immediately before us is quite enough. But along with well-informed worry, McNeill’s masterful account induces both awe and hope at our species’ capacity to endure the worst from its most ancient adversaries.

To adapt words McNeill wrote in a slightly different context: The history of mankind’s long struggle against infectious diseases “will not solve contemporary dilemmas. It may, nonetheless, provide perspective and, as is the wont of historical awareness, make simple solutions and radical despair both seem less compelling. Muddling through in the face of imminent disaster was the fate of all past generations. Perhaps we will do the same, and others after us. Moreover, since we must still make decisions every day, it probably helps to know a little more about how we got into our present awesome dilemma… Even if that turns out to be false, there remains the pale, cerebral, but nonetheless real delight of knowing something about how things were different once, and then swiftly got to be the way they are.”

McNeill begins more than 100,000 years ago, when man was not yet man, but rather another animal living in an ecological system over which he had no conscious control. Man himself appeared when he first flung open the gates of cultural evolution. Similar to but much swifter than its biological counterpart, cultural evolution endowed its beneficiaries with an ever-expanding dominion over the natural world. But human ingenuity could not touch what it could not see. And so invisible microbes alone remained as a terrible biological menace to humanity.

The long history of human progress involved almost no discernable advancements against infectious diseases until quite recently. Like death itself, that fact is quite striking as soon as one pauses to notice it. Our remotest ancestors, naked, inarticulate and ignorant, were less vulnerable to these invisible predators than our great-grandparents were. Every major advancement in humanity’s control over nature only increased our blind exposure to deadly microbes by increasing the size and density of the populations on which they feed and by widening and accelerating the networks on which they travel.

In this respect alone, biological adaption remained far more important throughout almost all of human history than cultural adaptation. New and murderous diseases arrived at frequent intervals, burned through established communities with terrible ferocity, and the affected population collapsed until either the disease disappeared or became endemic in a sustainable equilibrium between host and parasite. There is a natural pattern of convergence between microbes and host communities as the least fatal strains of the disease and those least susceptible to it are the most likely to survive.

Irrigation farming was the first technological breakthrough that created food surpluses capable of sustaining large settled communities, including densely populated cities. In changing the natural landscape to make it fit for agriculture, farmers unwittingly opened the door to hyper-infestations of all kinds. Farmers proved adept at combating visible pests like mice and weeds, but against microbes they struggled blindly and helplessly. McNeill speculates that the prevalence of infectious diseases contributed to the authoritarian practices of governments in societies dependent on irrigation agriculture. “The plagues of Egypt,” he writes, “may have been connected with the power of the Pharaoh in ways the ancient Hebrews never thought of and modern historians have never considered.” Americans who have accepted orders to stay home without even whispering about the right of assembly enshrined in the Constitution are sure to see that he has a point. Several governments are now using cell phones to track citizens’ every movement to monitor possible contagion patterns. It would have taken much more than the parting of the Red Sea for Moses to escape from that.

Hunter-gatherer societies typically observed practices that kept birthrates low. But the prevalence of infectious diseases among agricultural societies meant that none could hope to survive without birthrates well above replacement level. Cities were always deadly, and every one of them, from 5,000 years ago until about 120 years ago, depended on constant replenishment from more healthy hinterlands in order to sustain themselves. The demographic results were highly unstable, as population centers expanded drastically and collapsed in recurring cycles.

Surplus populations fueled not only cities but armies. And civilized communities were constantly beset by two grave menaces, infectious diseases and other human beings organized and armed for pillage and plunder—or as McNeill styles it, “microparasitism” and “macroparasitism.” There is a striking analogy between these two great scourges of agricultural societies. A community’s first contact with micro- and macro-parasites is likely to be catastrophic. But neither warlords nor pathogens are able to flourish for long by destroying subject populations. And so gradually an equilibrium emerged as endemic diseases and extractive empires entrenched themselves as tolerable nuisances.

