Pandemics, Prevention, and the Certainty of Blame

December 31, 2020 Updated: January 1, 2021


Several people of late have taken to ending their written communications to me with “Stay safe.” This is a locution that, for some reason or other that I cannot quite explain, I abominate and that infuriates me, even though I am sure that it is probably well-meaning and even in some cases heartfelt.

It acts on me like the squeak of a piece of chalk or a fingernail as it scrapes on a blackboard, a sound that sends shivers down my spine (great poetry or music sends shivers in the opposite direction).

However, “stay safe” is not as bad as “Happy Holidays.” I received a Christmas (or should I say a holiday?) card from the United States recently whose envelope was prominently postmarked Happy Holidays. This seems to me an example of what a Dutch friend of mine calls anticipatory, or creative, appeasement.

Some authority or other imagines an expression, such as Merry Christmas, might conceivably offend someone, and then tries to forestall trouble by replacing it with something supposedly less offensive and more anodyne (and you can’t get more anodyne than Happy Holidays).

The fact that no complaint has ever been received about the avoided expression—and if it had been received, ought to have been ignored with contumely—is beside the point. Prevention, including that of offence, is better than cure.

Pandemic Prevention

O prevention, what crimes are committed in thy name! On the other hand, it is sometimes necessary.

As I was going through my books last week—I want to list them before I die, a desire that is not so much an intimation of approaching death as a preservative against its approach, insofar as an unfinished task gives a person a reason to live that prolongs his life—I came across a French book published in 2005 with the title (in English) of “Pandemic, The Great Threat: Bird Flu, 500,000 Deaths in France?” It was all about prevention of what might or might not happen.

Of course, 500,000 deaths (less than 1 per cent of the population of France) is a comparatively modest number for books about viral or emergent-disease disaster.

Man is the only creature, as far as I know, that derives some strange pleasure from the contemplation of his own extinction, at least so long as it remains theoretical.

One of my viral disaster books predicts with evident delectation that 98-99 per cent of humans will die from an Ebola-type virus that will emerge in the not-too-distant future from the jungles of Africa: “ex Africa semper aliquid novi,” out of Africa always something new, as Pliny said, though he might also have said it of Mount Vesuvius, whose eruption in AD 79 asphyxiated him.

So far I have lived—stayed safe, if you like—through predicted global cooling, global warming, mass famine, nuclear winter, asteroidal collision, and viral and prion-disease epidemics.

But as Bertrand Russell pointed out in explaining the weakness of induction as a means of predicting the future, the chicken who has hitherto always been fed by the farmer and runs to greet him one day has its neck wrung by him instead.

Just because no catastrophe has yet touched me, then, it does not mean that none in the future will ever do so. That is why anxiety springs eternal in the human breast.

Viral Pandemic

I am not sure whether it is instructive to read what was written fifteen years ago about future epidemics of viral diseases, but it is certainly interesting. The authors, Jean-Philippe Derenne and François Bricaire, are two great experts, not at all the types to sensationalize; but they repeated what the famous science journal, Nature, said in 2005, namely that it was not a question of if, but of when, there would be a devastating viral pandemic.

The authors predicted not a new coronavirus, but rather a new flu virus, one that dangerously combines elements of avian and human flu, exchanging and recombining their genetic material in pigs, which are hosts susceptible to both human and avian flu.

This new virus might be extremely pathogenic, say the authors, as was that of the so-called Spanish flu; and Mankind, having no previous experience of it and therefore no immunity to it, could easily be decimated by it. (So called virgin populations, with no previous experience of new diseases that are introduced into them, can decline by 90 per cent of their population, as did the Amerindian population of Central America in the century following the Spanish conquest, or even be altogether exterminated, as in Hispaniola, by such new diseases.)

The authors do not say that this will definitely happen, only that it is likely to happen. Currently existing ant-viral medication, which in any case is of somewhat limited utility, would probably not work, and it would take several months at the least to develop an effective vaccine.

The only way of containing the epidemic and preventing disaster in these circumstances would be to isolate known cases, observe social distancing, stay at home as far as possible, close all institutions such as schools, universities, restaurants, cinemas, and theatres where people gather in numbers, reduce all commercial and economic activity to a bare and essential minimum, eviscerate public transport, and provide masks, first to health care workers and then to the entire population. Borders should be closed at once to passenger traffic.

This now sounds eerily familiar. Of course, deaths so far have been far fewer than touted on the cover of the book, but we must remember that, just because we have had COVID-19, it doesn’t mean that we could never have a pandemic of a new and dangerous bird-flu as well.

Moreover, there is no knowing which age-group the next pandemic will principally effect. In the past, children, young adults, and the old have been the main victims of different epidemics. We cannot know in advance.

In the midst of uncertainty, one thing at least is certain. According to the authors: “[After the epidemic] only the number of dead will be remembered, not the number of saved … All those who kept silent before the pandemic will demand heads to roll. What will have been immense progress by comparison with previous mortality [in such pandemics] will have been lived or interpreted as a succession of errors and omissions. This, is because of the most fundamental psychological need of all: the need for someone to blame.”

Theodore Dalrymple is a retired doctor. He is contributing editor of the City Journal of New York and the author of 30 books, including “Life at the Bottom.” His latest book is “Embargo and Other Stories.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.