CoVid-19, Complexity & Collapse: The Long Game

poster by Spanish cartoonist Miguel Brieva, reproduced in the Tyee

Last week I summarized what I thought were the likely short-term developments with the virus, and thus far the models that have been developed have proved to be surprisingly accurate. They basically say that by the beginning of June, with continued social distancing, death rates will have plunged and most of the danger, at least for this wave of the pandemic, will be over.

There are of course a whole bunch of “ifs” and unknowns in these forecasts. There are likely to be additional waves of the virus. To the extent they result from loosening social distancing rules too soon, they will likely (but not certainly) be isolated and short-lived, with many fewer deaths. If some major government (eg US, UK, Brasil, Indonesia), or some large or concentrated religious group decides to recklessly abandon social distancing, then additional waves could be comparable to the first wave, killing another (rough estimate) 100,000 Americans, and two million more worldwide. Or even more. Some of the models, unlike the UW/IHME one I’ve been following, actually assume this will happen and that it will take two years and multiple waves before this is behind us. Their estimates of total deaths are 3-10x higher than the UW model, from what I can gather from public information about them.

So, for example, interpolating from the UW model in the US, we might expect about 1,000-1,500 deaths in Ontario, Canada from the first wave of the virus, peaking in late April and almost all occurring by the end of May (there have been 146 deaths there so far to April 5th). But the three models just released by the Ontario government forecast 3,000-15,000 deaths there in multiple waves over two years. They may be right. I think with continued diligence and good luck they will prove unduly pessimistic. But no harm erring on the side of caution.

The other great unknown, which I referred to in the previous article, is the risk of a radical mutation of the virus. Most of the deaths of the 1918 flu virus were in the second wave, which happened not so much because distancing and other restrictions were eased too soon, but rather because the new mutation was much more virulent and attacked a completely different demographic (young people with strong immune systems). We can’t prevent this. Viruses mutate easily and quickly, and our modern crowded mobile civilization is hugely vulnerable. The microbes will have the last word. If not this year, it will happen when the next novel virus crosses the species boundary. It will not be that long.

But if we learn our lesson now, we can be prepared, even for that. Specifically we have to equip ourselves now to follow the model that Taiwan has set:

  1. We have to manufacture test kits, masks, gloves and plastic shields, enough for everyone on the planet to have all they will need, free of charge. This sounds like a huge deal, but its cost would be absolutely minuscule compared to the economic costs we have already suffered from not having them. Organizations capable of manufacturing these should be under ongoing national emergency orders to produce them as needed instead of whatever they normally manufacture.
  2. When an outbreak occurs, everyone in an exposed or infected area needs to be tested at least every two weeks until the danger has passed, and those infected must self-isolate until the disease has run its course.
  3. Everyone in an exposed or infected area needs to wear a mask and use a plastic shield when eating in a public place, until the danger has passed.
  4. When a new novel virus arises, everyone needs to be vaccinated for it as soon as a vaccine is available.

We can do this, annoying as it may be. We have gotten used to annoyances in airport security as a result of novel threats, and we can get used to this. We can even solve the massive privacy and personal liberties issues this way of handling pandemics brings up.

There has been much debate about masks. There is no debate that they are advisable whenever either (i) you think you might have a serious virus, or (ii) you are in close physical contact with someone who might have a serious virus. The catch-22 is that because we were (and are still) not equipped to test everyone often, we have absolutely no idea who might have the virus, and we don’t have anywhere near the number of masks that would therefore be needed for essentially everyone to wear until we knew (and recommending them to everyone would put health care workers at risk of running out of the short supply of them). Once they’re freely available, we’d better get used to them. The good news is that if we follow this protocol the length of time we’ll have to continue it will be greatly shortened, and we can get back to business as usual, or at least to the ‘new normal’.

The other immediate preventative action we need to take now was what I identified in my previous post: completely ending the three sources of the recent (last 30 years’) upsurge in viral epidemics — (1) disturbance of the last wild places on the planet that harbour viruses for which there is no natural human immunity, (2) the bushmeat trade including domestication of “exotic” species for food, and (3) factory farming. Ending factory farming (which breeds exotic viruses which result in the miserable death of tens of billions of farmed animals from disease, as well as viruses that then are eaten by humans or mutate to cross the species barrier), will require an enormous shift in our entire food system. But doing so will not only radically reduce pandemic risks, it will also powerfully reduce some of the main drivers of climate change and biodiversity loss, which are also existential threats to all of us. (Not to mention reducing our grotesque inhumanity to other creatures.)

There’s a lot we can learn from what’s happened already. It’s evident that the regime in China completely botched the containment of the SARS CoV-2 (CoVid-19) virus when it crossed the species barrier there from bats or pangolins, and then only barely contained it through cruel and draconian measures. But we’re not going to reform the Chinese regime (or the WHO, which has proved to be completely, perhaps criminally, inept in their handling of this outbreak).