Around 500 B.C., McNeill speculates, the oldest population centers in Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley began to stabilize, at least 3,000 years after the introduction of irrigation farming. Trade patterns brought the entire region within a common disease pool while the administrative empires of the Near East reached the furthest limits when the Persians failed to conquer Greece, and then Alexander, having conquered Persia, failed to conquer India. At the same time, the populations of the western Mediterranean, Ganges Valley (India) and Yellow River Valley (China) entered a period of dramatic expansion. Incidentally, the founders of the philosophical systems characterizing all three civilizations outside Mesopotamia lived around the same time as well—Socrates (470 — 399 B.C.), Buddha (553 — 483 B.C.), and Confucius (551 — 479 B.C.).

Contact between the four major civilization centers was sporadic or nonexistent until the Christian era. Each constituted its own distinct disease pool, sustaining endemic infections that could be catastrophically lethal whenever they swept into populations without prior exposure. The population of the Roman Empire at the time of Augustus’s death was 54 million, roughly equal to the 59.5 million recorded in an imperial census of Han China around the same time. Regular trade routes connecting the major civilizations first emerged along what Romans called the Silk Road, named after the primary commodity carried westward from China through Persia and then into Western Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. The same route brought with it new and terrible diseases, causing a demographic collapse in Western Europe from which it did not recover for nearly a millennium.

The spread of the coronavirus is rather striking in light of this ancient pattern: First China, then Iran (i.e. Persia), then Northern Italy and then everywhere else. Trade routes do not explain this strange coincidence. It is an additional reminder, if one were needed, that we have not yet tamed or contained the microscopic predators in our labs as we have the lions and tigers and bears in our zoos.

Not all disease pools are created equal. When isolated populations begin to converge, some inevitably give much more than they get. Western Europe suffered the most, though hardly alone, in the first great confluence of civilized disease pools.

The first truly catastrophic plague that swept the Roman Empire arrived in A.D. 165, a year before the first Roman ambassadors arrived at the Han court, killing between a quarter and a third of all affected populations. Another epidemic of equal severity arrived in A.D. 251 causing 5,000 deaths a day in Rome alone at its peak. Christianity benefited immensely, and not just for the consolation of hope it offered in a better world to come. Christian teaching emphasized the duty of caring for the sick, while faith in an everlasting life steeled caregivers to brave diseases that sent Pagans fleeing in terror. As other political institutions providing services broke down, the influence of the Church filled the void.

The bubonic plague first arrived in Europe in A.D. 542. And available evidence suggests that the plague epidemics that swept the Mediterranean in the sixth and seventh centuries were every bit as destructive as the more famous Black Death of the 14th century, though only in the latter case did the dreaded black rats infest Northern Europe as well. Indeed the Black Death is unique only as the most memorable pandemic that swept through Europe. While earlier epidemics had ravaged Roman civilization as it collapsed into darkness and chaos, the plague that arrived in Europe in 1347 only briefly, if spectacularly, interrupted an era of immense population growth. This, and not its destructive power alone, accounts for its singular place in the collective memory of the West.

Other diseases that had originally burned through Europe with catastrophic results, such as measles and smallpox, had become endemic as childhood diseases by the 10th century. As a result, Europeans had much more to give than receive as they encountered heretofore isolated populations, most notably the crowded civilizations of the New World.

An invisible army of smallpox germs was primarily responsible for Cortez’s and Pizarro’s conquests of Mexico and Peru. Along with the mass death inflicted, the psychological influence on the living was perhaps even more significant. Both the Spanish and the Native Americans interpreted the epidemics as signs of divine favor or disfavor. And the results were not remotely ambiguous. One side was invincible and the other utterly helpless. And so armies numbering only in the hundreds, backed by what they and their enemies quickly assumed was the hand of an omnipotent God, secured control over a vast empire inhabited by millions. The world has never seen a more lopsided conquest, or a more lopsided convergence of disease pools. Other Eurasian diseases followed the initial outbreak of smallpox. The scale of the catastrophe for Native American populations is hard to imagine—from the pre-Columbian peak the population likely dropped by a ratio of 20:1 or 25:1.

Horrible as it was, the catastrophe of the New World was also the last of the great calamities in the process that brought the world’s population into one common disease pool. European expansion knit the entire world into one vast network of exchange. By 1700 or thereabouts, global trade networks had become so regular that no diseases endemic in one major population center could suddenly thrust itself catastrophically into another. Mankind has good reason to fear exposure to foreign peoples. But prolonged isolation is incomparably worse.

