Bangkok. Pandemic Journal. Day 8. Sunday 29 March 2020
The Pandemic is a trial run. Climate change lockdowns: sooner than you think.
Our New Ecology
The scientific community is doing an incredible job covering the technical side of the COVID-19 virus. We also have many reports from doctors, nurses, and patients from around the world relating their experiences of working conditions, protective equipment shortages, and treatment regimes. We are becoming familiar with terms like exponential growth, inflexion points, viral peak readings, viral shedding, and drug trial protocols.
What is missing is some idea of what our world will look like once the pandemic has finished sweeping through the global population. There isn’t enough data to know what percentage of the global population will be infected or the number of infected people who will die with or from COVID-19. Whatever those final figures prove to be, one certainty in the midst of our current chaotic, uncertain moment of time is the future we will inherit will be different from the world of 2019. The shape of the new world remains in a haze of possibility. We are inside a quantum fog and what emerges will depend on events, conditions, and randomness in combinations that are based on low information making our probability forecasts bracketed by large error bars.
Here are a few ideas about features of the post-pandemic period.
Our rooms as incubation chambers
One idea is our ideas about 'rooms' will change after this. As I wrote in Rooms: On Human Submission and Domestication (2019) our species has gone from a mobile nomadic culture to one that inhabits a ‘room culture.’ We’ve lived in the room culture for the past 6,000 years. Living in dense clusters close to animals was like throwing a match into a dry forest. It was only a matter of time before a wildfire swept through. For the last 6,000 years we endured many epidemics, fattening towns and cities and destroying empires. Pericles ruled over Athens when a plague hit the city in 430BC during the midst of a war with Sparta. Isaac Newton, as a boy in the 17th century escaped with his family to the countryside of England to wait out an epidemic that swept London. Here he had the time to contemplate the world of mathematics and science. The 1918 Spanish flu is the last major pandemic. That was over a hundred years ago before our modern global transportation system changed the speed and rate of viral transmission.
This won’t be the last pandemic. We float in a sea of invisible viruses. According to Carl Zimmer in his New York Times article 24 March 2020, scientists estimate there are trillions of viruses. Scientists have named and studied slightly less that 7,000 viruses. What deadly new viruses lurk around the corner we can’t say with any certainty. Our experience with this COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold in a dramatic fashion. It is the rapid speed of the doubling of the infections that creates the drama. One becomes a billion over a short period of time. The train that goes from 100 miles an hour is suddenly accelerating to a million miles an hour. There is no time to move out of the way.
The elephant in the room: Climate change
Our COVID-19 pandemic experience will reshape the attitudes and beliefs of a post-pandemic public. These updated attitudes and beliefs come at the right time. There is another train gaining speed on the track where we stand. This train has a less dramatic doubling but ultimately far more lethal danger to the global population: climate change.
Pandemics will feature as only one of the collateral problems caused by climate change. Disease(s), new and deadly, along with more events of extreme heat, droughts, flooding, loss of biodiversity, will place the COVID-19 pandemic in a different perspective—an isolated, terrifying but controllable event. Where we are heading there will be little chance of control after a threshold is reached. No going back. No cure to turn the dial back on the climate. We won’t be able to invent vaccines or drug or innovate a new system of hospital/home ventilators to save us from the worst impact of climate change.
Our scientists and researchers are fighting one virus and you can see how difficult that fight has been and we’ve just begun to mobilize our resources in the fight. Take these frontline troops and send them against the forces that continue to ensure that exponential changes to our climate make large parts of the planet no longer habitable for us, plants or other animals.
What COVID-19 has taught us are a several lessons. Science and scientific research is of fundamental importance. Research and development must be a priority. We need a global Manhattan style commitment of personnel and resources. We need to act now. No more patience with those voting for sky god remedies. The second lesson is related to the first. In one word: Preparedness. We are as unprepared for the impact of climate change as we have been for a pandemic. COVID-19 is the alarm going off. Even at the early stage, politicians and large numbers of people are rolling over and going back to sleep. They are pushing the snooze button. That attitude is causing panic and a sense of doom. We need to wake from the dream that the world constructed from our belief system is sufficient to give us control over the ecology we inhabit.