There has been some suggestion that our economy cannot possibly recover until everyone has been exposed to the virus and either died or developed immunity, so we should just expose everyone to it and get it over with. This was clearly the philosophy of some of the advisors to the so-called leaders of the US, UK, Brasil and some other jurisdictions. It was also touted in the early days of some other pandemics in history. Just to put this mad idea into perspective: Best guess is that 1% of those who contract the disease will die from it (varying from 0.1% of young children to 15% or more of those over 70 and those with compromised immune or respiratory systems). Social distancing strives to ensure that, for this pandemic, at most 3% of the population contracts the disease (though many more will be exposed to it). A death rate of 1% of the 3% of the population contracting the disease is 2,200,000 people worldwide. For the US it’s 100,000 people (the number of deaths the UW model currently projects there for the first wave). Those numbers are awful, and these deaths, mostly from suffocation, are ghastly, but they’re only about twice the number that ‘normally’ die from ‘regular’ influenza (which targets the same demographic).

If we exposed everyone to the virus and deliberately allowed everyone to contract the disease, then the global death rate would most probably be 33.3x higher, ie 75 million people, and the US deaths would be 3.3 million people. Ghastly, suffocating deaths, leading to an inevitable collapse of overloaded health care systems’ hospitals and health care workers. And likely riots and murders over access to hospital care and equipment. While there are risks of recurrent waves with any social distancing program, they are obviously worth taking to avoid such an outcome.

There is no question that this disease is going to wreak havoc (it’s already begun) on both global and national economies. We are going to see, first, a large number of business failures, including many household names in vulnerable industry sectors (energy, transportation, hospitality, insurance, real estate & construction, and of course banks). Governments will not be able to bail out all of them, so we’ll see some consolidation, and in most countries some inevitable nationalization. The problem is that, with stocks so ridiculously overpriced, and interest rates so low, corporations have been encouraged to borrow money (called “leveraging”) and use it to buy back their own shares, increasing their vulnerability to profit swings. With the market collapse, many people’s and companies’ investments have lost much of their value, meaning there is less to spend on new activities, and a need to ‘cover’ losses from savings or through new borrowings, which only exacerbates the problem. Like dominoes, we are likely to see business collapses, collapses in energy/minerals exploration and development, employment collapses, price and wage collapses, collapses in credit availability, and then governments going bankrupt (as tax revenues dive) and currency collapses. And with them, there will be a collapse in international trade.

The economy is built on trust, and the whole Ponzi scheme of stock values and real estate values was already teetering before the current crisis. The question will be, after so many of the pillars of our economy have been cracked or weakened, when and even whether people will ever again trust their money to the public markets. This crisis could just be the straw that breaks the back of the fraudulent bubble economy.

For a more detailed discussion of the fragility of our economic system in the current context, check out this excellent interview with Nate Hagens. And this article by Evan Fraser (thanks to Jay Sage for the link) explains the fragility of our food system, all in the interest of “efficiency” and maximizing profits. (The average city has a three-day supply of fresh food for its residents.)

While it may be political gold for a government to be seen to be writing cheques to each one of its citizens to get them over the hump, it is in many countries political suicide to acknowledge the need for a permanent ‘handout’ to every citizen every year. It suggests (quite correctly) that capitalism simply hasn’t worked. It suggests that governments and public services and institutions, which the mainstream media puppets of powerful private interests have been badmouthing and undermining for decades, are not only worth sustaining but absolutely essential to the economic and social health of the country and its people.

I’ve been writing about collapse for about 16 years now — specifically about the unsustainability of, and interconnection between, (affordable) energy, our growth-dependent industrial economy, and our stable climate and viable ecosystems. My research has convinced me that they will all come to an end in this century, but in fits and starts, leading to the end of what we know as our modern global civilization, and a chaotic period of adaptation by all creatures on the planet facing the conclusion of the sixth great extinction. My argument is that these systems can’t be reformed to make them work; and that after they collapse what will take their place will be unimaginably different from (and, I think, in the long run, better than) human societies as we know them today.

Is this the first domino in that collapse? Is this a timely wake-up call to alert us to what is to come and what must now be done? Will nothing ever be the same again?What does this all mean for the longer-term situation for our struggling planet and its human civilization?

The poster at the top of this post summarizes some of the fervent hopes that have arisen out of this crisis. Might we finally have free universal health care for all? And perhaps even a guaranteed annual income for everyone?

My sense as a student of history is that, even if CoVid-19 turns out to be much worse than hoped, we won’t learn much from the experience, and any changes that are made will be temporary.

I’ve listened (thanks to Janaia Donaldson and others for the link) to Nafeez Ahmed talking with Asher Miller about these questions, and have read all the books on systems collapse they refer to in their introduction. I’ve read (thanks to Tree Bressen for the link) Ian Paul’s fascinating Premises for a Pandemic. I confess I don’t share their optimism. They perceive the global crisis response to CoVid-19 (as many did during the Great Depression) as a (potentially) permanent shift in culture, values, programs etc, whereas IMO it is only a short-term reaction that people will forget as soon as possible and shrug off as an unfortunate, embarrassing and temporary aberration.