One group, however, remained uniquely vulnerable to the lethal power of infectious diseases—newborns and young children. That had always been true of endemic diseases. But as trade and disease networks became more regular and pervasive, they drastically reduced the number of people who lived to adulthood without being exposed. Diseases that had once ravaged communities indiscriminately now focused almost all their ferocity on children. The psychological toll must have been immense. Cultures adapted to a degree, but grieving parents suffered just as acutely as they always had and always will. However, the demographic toll was much less severe, for young children are more easily replaced than adults. As a result, the world’s population began to expand rapidly around 1700.

*   *   *

And yet, to repeat an earlier point, the brilliant cultural innovations that established the first era of globalization did virtually nothing to tame the destructive power of infectious diseases. Ordinary animal biology, not our extraordinary brains, was decisive.

To be sure, successful cultural adaptions to diseases occasionally did occur, usually explained and understood in religious terms. Deuteronomy 14:8, for example, sternly enjoins readers not to eat bats. But as we now know, such localized cultural adjustments could not protect those who adopted them from neighbors who didn’t. The most ingenious folk adaption to disease was the smallpox inoculation, which was practiced in various customary forms in Arabia, North Africa, Persia, India, and China before Europeans adopted and began to systematize the practice in the 18th century.

Only then, in the 18th century, did medical science, as opposed to custom reinforced by ritual and religion, begin to make definite progress in the ancient struggle against infectious diseases. But at first these advantages were mixed, as the medical profession unleashed itself from the ancient maxim, “first, do no harm,” and lunged with the arrogance of a pioneer into the unknown. In 1799, America’s best doctors treated George Washington’s throat infection by draining 3.75 liters of blood from his body. When the journalist William Cobbett suggested this practice had killed the first president, he was chased out of the country by a libel suit. In 1832, the president of the New York State Medical Society suggested, as a treatment for diarrhea caused by cholera, plugging the rectum with beeswax or oilcloth. Other doctors recommended tobacco smoke enemas. Anyone familiar with the early history of medicine can only marvel at its hubris, pity its victims, and sigh in gratitude at its gradual and ever more astonishing successes.

Improvements in material and economic conditions were far more important at first in combating disease, but these were easily reversed by an epidemiological version of the Malthusian trap. Nineteenth century tenement buildings were as overcrowded and filthy as anything seen in Roman times. Occasionally, even significant advances in hygiene among affluent classes backfired by delaying exposure to diseases that were far less dangerous to children, as was the case with Polio.

With steamships and railroads came new diseases that had never before been able to travel. Cholera, long endemic in Bengal, spread throughout the world in the middle decades of the 19th century. And in 1918, the Spanish flu went around the word like lightning, killing at least 20 million in just over a year. Medical systems were quickly overwhelmed and broke down. But the very rapidity of its spread meant that its acute phase was brief, “so that within a few weeks human routines resumed and the epidemic faded swiftly away,” McNeill writes. Influenza had been around for a long time. An epidemic in 1556 — 1560 killed off as much as 20 percent of England’s population, according to one scholarly estimate, while that of 1918 did not reach one percent. And yet the 1918 pandemic introduced a new dilemma for a more densely populated, more tightly interconnected world to contemplate, namely, how far should a society intervene to contain a highly infectious disease that combines a low fatality rate with a staggeringly high number of potential total deaths? Over the next 100 years, however, very few people bothered to ponder this grave question.

The blind struggle against infectious diseases began to end when the microscope allowed for the discovery of the bacilli responsible for anthrax, tuberculosis, and cholera in the late 19th century. Finally, mankind could see its ancient enemy. And the same cultural ingenuity that has marked our species from the beginning began to work relentlessly upon those that had hunted us in the darkness.

World War Two was the first major conflict in modern history in which soldiers’ weapons proved more deadly than the diseases they carried. In the second half of the 20th century, as scientists built rockets that could leave Earth and bombs that could blow it up, medical experts also began efforts to rid our ancestral home of its most irksome microscopic inhabitants. In 1977, just eight years after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the World Health Organization succeeded in eliminating smallpox. Possibilities only imaginable to maniacs and prophets had come finally into our grasp.