The pandemic period of virtual lockdown will produce evidence to remove any doubt about human activity as a major contributions to changing the climate. We are burning less fossil fuel. The atmospheric measurements of C02 will reflect the reduction. Climate deniers will be confronted with evidence of the reduction of CO2 levels as the global economic system shutdown.
The Loss of the pre-2019 world ecology
We can’t return because that was the perfect space for the virus that infected us. We have no choice but to alter it to a new ecology that will be less hospitable to virus infection. That will require some major adjustments.
We can’t return to our old ecology of normal. It’s gone. That ecology was used as the perfect spawning place for the virus. The fragility in what we built wasn’t obvious until now. It takes a dramatic event like a pandemic for us to see how vulnerable we were. We will soon realize that we have no choice but to build a new ecology that will be less hospitable to virus infection. We will go through a lot of soul-searching. How and why did we ignore the many simulations, studies and research reports by experts that warned us this attack was only a matter of time.
We ignored those warning. Because we are practical people who want to about our lives have a beer and laugh with friends, go to a concert or sports event on our daughter’s class play. Our life was weaved out of social relationships set in many public places from bars, parks, museums, libraries, restaurants, comedy clubs, and concert halls. That was our vulnerability on display but we chose to ignore the possibility of an extreme event. One that was bound to happen. We closed our minds to idea a virus might use that ecology against us. But that is what is happening now: COVID19 is finely evolved to exploit our old way of life. We were the perfect host packed into all of those rooms. They picked the lock. Once inside they had us cornered.
What lies in the future is unknown. The best we can do is consider the possibilities of what comes next. Prepare ourselves for the changes that must come. It’s better to review a lot of options, some alien to our old way of life, but necessary conditions if our lives are to continue.
Around the world engineers and scientists will create waves of innovations to protect security and protection in what people agree is a dangerous world. Our culture will change. Our new heroes will be doctors, nurses, immunologists, virologists, microbiologists, epidemiologists, mathematicians. Rather than sports stars, celebrities and billionaires, people in these fields will emerge as the members of society we look up to, trust, admire and wish to emulate. The cultural producers will re-engineer their story telling. Our narrative will shift. Songwriters will write songs about them. Novelists will feature them in thrillers, mysteries, romance, and science fiction scenarios. Film makers will make them heroes.
Future lockdowns and adaptations
Can we go back to the 2019 world way of doing things and living? The idea many cling to is after the pandemic passes the survivors will return to the old ecology. We pick up the pieces and go on with our lives. That is an aspiration unlikely to be realized. An inconvenient truth no one wants to think about as we’ve just awakened in a panic to what is happening in every corner of the globe. Some places are already in the future. They are reporting their experience to us living in what their past two or three weeks ago. Read Francesca MeLandri’s letter from Italy to the UK in the Guardian.
Rooms and transportation system will be constructed to comply with a global lockdown code. Lockdowns will become a permanent feature of life. We will be sealed tight for varying periods of time.
Look for a transformation in the design, materials and construction of buildings, planes, buses, taxis, cruise ships, passenger vans, and cars. Most of these transportation modes are based on high density of users. Safe space between people is not built into our public transportation system. They will need to be redesigned. People will use them less. Travel by bicycle or on foot will become preferred methods until single person use vehicles or vehicles with separation components are invented and deployed. No will want to breathe the air of nearby strangers, brush against them, or touch the surfaces touched by strangers..
