The Long View 2003-04-22: Pandemics

This bit about SARS is interesting twelve years later. Influenza is interesting. The official mortality rate went up compared to what John had here, from 5.6% to 9.6% according to the WHO. Unfortunately, better record-keeping doesn't always equal better stats. This number is likely to be a massive overestimate, since only the sickest get counted in official tallies.

Influenza, and other similar diseases that infect both animals and humans, is no joke. It is easy to dismiss, especially since many of the deaths are concentrated in the elderly. We haven't had anything nearly as bad as the 1918 Spanish Flu, but such a thing would probably be much, much worse in an age of frequent air travel. You haven't seen panic yet.

I also got a laugh from John's comment on The Stand. Of course, if resistance to the virus in that book were a gene, then it would run in families. King isn't really a sci-fi author, so perhaps that lapse is forgivable. One might postulate that the gene in question was a de novo mutation, of which everyone has about 100, but those get passed down too, changing frequency depending on their relative fitness. So, unless everyone involved got the same de novo mutation at birth around the same time, it would still run in families.

This post also features a mostly successful prediction: private space companies would be capable of routine manned spaceflight in ten years. Private spaceflights are becoming routine, although manned flights are a little less so yet.

As a sanguine soul, my first reaction to the advent of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was the observation that it's not as bad as the great influenza pandemic that occurred around the end of the First World War. Now I learn that the mortality rate for SARS is actually four times higher, though the absolute number of deaths from SARS is still infinitesimal in comparison to the tens of millions who died between 1917 and 1919. Even more disturbing is this headline from The New York Times : Death Rate from Virus More Than Doubles.
Normally, mortality rates for new infectious diseases fall fairly quickly. This is partly because treatments are developed, and partly because physicians learn to spot asymptomatic cases of the disease. The jump in the world-wide SARS mortality rate to 5.6% is almost certainly a statistical mirage, which will disappear when reporting improves. Even the idea of "world" statistics for SARS means little, considering the different ways the disease behaves in each country. On the other hand, it is possible that the virus is mutating quickly, and the changes in the statistics reflect real changes in the lethality of the disease.
We know that SARS has already had an appreciable effect on business in Asia. The travel industry in particular is in sackcloth and ashes. If the disease is not contained, or otherwise made manageable, SARS could also create a new issue for the US presidential election of 2004. Forty million people in the US have no health insurance. Many others, like me, have deductibles so high that they will not visit a doctor until they are at death's door. This kind of health system is inefficient even at the best of times. In conjunction with an epidemic disease that kills one out of 20 victims, it would be a template for a public health catastrophe.
The question of health insurance in the US has long been discussed in terms of esoteric notions of "portability" and "choice." The political system lost sight of the fact that the first function of any health system is to preserve public order by detecting and treating epidemic disease. You can't fight the Black Death with tax incentives.
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Here is a very small pet peeve. Readers may be familiar with Stephen King's novel, The Stand. That is the one in which almost the entire population of the world is killed by an influenza virus; designed in a weapons lab, it mutates after a victim contracts it until it finally kills him. The only survivors were people with a certain rare gene, which granted immunity. The book dwells on sad scenes in which each of the rare survivors lose their families.
May I ask what Mr. King's editors thought they were about? If immunity were genetic, then it would be passed down in family lines. We learn late in the book that a single parent with the gene will provide enough immunity for their children to recover from the virus. Whole families should have lived through the plague. This anomaly has been bothering me for years.
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Speaking of minor peeves that have been bothering me for years, a bunch of them met at the University of Chicago recently and declared that modern critical theory was a waste of time. We learn this from another Times article, The Latest Theory Is That Theory Does not Matter
The panel discussion at which this declaration of intellectual bankruptcy occurred was organized by Critical Inquiry, a noted journal of theory. There were more than two dozen participants, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., Homi Bhabha, Stanley Fish, and Fredric Jameson. As the Times mildly observes, "the leftist politics with which literary theorists have traditionally been associated have taken a beating." People's political hopes are often disappointed, of course. The tragedy for this crew was that, when you took away the politics, there was nothing left.
It's the students you feel sorry for. At some point, they must have liked literature. They intuited that it was important; that was why they majored in it, or went on for graduate degrees. By and by, their healthy instincts were corrupted, while their prose became more unreadable and ideologically subservient. At the Critical Inquiry panel, however, they would have learned that they damned themselves to no purpose. As Stanley Fish told them: "I wish to deny the effectiveness of intellectual work. And especially, I always wish to counsel people against the decision to go into the academy because they hope to be effective beyond it."
"Effective" here does not mean helping others to become better people, or adding to knowledge for its own sake. One deluded student complained "how much more important the actions of Noam Chomsky are in the world than all the writings of critical theorists combined." Noam Chomsky has been shilling for concentration-camp states for 30 years. The impotence of scholarship for these people means their regret that they did not succeed in turning their own country into North Korea.
One panelist did try to defend the life of the mind, as he saw it: "intellectual work has its place and its uses...[y]ou can have poems that are intimately linked with political oppositional movements, poems that actually draw together people in acts of resistance." The notion that you can also have poems that are good as poems, that civilization exists in part so that there can be poetry, is completely absent. So, of course, is any value in literature aside from its use as political propaganda. The panelists' problem is that now even they cannot deny it can't do that, either.
Critical theory has sacked the liberal arts. The theorists, in their folly, have driven away the funding and the graduate students from the departments they came to dominate. No doubt, after the panelists die or retire, literary studies will recover. The next time, maybe, they will be about literature.
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On the subject of next times, I often correspond with people about the future and historical significance of manned spaceflight. It is easy to be unfair about NASA (as perhaps I have been myself), but it is pretty clear that the era of manned flight that began in the 1960s was a false dawn. In some sense, we have to begin again.
"Why," you ask? Because it's there. As C.S. Lewis once observed about the question of life on other planets, this is a matter that people are either passionately interested in or find too repulsive to discuss. "Passionate" may be too strong a word to describe my interest in spaceflight, but certainly I support it. I am therefore greatly encouraged by headlines like this: Passenger-Carrying Spaceship Makes Desert Debut.
The spaceship in this case is the work of the ingenious Burt Rutan. The flight he hopes to make in the near future will be suborbital, but he does claim to have a full, reusable launching system, capable of reaching LEO. This is not a prototype, he emphasizes: this is hardware. He says that manned flight could be routine within the next ten years.
I have been hearing that since I was eight years old. The difference now seems to be a convergence of private investment and the slow accumulation of off-the-shelf technology. This time, maybe there will be an industrial-technological breakthrough. Manned spaceflight may yet be The next Big Thing. I would much prefer that to nano-technology, which I dislike almost as much as wireless.
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Even if our timeline does begin to overlap that of Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon, we could also be threatened by vampires in the streets, many of them tourists.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Stand
By Stephen King