In 1976, when McNeill first published his great book, he warned that our advantages may be temporary. “The race between skills and ills was… by no means decisively won—or lost; and in the nature of ecological relationships is never likely to be.” The technological advancements that came to fruition in the 20th century were as dramatic and unprecedented as those of 5,000 years earlier, when irrigation agriculture began a new stage in mankind’s place in the world that was also the beginning of recorded history. As that immense advance in man’s power over nature opened the door to new and formidable counter-attacks, so might the great strides we’ve made since the Enlightenment. The point is not that we are doomed to retreat, or even stand still. Only religion can offer the promise of a future Eden of repose. As I write, billions of citizens in the world’s wealthiest, most technologically sophisticated societies are huddled up in their homes, like a primitive village in the shadow of a man-eating panther.

There is inspiration as well as wisdom in recalling the ancient chain of progress that still binds us to our ancestral past. Every single inch is marked by calamity. We will endure only as our ancestors endured, bravely and stubbornly, matching our wits against the infinite whims of a hostile world.

 

Adam Rowe is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the University of Chicago. A historian of the United States, Rowe’s research has focused on American political thought from the Revolution to the Civil War. He can be found on Twitter at @adamrowe82

Comments

  1. This is an interesting review of an important book. But what seems to be missing from the review [and maybe from the book] is discussion of public health from an epidemiological perspective.

    Epidemiology tracks diseases that can spread publicly, but not just those involving direct human-human contact or vectors like fleas and lice. For example, water-borne illnesses like cholera and food-borne illnesses like salmonella can cause serious symptoms and even death. The mechanics of tracking and tracing outbreaks is similar for environmental diseases like cholera and transmissible diseases like the corona virus. The risks of all these diseases can be reduced by improved personal and public hygiene.

    But personal hygiene, like handling food and water carefully and hand washing, can only go so far. That’s why food processing plants and restaurants are subject to health inspections (in theory, at least, in the US) and can be fined or shut down if unsanitary. Public health also requires that working people have access to sick leave and doctor visits without incurring a financial burden or losing their jobs.

    During a pandemic, public health measures like travel restrictions, social distancing, self quarantining and closing non-essential businesses like spas, cinemas, and gyms are essential to slow the spread of the disease. For that reason, I was disgusted to read today of politicians who are calling for old people in the US to willingly face exposure to the corona virus and even die, so that the economy might live:

    Note: the interview noted above was on Fox News, which has a direct pipeline into the White House.

  2. A poignant reminder that disease has been our constant companion for millennia. Still, missed a golden opportunity for a Latinate play on words with smallpox and Edward Jenner- the man deserves a historical ovation for vaccination. The interesting thing about COVID-19 and tracking of the routes of the disease thus far, is it spreads through the arteries of trade and tourism- daily perusals of the international infection and death rates shows the rapid congregation of casualties amongst those countries which have benefited most from the hyperconnectivity created by trade and affluence.

    It also presents uniquely difficult circumstances to those with ageing populations- another benefit turned vulnerability caused by wealth, although the additional capacity required to tend an older population is doubtless welcome in this crisis. Although I do not subscribe to the notion of divine retribution for arrogance, in some collective analogue of Icarus, the current crisis placed in a broader historical context, makes one wonder whether there are obscure natural equilibria which accompany their far more obvious counterparts- the natural laws that govern society and the sciences.

  3. Capitalism is a system that priorities profits over people.

    & my local Thrifty Food prioritises food over people.

  4. Not punishment, but the natural world mindlessly seeking a balance.

    The method of natural equilibria may be obscure, but I don’t wonder that it exists.

  5. Times have changed considerably since McNeill wrote this, there is much in your narrative for one to contemplate the presence of the world in a pandemic.

    Archaic admixing has been known to take place a number of times over the last 200,000 years, in the ‘Out of Africa’, 100,000 and 30,000 years ago, which in itself is evidence of higher intelligence moving to greener pastures. Following herds and adapting to new climes, cooler sometimes colder. The first modern human homo sapien, no different than you and I are today, is some 200,000 years ago coming from the Omo river in Ethiopia. The EQ (Encephalization quotient) of that human was within the 7 to 8 range, which delineates an intelligent human with a pre-frontal cortex no different than us.

