Over the past four decades we have rebuilt our economy to center on megacities, mass travel and supply chains that wrap around the globe several times over, all of which coincidentally make nice wide superhighways for wayward viruses. That system makes us richer than any generation in human history, but it also makes us extraordinarily vulnerable. Emerging illnesses can skip continents before we even know they exist, giving us little time to prepare or react.
This is the stuff of nightmares and also the plot of a fair number of post-apocalyptic books, movies and television shows. These stories are familiar enough that when we confront an out-of-control and potentially fatal virus in real life, we can’t help but wonder whether our seemingly solid civilization isn’t a lot more fragile than it usually appears.
We can’t close down those particular roads without also slowing down the economic growth that our societies have come to expect and depend upon. Moreover, our hyper-specialization makes us vulnerable to catastrophe in a particular way that earlier societies were not, because the majority of us are trained to be cogs in that vast and complicated economic machine, not autonomous individuals. An Italian peasant could go on as ever while cities fell and trade networks shriveled; a modern retail worker cannot. And even most of our farmers would be hard-pressed to do much without a steady supply of fuel, pesticides and chemical fertilizer.
Now that I’ve sent a few shivers down your spine, however, let me point out that, despite our obvious vulnerabilities, we are also in some key ways much better armored against this particular sort of disaster than our predecessors ever were.
For one thing, rich-world citizens are far healthier than the people of late antiquity, or medieval Europe, or even 1918. Compared to even the wealthiest citizens of those times, we still eat better, safer food; live in cleaner and better-ventilated homes; are less likely to suffer from chronic infections; and more reliably separate our sewage from our water supply. That advantage looks even more stark when we turn to the average citizens of those eras, whose diets were monotonous, low on protein and devoid of fresh produce for months at a time, not to mention frequently contaminated by cooks with dirty hands or spoiled by heat and pests.
Better nutrition means that our bodies have more reserves available to fight invading pathogens. Better sanitation means that pathogens have a harder time spreading from person to person, and that even when one does make it through all our defenses, our immune systems can really focus on the threat. When we do get sick, our health-care system can provide antibiotics to treat secondary infections, and intravenous fluids to keep us hydrated, reducing mortality even if there is no direct treatment for the disease.
Thanks, too, to centuries of specialization, we actually know how infectious diseases spread. So when an epidemic gets underway, we don’t waste time on sacrifices to propitiate angry gods or fretting about deadly miasmas seeping in with the night air. Instead, we use our superior knowledge and resources to keep our hands clean, our faces covered, our homes free of pests that serve as disease vectors and our patients isolated in hospitals that can treat them rather than spreading infection to family members who can’t.
Those resources can also be used to attack diseases head-on; humans are reading the DNA of the Wuhan coronavirus, tracking mutations and looking for its source. Meanwhile, well-funded U.S. government labs are already testing a medicine to fight coronaviruses, part of a program to address emerging infectious threats.
Could we be better prepared for a pandemic? Of course, and we should be. The advent of antibiotics and to some extent antivirals has made even our health-care systems too complacent about fighting infectious disease, something that should be both a medical and a political priority. But even as we prepare, we should probably be less worried that our complexity makes us vulnerable to collapse and more grateful it has given us the resources to actually fight those emerging threats.