What We REALLY Think About Pandemics!

Keel CalmPandemics are nothing new. Back in the day of the Romans, a plague was sweeping the world… or at least what they considered the world! Anthony and Cleopatra (yup, that Cleopatra) were about to sweep away the opposing Roman navy, BUT… the Egyptians caught the plague and most of the oarsmen called out sick. Results? Cleopatra’s navy ended up on the bottom of the sea. Don’t mourn for Cleo, if her navy had won the world would be very different, and the news crawl on the evening news would be in hieroglyphics! Pandemics can change everything!

A century ago the Spanish Flu swept the world and took millions of lives. Global endemics don’t just happen to humans, they can target livestock or crops. Have you ever heard of the Panama disease? It was harmless to humans but deadly to bananas. In the 1950’s it wiped out the world’s banana crop. It made the banana EXTINCT!

You may be asking yourself, “Then what is that curiously shaped yellow-skinned fruit I had this morning with my breakfast?”It is a banana, of course. But… and here’s the important part… it is a DIFFERENT banana than the one people ate before the 1950s. It took a decade, but a new type of Panama resistant banana was planted around the world. Not everyone liked the new banana… the taste was a little different, it bruised more easily, had to be harvested and packed differently. But eventually, we embraced the new… slightly crappier… banana.

But just like the flu and the coronavirus, new versions of the Panama disease can evolve. The clock is ticking. A new epidemic is expected that will kill the banana yet again. But the banana’s need to get in line behind the very symbol of Florida’s agriculture, the Orange.

The average American is blissfully unaware of the fierce battle that has raged across Florida for the last decade. The Greening virus doesn’t kill oranges. Instead, it stops oranges from maturing and turning sweet. Once infected, fruits from infected orange trees become sour and have no commercial value. A recent study showed that every single commercial orange grove in Florida is infected. Not every tree is infected, but the number of infected trees in each orchard increases every year.

The only “treatment” is to burn infected trees. As this blight grows, farms become less and less profitable. For farmers, infected orange trees are like infected Zombies slowly marching across their fields, turning healthy productive trees into undead trees that will continue to turn more trees until it is uprooted and destroyed. Millions of orange trees are now burned every year, which is incredibly expensive. In a few more years it will cost too much to fight the plague of zombie oranges, oranges will march into the sunset arm in arm (or whatever) with the banana.

But enough about our vegetable brethren. What about us? Human beings, people, civilization! Well, we’re kind of screwed. But don’t despair! We’ve been easing our way into this disaster for decades! My inbox is filled with emails where someone observes, “Hey, did you ever read that book where this infection covers the world, and then everyone dies?” Uhhhh… yes. I have. I read the book, saw the movie, and binge-watched the series.

Here’s some news for the HUGE number of occasional sci-fi readers. This isn’t anything new. It’s a genre of sci-fi. Writers have been writing about natural and artificial plagues for decades! There’s a whole other genre where real plagues are written about, or serve as the foundation of a fictional story. Quite a few books have been written about the devastating Spanish Flu (Note: this came from the US, and was spread around the world as American soldiers fought in WWI).

Why are we fascinated about plagues? I think the Spanish Flu explains it best. This plague and others, whether endemic or pandemic, made a big impact. People were powerless against plagues. In cities where many families were packed into one building, one child would live and one would die. It looked very much like the visible hand of God picking and choosing who lived and died. At the time of the Spanish Flu, medical science was just starting to understand how viruses work. Science might save humanity. Science might put an end to plagues. As babies lived rather than died, mothers might not wail out in the night when their child succumbed to the disease that wretched their small bodies.

Any anti–vaxers in the audience? Been having fun during the lockdown? Have you been listening carefully about the mere possibility that a vaccine might be developed before you lose someone dear to you? Strange, isn’t it, how your opinions about the value of the medical/vaccine industry have evolved over the last month? Suddenly interested in learning how “herd immunity” might save you and your family if the virus comes back?

