The pandemic gets worse—why?

Burying plague victims in medieval Tournai (then in France). Public domain image. Source.

It’s probably not news to you that the COVID-19 pandemic is getting worse in the United States. Here are three questions. First, why is the pandemic getting worse? Second, what are the practical implications? Finally, who wants to repeat this experiment in another few years with a different disease?

I know you’re busy, so here are the answers: the pandemic is getting worse because of the economy, specifically including livestock agriculture. The practical implications are that somewhere between a half million and a million Americans could die. (As of July 5, we were at 129,576.) And apparently, repeating this whole experiment in another few years—or perhaps as early as next month—is a crowd favorite.

The pandemic is getting worse because no one wants to “hurt the economy.” It’s easy to point the finger at President Trump or the Republicans, and say “there’s your reason.” Well, they’re not helping; but the dilemma would be much the same if a Democrat were President. No one wants to hurt the economy, and economic interests in this country are unusually strong—much stronger, both in absolute and relative terms, than in other countries. There’s a lot of wealth and there’s a lot of inequality.

The way to control the virus is to take actions that will hurt the economy. You can minimize this impact in various ways—require face masks in public, for example—but that’s the problem. And the most sacred part of our economy is the livestock industry. This is the “essential industry” that the President has protected despite the fact that dealing with animals started the pandemic in China and has aggressively spread it around the world. Slaughterhouses are driving COVID-19 cases in rural areas of the country, and workers have to stay at work even though many of them are dying. Since slaughterhouses disproportionately employ people of color, this brutal and cynical treatment of slaughterhouse workers is another aspect of a racist system.

Livestock is a global problem. Germany, which had been doing well, suffered an outbreak in mid-June in which about 400 slaughterhouse workers tested positive for COVID-19. The obvious first step to truly containing the pandemic is to shut down the slaughterhouses at least until the pandemic is over. But here in the U. S. A., we can’t contemplate more than minimal restrictions, even as a temporary measure, without having a political meltdown. The livestock industry is that powerful.

Slaughterhouses already have some of the highest turnover rates in the nation. By U.S. Government Accountability Office from Washington, DC, United States – Figure 7: Workers in a Hog Slaughter and Processing Plant Use Hooks and Other Tools, Public Domain, Link

Strictly speaking, it is probably possible to control the pandemic without severely restricting the slaughterhouses. We could control the pandemic everywhere else, while sacrificing the lives and the health of slaughterhouse workers and their families. But keeping the slaughterhouses going in this way is obviously cynical, brutal, and racist.

This means that about half a million to a million Americans will die in order to preserve the livestock industry. Here’s the math, going with the current plausible assumptions. The R0 value is over 5 in “natural conditions” (translation: highly contagious) and the mortality is about 0.5%. If we did absolutely nothing to stop COVID-19’s spread, then 80% of Americans would need to get COVID-19 before we’d get to “herd immunity.” That would be over a million Americans dead (330 million * 80% * .005 = 1.32 million).

But we could take some protections. We don’t know exactly what the effects on the R value would be for different protocols. But let’s suppose that we say that everyone has to wear a face mask in public places and we get 70% compliance, and let’s say this policy reduces the R value to 1.5. That’s a huge improvement! That would mean that only 1/3 of all Americans would contract COVID-19 and 550,000 Americans would die before “herd immunity” would kick in.

The basic trade-off is the economy versus human life. Of course, we could get lucky; we might get a safe, effective vaccine next month. Or we could get unlucky; those who have gotten COVID-19 might lose their immunity after about a year and could get it again, year after year, sort of like a deadlier version of the flu.

Who wants to repeat this experiment? Don’t all raise your hands at once! According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, there’s a new virus (a version of the H1N1 virus) that has spread from pigs to humans on a pig farm in China. Fauci says that it is not an immediate threat to humans. But another scientist said that “the virus looks quite dangerous.”

Again, we could lucky with this new virus. Next year it could be completely forgotten. But there are others where that one came from. How many times do you want to roll the dice? In recent decades “emerging infectious diseases” has become its own subject area, with new diseases like AIDS, Ebola, SARS, MERS, swine flu, and now COVID-19 constantly emerging.

These plagues could be a continual problem for human civilization for some time to come. Remember the “Black Death” from the 14th century, that killed off about half the population of Europe? It was probably less contagious than COVID-19 but much, much deadlier. The Black Death was not a one-off event; the plague continued to affect Europe every decade or so for about 300 years, into the 17th century.

We could be in for a similar experience. We might be facing a continual stream of pandemics for decades, or longer.

This is completely pointless! Most of these emerging infectious diseases are a consequence of our treatment of animals. Humans and their livestock have totally overrun the planet and now constitute over 95% of the large land animal biomass on the earth. (And that’s mostly livestock, not humans!) We need to jettison this part of our economy.

We know a lot more than they did in the 14th century. But evidently what we still have not learned is the value of human life.

3 Replies to “The pandemic gets worse—why?”

  1. I wonder how many pandemics it will take before people wake up and realize that our abuse of animals has consequences? Whether you want to call it karma, divine retribution or biological feedback, we cannot keep doing what we are doing to animals and the natural world without negative consequences.

    1. Exactly. It would be good to keep educating people, but even if we are not able to get people’s attention, events will do much the same thing.

  2. Thanks for another thoughtful post.

    In case you were not aware of the coincidence, today is World Zoonoses Day. Readers can watch Ms. Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and Mr. Jimmy Smith, Director of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), discuss the launch of the report, “Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission,” over on UN Web TV. They are marketing an approach called “One Health.”

    Here is a 1-minute clip:

    Unfortunately, the UN stops short of directly recommending plant-based diets. I am sure that will change, but I am also sure that future generations will struggle to understand why it took so long.

    All the best.

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