    But then again, to wander a bit, one might give some consideration if not credence to the Toba event – a supervolcano that made itself extinct on a night and a day some 70,000 years ago that gives evidence of a human bottleneck and global collapse of world population down to some 10,000 breeding pairs. So disease or virus walk alongside catastrophism of the environment. And if Toba is correct, then genetically we are closer than we think.

    “Trade routes do not explain this strange coincidence.”

    Actually, they do, and the recent is not the first time it has happened, these trades also have been migration routes even before they were trade routes, they were ancient trade before Silk road, as they were grain routes some 5000 years ago, this back and forth from China to the garden in the golden crescent, has been evident for a long, long time. And so the movement of plague has walked hand and hand with the new items riding on oxcarts and camels and the backs of humans.

    “While earlier epidemics had ravaged Roman civilization as it collapsed into darkness and chaos, the plague that arrived in Europe in 1347 only briefly if spectacularly, interrupted an era of immense population growth.”

    This was the tail end of the medieval warming period, temperatures were on the decline – 1300 is the starting period of the Little Ice Age, which really is the beginning of population plateau and decline and the dark ages and the start of the plague centuries. Colder winters and wetter summers, shortening growing periods and the increase of fungi and virus which seems to thrive during these periods, and disease of crops which furthered to the become the dark age and cultural retardation and the oppression of human populations and their decline in that initial jump in the medieval warming period.

    There has been a strengthening of human populations but a limiting of genetics through viral plagues, as nature and evolution have fine-tuned man for the present. A virus has always been the catalyst of a jump forward of mankind as nature in its selection of the most adaptable to that cause.

    […] most notably the crowded civilizations of the New World.

    This is progressive thinking, That I would hope would come to some semblance of truth rather than the politics of something that really is not a fact, the populations of the new world have always been difficult to establish, and North America during the time of European exploration was in the middle of the Little Ice Age, winters were very cold and summer wet as alternating on the ENSO (El Niño–Southern Oscillation) and solar cycles.

    The case is not closed on whither syphilis was a new world disease brought back to Europe, or a combination of both, this whole idea of the isolated population is very much contested as being that truthful. As many cultures migrated and showed their innovation to move when needed. The idea of past man as less intelligent than we are at present is challenging this blanket theory of mind. The constitution of individuals, hundreds if not thousands of years ago is much more robust and able to challenge adversity than we are today.

    North America’s population has been estimated to between 2 and 7 million before Columbus arrived. With the advent of Europeans in Canada that population could have been reduced to 500,000 people by the influx of influenza, measles, and smallpox. But of course, this was unintentional by the newcomer, and before the modern era when contagion was better known.

    […]the World Health Organization succeeded in eliminating smallpox.

    Well not really, Smallpox still exists. Smallpox scabs have been found in a civil war doctor’s notebook in an envelope, signalling the case of first vaccination methods. This has raised the question – as it could/might/probably have been standard practice as this man was an army doctor. Are there more envelops out there, which spurs imagining what other methods were used? Also, a number of vials of viable smallpox from the '50s were found in an FDA cold storage in NIH (National Institute of Health) Biolab-4 in Bethesda, and that virus could be recreated for a few hundred thousand dollars, which brought to mind its use in a possible future dual-use technology in research, that the virus could fall into malevolent hands, or accidentally make it back into nature via some accident. And because the health system is not prepared for such an outbreak, that it could be devastating if released. Along with the fact, that the civil war serovar is pre-industrial and unknown to us in the modern age. No known antigen would be alive today to gain a vaccine. So really as long as it exists in labs, it really has not been eradicated. And is probably more dangerous than we realize.

    “As I write, billions of citizens in the world’s wealthiest, most technologically sophisticated societies are huddled up in their homes, like a primitive village in the shadow of a man-eating panther.”

    Billions? Are you sure, personally I think there is nothing to worry about, much of this has been hyped up, and there are really more people who have had the virus and didn’t realize it? My family suffered the flu from Christmas to the New Year, as many around us did also, no one said it was Covid. Covid is a trigger word for some, but Billions huddled against, I think not…

    All in all your synopsis of McNeill’s thoughts of decades ago, is a reminder of what we are…the product of many struggles. The plagues, the catastrophes, the genetic changes over the millions of years has made us the best that nature can create of the human population. Covid has been blown out of proportions. It really is not a plague by plague standards.