Until a couple of months ago, the anti-vaccine movement was on the rise. Diseases that had been wiped out, like Measles, have come back and local epidemics have broken out. After the horrors of plagues in the early 20th century, how could we turn our backs on the cure? In part because by the 1990s few American’s and Europeans had ever seen a plague. Add to that a growing suspicion of the medical industry and science in general. After all, by then everyone knew about (or thought they knew about) bioweapons, and genetic engineering, and Frankenfood. It was fertile ground for paranoid theories.

It is in this fertile ground that new ideas for books developed. Ideas about what could go wrong, what WAS going wrong around the world, crept into our literature. This has been going on for a long time. We have all been shaped by these ideas, but we barely noticed it. Think about it. In the 1960s we began to worry about government-developed “bio-weapons”. By the 1970s and 1980s, AIDs… and later Ebola… became front-page news. Stories shifted from government labs to the horrors of nature. Consider…

War of the Worlds (1898): We paid so much attention to Martians, that we forget about the “red weed”, plants that the Martians used to terraform the earth. But in the end, the Martians were killed off by whatever seasonal crap they caught. OK, it was a Martian Plague, but a plague nonetheless.

I Am Legend (1954): This story of the pandemic goes one step further. After everyone in the world is killed by a virus, they later rise from the dead! Instead of the usual zombie hoard, these undead are vampires. So, after the lockdown, we’re supposed to wait for the undead uprising? Prepare for the locked-and-loaded showdown once the lockdown expires. Hey! Think about all of the armed 2nd amendment protesters! They want to end the lockdown. They’re already armed! They’d make the perfect zombie bait! HEY… don’t look at me that way. You were thinking it too!

Andromeda Strain (1969): Here the disease comes from outer space on a crashed satellite. The world’s best scientists are gathered in an underground bunker to solve the problem. Yada yada. The twist is that the military was looking for a bioweapon! How about that as a crazy idea! Governments creating world ending viruses. Luckily, we don’t live in a sci-fi world where the leaders are all power-mad idiots who would kill off half of the world’s population so that the line for their morning coffee is a little shorter. I mean leaders of the world that don’t understand basic science, the military creating secret weapons, maneuvering for which nation is the most powerful in the world. I mean… uhhh… unlikely… enlightened democracy? CRAP. We’re screwed.

The Stand (1978): Virus, wipes out the world. Yawn! It was well written, but even by the 1970s the whole pandemic theme was a bit tired. Oh. I almost forgot. There is also a battle between God and the Devil. It sold well!

The Hot Zone (1995): While this was an incredibly popular book and the term “Hot Zone” even entered the English language, I think it’s just an OK Novel. Sure a killer virus could evolve in the middle of the jungle. And Yeah, it could quickly spread into undeveloped villages near the jungle “wilderness”. I’ll even let the massive death count stand and the idea that every nation on earth needed to get together to stop it from spreading. But it does stretch credibility. And… what?… it’s not a novel? This really happened? On planet earth? CRAP. We’re screwed.

The Zombie Survival Guide (2003): As zombie books and movies became ever more popular, by 2000 every teenage boy knew that pandemics are always followed by a zombie apocalypse! That’ s why building a zombie bug-out kit is a “thing” for teens. If you’re a teenager, you’ve been preparing for this all of your life. The good news is that there is no sign yet of the zombies. The bad news is that the Baby Boomers already burned down your world… plagues, global warming, the coming recession, etc. You’re the last one to show up for dinner, just in time to see your parents head off to their retirement villa home while the waiter is approaching to hand you the bill! (With or without zombies, you are sooooooooo screwed!)

World War Z (2006): Max Brooks, the writer of the Zombie Survival Guide, later wrote this popular book (and still later, movie). He wasn’t the first to conceive of the pandemic starting in a region of China, but he did make the idea popular. So. Pandemics, deaths, destroyed economies, Zombies, government labs, and a virus from China! Yep! I think this is where we get off!

Hmmm… what? Sorry… I didn’t see you there. I was busy building my Zombie Bug-Out kit. What do we really think about pandemics? Well, there is fear. But there is also hope. And opportunity. Should we fear the inevitable Zombies? No. I don’t think so. American’s need to work together. Even the palest and slowest Americans. Besides, if a Zombie can be Vice-President of the US, all of us have a role to play in build the Post-Pandemic world!

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