We haven’t learned from previous pandemics, even the most recent ones. There’s no reason to believe we’ll learn from this one either. The kind of holistic systems thinking that they prescribe as needed to deal with these crises is simply not human nature. All of our specialist/silo-based institutional structures and systems show this. We devalue generalists and radical creatives, and distrust not-invented-here solutions. This crisis has made us more xenophobic, not less.

If we could get out of our idealistic, humanistic, ‘progressivist’ bubble I think we would see that most citizens won’t blame Trump or Johnson for the excess deaths the models indicate might have been avoided, no matter what these clowns do, just as they have not blamed politicians in power for all the needless deaths in recent and ongoing wars and bombings, haven’t blamed the industrial food and other industrial systems for the untold suffering and death that our encouraged and addictive bad eating habits and unnatural food supplies have incontrovertibly produced, and haven’t blamed capitalism for our ghastly, deadly inequality and the destruction of our planet’s life systems.

The writing on the wall has been plain to see for at least a decade now, and most people have refused to look at it, not because they’re stupid, but because they don’t like the message. Most of us are “all in” invested in the stories of hard-won progress and inevitable suffering we’ve been told all our lives, and cannot hear any other story. (Trump’s MAGA and Biden’s Restore the Soul of America are identical, reactionary messages, just seen through different worldview lenses.) We will listen to the demagogues who say this is someone else’s fault, this is temporary, an unfortunate aberration, that this was unavoidable, that this is life. And most importantly, we will listen to promises that we can get back to the way things were. Even those who can hardly remember when things were even OK.

So my sense at this stage (I hope to be proved wrong) is that nothing will change in terms of human behaviour, processes, systems and infrastructure, except temporarily. Our valiant, struggling, suffering species is and has always been concerned with the needs of the moment. We only change when we believe we have no other choice, and that point has not yet come.

Nate (in the video linked above) explains how he sees humanity/Earth/Gaia as a kind of super-organism: “Right now the super-organism has been checked into the hospital and is being treated for a virus. The question is, when it’s discharged from the hospital, which might be in a couple of months, or a couple of years, will it listen to its ‘doctors’ or will it go back to its gluttonous ways?… As individuals, we can choose to live differently, but once this is over, when the cost of energy is so low, our collective default will be to try to go back to the old system.”

Just as we have become used to removing our shoes, at airport security, and at friends’ houses, we may get used to putting on masks, and other seemingly excessive and annoying actions. But we won’t give up our dream, of how things are and should be and must be, so easily.

Nate is saying, however, that unrecoverable economic collapse is coming, probably starting over the next decade, and that, not CoVid-19, will likely be our real, way-too-late, wake-up call. That seems about right.

Stay safe, everyone.

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5 Responses to CoVid-19, Complexity & Collapse: The Long Game

  1. Qassem Suleimani says:


    Perhaps it is an academic question to you- but are you sure that the virus came from bats or pangolins?

    Do we really know that?

    Take care,

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    No, Raf, we don’t know. Just as we don’t know much at all about viruses. What we do know is that both bats and pangolins have a natural immunity to SARS-CoV-2 (and to a lot of other viruses that have not — yet — crossed the species barrier), that both bats and pangolins are native to Wuhan, and now raised in confined spaces for human food. While I’m sure there are other ways to connect the dots, this seems to have been a similar vector to that of HIV, SARS-CoV-1, Ebola, and quite a few bird/swine flu viruses. If you’re wondering whether it was deliberately manufactured, I would say it is very unlikely — we’re not smart enough to fine tune viruses enough to do what malice to our ‘enemies’ we might want them to do. Whether or not some group might have deliberately decided to encourage the eating of meat from species known to harbour “novel” (not yet found in humans) viruses, in the hopes it would cause a pandemic, that’s certainly possible. Though getting people to change their diets is notoriously difficult. Apparently there is a lot of poverty in the areas around Wuhan, and people who are hungry eat when, and what, they can. Everywhere.

  3. Qassem Suleimani says:

    Thanks, Daoud!

    So, you think it unlikely that this virus escaped some lab in Wuhan? (So, I´m not suggesting that it was deliberately released).

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Yeah, I think unlikely. Another novel virus, either HxNx or CoV, has been predicted for almost a decade, and it’s statistically overdue. I think there will be lots more, an average of two a decade or so, unless we clean up our environmental act, which I don’t think at this point we could do even if we wanted to — we’re too invested in the current destruction. Sooner or later one of them will be particularly virulent, and if we’re lucky it will just kill a lot of people really fast and obviously before we lock it down. Some countries will be more lucky, or prepared, than others. But the microbes will have the last word — they can mutate faster than we could ever catch up to them. In this sense it’s not unlike the Big One overdue to hit the Pacific NW. We’re prepared for a Medium One, but can never be ready for the Big One. Cost of prep would be astronomical. And the Big One is coming. Just a matter of when.

  5. Qassem Suleimani says:

    Thank you!

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