Societal Damnation 42: Pandemics

A pandemic, as defined by Wikipedia, is an epidemic of infectious disease that has spread through human populations across a large region. When people think of pandemics, they traditionally think of the big nine historical pandemics of cholera, influenza, typhus, smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, leprosy, malaria, and yellow fever, which have, at one time or another, wiped out thousands, hundreds of thousands, and sometimes even millions of people.

However, many of the diseases that cause pandemics are still alive and well, and new ones are cropping up all the time. Cholera, easily spread by contaminated water, is caused by bacteria, and still causes 100,000 deaths a year world wide. Influenza is constantly mutating and new strains of bird flu and swine flu which, without proper treatment and prevention, could easily cause millions of deaths are alive and well. And while typhus (typhoid fever) has mostly been eradicated, cases are still being reported in poorer African and South American countries and the bacteria still exists.

As far as we know the smallpox virus has been eliminated in the wild, with no reported cases in 38 years, but never say never, as typhus, which should also have been eradicated by now, is still cropping up. There are still almost 500,000 reported cases of measles a year, even though immunization against measles is easy. Tuberculosis is caused by bacteria and infects about 1% of the global population each year, with 9 Million new cases in 2013 and almost 1.5M deaths.

Leprosy still affects almost 200,000 people globally a year. Malaria, caused by parasitic protozoans transmitted by malicious mosquitos, is still rampant with over 200 Million infections a year, which resulted in 660,000 deaths in 2010. Yellow fever is another infection, caused by a virus, transmitted by murderous mosquito, that infects about 200,000 people a year and annually kills 30,000. And while these pandemics are primarily restricted to the equatorial climates, as temperatures warm and climate changes, those pesky mosquitos could start to migrate northwards.

But this isn’t the only list of highly contagious infectious diseases we have to watch out for. In addition to the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic, now we have SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), a viral disease that cannot be cured or prevented that has an average fatality rate of 10% and that spreads easily by close person-to-person contact though respiratory droplets and which could spread like the great fire of 1666 through a dense metropolis. We also have the five strains of the Ebola virus, which spreads easily through contact with bodily fluids (including respiratory droplets or sweat) or infected bats or primates, and Ebola has an average mortality rate of 50%. We have the Marburg virus that causes Marburg Hemorrhagic fever which is a rare, but severe, fever caused by a filovirus (like Ebola) that has a mortality rate of up to 80%. We have hantavirus pulmonary syndrome with a 36% mortality rate in the US that is spread by contact with exposure to droppings of infected mice. (Which means an uncontrolled mice population could bring a new black death that, with unprecedented levels of population density, puts the first round to shame. Remember, just because mice commissioned the earth, that doesn’t mean they won’t kill us all when they are done with their little experiment.)

We could go on, but you get the picture. Not all countries have centres for disease control as advanced as the CDC or the ability to rapidly contain epidemics which could, in today’s hyper-connected and ultra-densely populated world, easily transform into global pandemics overnight. Hollywood might worry about us all contracting a hyper-infectious disease that turns us into zombies, but the reality is that the next plague will probably skip that step and make corpses of us all instead.

So why is SI being so grim? Because, despite the focus of most sites that focus in on the physical, financial, and information supply chains, the reality is that supply chains still run on people. People (control the machines that) make the goods. People control the money (even if it is just the people in banks sometimes). And people input the data that our information systems run on. Without people, supply chains will come to a halt from both an inbound (with no one to supply) and an outbound (with no one left alive to buy) perspective. Not only must we be ever vigilant in keeping our employees safe, but we must be even more vigilant in keeping them well. We need them alive.

And for those dreamers among you, you can forget about replacing your workers with robots or computer algorithms. Remember that we have been promised replacement robot workers since Elektro was debuted at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, but engineers still have not delivered. Not just because we have no true AI (and that’s a good thing*), but because we are still unable to construct systems as flexible and adaptable as the organic systems created by nature.

* what use would intelligent robots have for ugly sacs of water besides to harvest our bioelectric energy?**

** bonus points if you get the two references contained within