  6. In this case, I must admit, I am a spiteful capitalist.

    I care primarily about my grandchildren, then about the children and about the wife, then a little about parents.

    The last in this queue is me. :thinking:

  7. In a raspy Greta voice
    How dare you!..Don’t you know that besides self immolation…sorry self isolation, there is no laughing during plagues, laughing means you might be sick from a fever or something like that…?

  8. Also many casualties in coastal/border states in the US that mostly voted against Trump in 2016. Will he leave them stranded to get his revenge? Under the US electoral college system, he doesn’t NEED votes from these states to get re-elected.

    No. of cases shown below, as of March 24

    Screenshot_2020-03-24%20A%20state-by-state%20breakdown%20of%20US%20coronavirus%20cases

    If Ayn Rand were alive and on Quillette, I’m sure she would be loving your post.

    spite - noun
    a desire to hurt, annoy, or offend someone.

    I’m actually not an immunologist, just a journeyman evolutionary molecular geneticist. The best source of antibodies [obviously polyclonal, not Mab] is probably serum from persons who’ve recovered from the corona virus. Rabbits and rats don’t produce enough antibodies to be medically useful AFAIK, especially in the time frame we are dealing with. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about de novo synthesis of custom antibodies. RNAi may also be promising, but again, I’m not the expert:

  9. What type of font should I use in order to highlight a sarcastic hue? Not sarcasm, namely hue, but also a hue to offend someone (not you!), I do not hide it.

    Because when someone says me that some kind of economic system has its drawbacks, I reply: “I agree, but what can you offer in return?”
    Similarly, any social institution, any moral principles have their drawbacks.
    Man is created from contradictions. He is instinctively selfish and instinctively realizes that he will not survive outside of society. And he lives in a contradictory world where others want to get rid of him and need him at the same time.
    I do not know if you noticed that life boils in the sea, where cold and warm waters collide, or in the coastal strip, where the sea and land are close by.
    Contradictions, incompleteness - the source of life, the source of its development.
    That is why I despise communism and communists wanting to eliminate all the contradictions. The only thing they can ultimately create is a desert.

  10. While I certainly believe in social distancing and I am badly in need of a haircut, we have to ask the question? Can we keep the economy shut down long enough to fully contain the virus? That answer is probably not. At some point businesses will have to reopen. Jack, as you are well aware, economic damage and the associated poverty (ex. increased drug addiction) also kills people, likely in greater numbers, than Covid-19.

    Therefore, we have to look at other strategies. IMO, the country that responded the best to Covid-19 was not China, despite Jonathan Kay’s fawning praise of the regime. It was South Korea. South Korea took a different approach. Although they did shut down many gathering places, they focused largely on testing and contact tracing. South Korea has tested more people per capita than any other country in the world. Currently the U.S ranks below Iran in per capita testing. Right now, testing is limited to those who have a fever in many localities. The problem is that a large portion of those infected with Covid-19 are either asymptomatic or have minor symptoms. But they are just as infectious as those with serious symptoms.

    In contrast to S. Korea, who had previous experience with MERS, the CDC has totally botched the U.S. response. The CDC refused to use the test developed by Germany and adopted by WHO as every other country has done. Instead they insisted upon developing their own test. The first batch of test kits were flawed and had to be returned. The CDC was unwilling to cede control of the testing procedure to allow outside laboratories to produce test kits and allow physicians to make decisions on who gets tested until pushed by the Trump administration to do so. Regulatory barriers and bureaucratic inertia still slow distribution of test kits, particularly to areas in NY and California that are hardest hit.
    Widespread testing and isolation of specific individuals infected along with their contacts is the only real way to combat this pandemic in the long-term. That means testing of healthy as well as sick individuals. It is also the only way to get some sort of idea of the lethality of the virus. The economic shutdown buys us time, but it is not a real solution and it could exacerbate the human toll.

    Hindsight is always 20/20 but there are lessons to be learned.

