Adaptation to the Age of Pandemics
Science has delivered recent blessings to mankind along with some challenges, the most dangerous of which may be new microrganisms. Our creative scientists have found or created powerful weapons, like various antibiotics, which attack and destroy bacteria, viruses and funguses which sicken people, but at a cost. And even with an array of new treatments, it’s difficult for doctors and other scientists to stay ahead of the germ universe.
In sum, there’s a continuing war in each of us with moving front lines: science develops a new drug, and the target microorganism then mutates and survives what medical technology throws at it. The key reality check is that parts of the complex world within each of our bodies are very smart, and over time that internal microbiome may defeat the best current medicines. Our body’s billions of microscopic components sometimes go through random mutations, and occasionally one or more mutations produce a modified microorganism which can defeat even a champion drug. Such mutations extend or intensify the patient’s health problems.
There are factors which point to future pandemics being more frequent and more severe than what man has experienced. One driver of increased vulnerability is that there are more of us. With 7.5 billion men, women and children on the planet, and frequent travel by many of us, there are greater opportunities for pathogens to infect communities. Health costs will slow or be reversed as population growth stops.
The nature and frequency of these problems and of necessary responses are difficult to predict. But we can safely assume that in the future there will be greater awareness of man’s vulnerability to mutant microprobes, and also continuing social, political and scientific efforts to protect people. One result may be that the next decade will see less long-distance travel, and more staying close to home, for both business and pleasure. The new home-body ethic may be less extreme than the “shelter in place” and “social distancing” orders now in force, but will still be significantly more restrictive than we enjoy in our present lifestyles.
The coronavirus will not go away, and there are almost certainly successor pathogens, at least as deadly, down the road. That reality should discourage mixing, unprotected, with large groups of people. On the positive side, many have learned that spending more time with family and friends, rather than traveling long distances to work every day, has important benefits.
The pandemic shadow will also be an incentive to slow and reverse climate change and reduce industrial pollution levels. Science tells us that a hotter planet encourages insects and pathogens to expand their geographic range, as has occurred with malaria. On top of that, here is evidence that prolonged exposure to heavy pollution increases vulnerability to Covid19 mutations and other diseases.
Threats of pandemics have been with Homo sapiens from our start and will likely continue indefinitely. As an optimist, I submit that serious pandemics encourage all of us to look critically at how we live, and that may be a very good thing.