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April 27, 2009
Swine Flu: The Latest
Deadly Enemy of Sophisticated Man
When man first learned to walk upright and he began to assemble himself
into familial groups for survival, what he chiefly had to worry about
were other animals bigger than him. These were animals that might either
eat him or that he needed to himself eat, but for which he lacked the
tools to do the job by himself.
Gradually, slowly, mankind mastered those animals, leading to what some
students of the distant past believe were widespread extinctions. As
these happened, mankind also developed more sophisticated ways to live
in groups, forming the first permanent settlements. As this happened,
mankind’s chief natural terror ceased to be animals bigger than himself
and instead became so small he couldn’t see them with the naked eye.
The first disease epidemic, at least according in the history of Western
civilization, is believed to have struck the city of Athens a few
centuries before the birth of Christ. About one-third of the city’s
population is recorded to have died.
Thanks to the growth in cities and routes established between them for
commerce and travel, epidemics and pandemics have been a part of the
human condition since. There have been a few outbreaks of particular
note – the Black Plague during the Middle Ages and the Spanish flu
pandemic that came at the close of World War I tend to stand out in
history – and run a wide range of different bacteria and viruses.
When we think we’ve got one licked – say, tuberculosis – it adjusts to
our medicines and becomes more terrifying than ever. When we actually
defeat one – say, smallpox – another rushes in to fills the void, a
stark reminder that nature hates a vacuum. What has filled the void left
by the defeat of smallpox is today the influenza virus.
Health experts are not confident that what appeared to be the sudden
outbreak of swine flu in Mexico can be contained. They have good reason.
Life tends to not respond well to human constraints. It moves around or
overcomes those constraints, reminding us that the control we think we
exert over the natural world is a naďve illusion.
this case, the swine flu has potentially exploited human insecurity. It
is, in fact, related to what prompted our ancestors to band together for
protection. Back then, we were weak animals possessing few tools except
the ability to reason. That ability to reason has led to great cities
and nations where conditions are both ripe for the spread of
communicable disease, and also ruled by men subject to insecurities
expressed as political squabbling.
Through human history, that abetted the purposeful spread of disease for
political pursuits. Invading armies used the Black Plague as a weapon
against besieged cities; North America was conquered by a handful of
Europeans thanks to tuberculosis and smallpox; and the Japanese rained
disease on unsuspecting Chinese civilians during World War II.
Today, disease is aided in its spread by the inability of governments to
formulate unified plans or to even share information quickly. American
health officials reportedly learned of the swine flu late because the
relevant health agencies remain leaderless due to partisan squabbling,
and because of frayed relationships from the past decade.
Whether those problems will allow the swine flu to spread further or
more rapidly will be something we know only in hindsight. They’ll be
first judged by whether the outbreak becomes – as some health experts
fear – another pandemic, and only second by institutional response.
it turns out to be true, what we’ll learn is nothing new. We’ll learn
that nature hates a vacuum, allowing microbes to replace the
saber-toothed tiger and mastodon, and that our chief rival may not be
able to think but, despite our ability to reason and accompanying sense
of hubris, is a danger because it is capable of using our own human
frailties against us.
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