    1. Most of the masks, gowns and other safety equipment needed to fight a pandemic are made in China. Many of the components in ventilators are made in China. Therefore, our ability to rapidly spool up the production of this safety equipment is limited.

    2. 80% of the precursor chemicals to make the drugs that the U.S. uses and 90% of all the drugs that the U.S. consumes are made in China. The same thing is true for most medical diagnostic equipment. It may not be possible to produce enough test kits as are needed due to supply issues. China could decide not to supply us.

    https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/RosemaryGibsonTestimonyUSCCJuly152019.pdf

    The decision to outsource production of these essential supplies was a bipartisan decision. Both Republicans and Democrats were equally at fault. Those same decisions are why the Midwest is hollowed out and why the cultural elite on the coasts proudly proclaim that we are a “knowledge economy” and that these industries are never coming back. We stockpile military supplies in expectation of needing them. Furthermore, we do not outsource development of military supplies. We do this because we may need access to these supplies in a hurry and we may need the means to produce more of them. The same should be true for medical supplies. We plan for war. We conduct exercises to prepare for war and to test various plans. Why doesn’t the CDC do the same thing for pandemics? Much of what has happened should have been anticipated. This bureaucratic paralysis developed over many years during both Democratic and Republican regimes Despite the willingness of both sides to want to cast stones, neither side is without sin.

    South Korea learned lessons from MERS that we did not. Bill Gates told us in a TED talk in 2015 that we were far more likely to be attacked by microbes than missiles. We are well prepared for a missile attack. We were very poorly prepared for a microbe attack. Hopefully we will learn for this.

  11. Capitalism lets people choose their own priorities. Other systems do not.

    He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. - John Stuart Mill

    I have yet to meet a collectivist that even understands what the two sides are.

  12. I think it’s a modern dilemma. Virtually everyone would rather take a chance on getting sick than starve to death while watching their children also starve to death because they couldn’t go out and produce either food or income to buy food. The only reason we are even talking about this is everyone assumes governments will provide a social safety net that keeps people alive during the lockdown and during the aftermath of the lockdown.

  13. He didn’t argue elderly people should die. That’s just the media doing what they do so well–taking words out of context, and spinning to whatever meaning they want, then claiming the person said it. He was arguing that the virus possibly hurts the economy more than individual people, and that as an elderly person, he himself would rather sacrifice himself for the bigger picture. You may well disagree, but he didn’t say "elderly people should die for the health of the market. " If your argument is sound, there is zero need to create a strawman or use any other rhetorical trick.

    As far as “capitalism being a system that priorities [sic] profits over people”–that’s what a 7th grader might argue, it’s that simplistic. One may well say, “Socialism is a system that prioritizes the power of the state over individuals.” Only actually, the simplistic take on socialism is more accurate; capitalism prioritizes individualism as opposed to top-down state collectivism; socialism prioritizes the opposite.

  14. Seriously? That’s Chinese propaganda. This recent article from Slate says it better than I could:

    "When Chinese scientists identified a mystery virus in December 2019, they were ordered to stop tests, destroy samples, and suppress the news. When Chinese medical professionals began to sound the alarm, they were seized by police. For weeks, when Chinese state media went on air or to print, they ignored the virus’s spread. When government cadres heard rumors of some new SARS-like virus, they kept their heads down and continued praising party leader Xi Jinping.

    China’s strategy to fight COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, though later praised by the World Health Organization and scientists worldwide, consisted of cover-ups, lies, and repression. It also [failed] miserably, exposing the world to this deadly sickness. The details of China’s critical missteps are long-running and have been widely reported. When academics in [2007]warned that a SARS-like virus could emerge from China’s wet markets, the CCP allowed these markets to stay open. A February Washington Post analysis of Chinese statements, leaked accounts, and interviews with public health officials and medical experts concluded that China’s “bureaucratic culture that prioritizes political stability over all else probably allowed the virus to spread farther and faster.” A [March study] by researchers at the U.K.’s University of Southampton showed that if China had acted three weeks earlier than it did, the number of coronavirus cases could have been reduced by 95 percent and its geographic spread limited significantly…"

    I suggest you start with this article, and educate yourself. I mean, unless you enjoy being a voluntary, unpaid propaganda mouthpiece of the CCP.

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