Buildings will likely change in multiple ways that we can’t imagine now. New structures will use different materials. The high tech revolution will result in redesigned, reconfigured living and working spaces. It’s not just future pandemics from the impacts of climate change which will act as a risk multiplier. The COVID-19 pandemic is a trial run for a number of events more dangerous, sweeping and long-lasting. We may have learned the lesson to be totally unprepared costs millions of lives. While the loss of life will be great in absolute numbers during the pandemic, COVID-19 is not an existential event. The billions who will survive the pandemic may ultimately perish in the decades ahead through extreme heat, drought, water shortages, and extreme weather events. Our pandemic will have been a mild jolt by comparison.
We will need a number of innovations and technological advances in order to realize a more robust, less fragile ecology for our species. These changes will fundamentally change how, when and where we shop, play, work, educate our children, exercise and travel.
Range of adaptations in Post-Pandemic, Climate Changing world
The idea of clean rooms will spread from labs to other workplaces. This is the beginning of a working list of the range of changes to come.
Windows and doors will change. Size, positioning, reflection capability, materials.
Entry ways to buildings. Building entrance will be redesigned to reduce outside contamination. The separation between outside and inside will be defined by a series of disinfectant protocols. Shoes and clothes monitors. Body temperature checks.
Kitchens. Surfaces, counters, floor areas designed to resist bacterial and virus colonies. Placement of sinks and appliances with need contamination monitors. Cleaning routines will be monitored by third-parties, including the government ensure health requirements do not fall below a certain level.
Bedrooms. Infra ray bed monitors to measure heat, temperature, bacterial and virus levels. Alarms when levels are exceeded. One bed. One person. No more sleeping in the same bed.
Share spaces. Living and sitting rooms will have different spatial configurations to keep people at a distance. Heat and temperature sensors with real time reading of anybody in the space. A narrow range of outsiders will be allowed in share spaces and for limited periods of time.
Lifts. Ventilation systems mandatory. Rules on the number of people in the lift at one time. The control panel no longer touched by your figure. Voice activates. “7th Floor,” you say into a speaker and the lift takes you to that floor. You touch no surface inside the lift. An alarm goes off if you do so. Security removes you and you have a serious penalty for violating the rules.
Air-con systems with new sensors and filter capabilities that can be monitored by the appropriate agency.
Door handles and knobs replaced by voice activated systems.
Decontamination stations required to be used before entering any building. Sensors that read contamination levels and entry is denied if the level is exceeded.
Redesigned sinks with taps operated by foot pedals. Shoes designed with daily replaceable soles. One time use of clothes.
Room monitors for bacteria and virus counts.
Every condo, house, dwelling and workplace will maintain a digital decontamination record and all violations recorded, and in extreme cases the unit condemned and destroyed. No unit can be sold without due diligence on the decontamination history.
No more hospitals as we know them which are now like shopping malls with all diseased people in one central place.
Home testing for blood and stool readings to monitor infections.
All new buildings will be required to meet stringent lockdown conditions. Existing structures will have a grace period to comply with lockdown rules designed specifically for building constructed pre-2020.
We will change how we build and where we build schools. We will rethink the relationship between schools and education. The chances are education will no longer be thought of as primarily a function of physical schools and universities. The pandemic will give us guidance over the next two years how our ideas about education have evolved into a new system.
How we design, use, and maintain spaces will fundamentally alter. Large stadiums won't be built. The existing ones will be pulled down or left empty. They will be classed as death domes. Sports and entertainment will move from live venues in front of thousands to online performances where they will compete and ultimately merge as part of the gaming and virtual reality world.
This is a rough glimpse of the new world we must prepare for. Some of it may come true, much of it will be wildly wrong. At this juncture we don’t have sufficient information to make a certain judgement. There might be a cure or vaccine in the next few months that changes our risk equations and drops the RO below 1.
As we are only a few months into the Great Upheaval, predicting what lies ahead is like driving through a thick fog. We’ve been driving on auto-pilot, not paying much attentions to the road ahead. Now we are gripping the steering wheel with both hands as the road speeds up under our car and there are hairpin curves ahead. It will likely become exponentially faster and we fear the lost of control that we already feel slipping away.