Pandemics in History

When the global pandemic hit in 2020, I remember hearing comparisons between prior diseases left and right; mostly pertaining to the Swine Flu, the Spanish Flu, and the more extreme end, the Black Plague. These diseases are more prevalent in the Western Hemisphere’s common consciousness, but there are many other pandemics that have populated the Western Hemisphere, and the lesser known being contained to the Western Hemisphere’s southern half. In Lowell’s piece “From Columbus to Covid-19: Amerindian Antecedents to the Global Pandemic” he focuses on 4 geographical settings: Hispaniola, Mexico, Guatemala, and Ecuador. He reflects on how these pandemics and the current Covid-19, but more importantly, the way in which the pandemics have spread at the same rate, even though the world is better equipped to handle today than they were in 1492.

One of the big differences between those pandemics of the past and the current is the way in which it was brought about. Each of the plagues discussed in the essay were diseases brought by the colonizers that conquered the areas, instead of the way in which Covid-19 was brought about.

The newfound diseases of the Anthropocene are just one component of many that have come about in consequence of the era. With more people packing closer and closer together, diseases have much more affluent transmission rates, and even though Coronavirus is still relatively new compared to the prior pandemics, the globalization that has occurred as a symptom of the Anthropocene has led to rapid and sometimes lethal spreading. Just like climate change, humans have had to deal with increasingly more and increasingly complex issues, and the global pandemic is just one of many. The comparison of the pandemics serves as a forewarning to world leaders to what could be the end result if it goes ignored. 

Now Is the Time to Strike

What I understood from the text is that during the peak of the pandemic would have been the most opportune moment for a country to seize global control. As we all know the pandemic shut down entire country’s with ease. The pandemic had an impact on almost all parts of our daily lives, from closures and shipping delays to unemployment and government relief. During this time nations across the world have all been struggling to stay functioning. Fighting the pandemic resulted in governments having to spread themselves thin to take care of all citizens and promote creating a cure. As you noticed no one had time to care about anything besides the pandemic. This time of weakness would have been the perfect opportunity to annex your neighbors. A good government would be prioritizing the safety of its people, so they would not risk the consequence of trying to assemble a war effort. In order to sustain a war production needs to at its peak, and during the pandemic with its unemployment there would just be no way to fight back.

This is what occurred during the colonization of the Americas, except ten fold. Imagine a foe who already has more advanced weaponry and military technologies, and now imagine that your nations population was reduced to only a 5th. If you outnumber them, then you have an equal playing field, but to be reduced to such small numbers and have no guns, was an assured defeat for all native Americans. This is the concept of biowarfare. Viruses not only are more deadly but are a silent killer who can stab you but can’t be stabbed back. The rampant mortality alone would classify them as the strongest weapon ever known to man, but there’s also the strain on the people who have to take care of the sick just to keep the civilization alive. Large civilizations depend on laborer’s, and when all of your farmers die then where the heck will all the food come from. Just the death of 1 farmer could result in the starvation of 30 civilians. Biowarfare is the most powerful weapon and while the Europeans may not have even know about it, it was the only way they were able to conquer all of the Americas.

This goes to show that while nuclear bombs and guns may seem scary, the most likely cause of death for all of humanity may be something as small as a germ. What’s even more scary is that we have seen the purposeful use of biowarfare in the past through medieval siege tactics involving catapulting dead body’s and livestock into cities to promote illness. The power of biowarfare is too much for humans to control, and any future in which we attempt this would be cruel and irresponsible.

The Paradox of Human Power Over Nature

Humans have, at once, an immense power to alter the Earth on an astonishing scale, while also being practically helpless against a microscopic pathogen. The two readings this week, together, really highlight this point. On one hand, I see the changes humans have been making to the planet and think calling the current time period the Anthropocene is the only appropriate choice. Our mass emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the massive quantity of extinctions as a result of our actions, the mind boggling use of land and resources for our survival, and pretty much every other impact of human life make us a massive force for change on the planet. However, being so human centric in our categorization of the time period does not feel quite right when considering the damage a small pathogen has caused humanity over the past two years. 

COVID-19 has demonstrated, in a very real way, how vulnerable we are as humans. Not only as individuals, but also as a species. In the time of the Anthropocene, it seems it has become the default to view humans as separate and above nature. If we are powerful enough to have our own geological time period in which we are the primary force for change on the planet, we must have reached a point where we can keep nature in check and bend it to our will. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us this is not true. Looking at past examples of unimaginably deadly disease outbreaks, like Smallpox in Latin America, and comparing the scale of these horrors to COVID-19, we need to take nature seriously. We are not more powerful than nature, we are one with nature. We must realize this in order to best, and most safely operate as a species. 

To be clear, there is no doubt that we are in the Anthropocene, but we need to view this truth as an opportunity to work with and respect nature rather than to force our will upon it. Moving forward, humanity must work to sustainably survive through collaboration with nature and not dominance over it. Being in the Anthropocene does not mean we have reached a state of ultimate power over nature. It means that we have reached a dangerous tipping point where we have the power to alter the delicate balance of the natural system in which we live, without the power to deal with the consequences that are sure to follow.

Evolution of Epidemics

As a microbiologist, the reading this week on the evolution of disease spread throughout the world mostly due to colonization was very interesting to me. It is rather interesting to think about how illness and disease can spread throughout the world, especially when it reaches a community it has never seen before. When a person’s immune system has never seen a pathogen or antigen before, the only possible defenses the body has are from the innate (born with) immune system. When something as detrimental as small pox comes around (which was bad even for people who had been around it in Europe, who had built more of an immunity) the new hosts were basically defenseless. Without antibodies and memory cells already made for the disease, and a very low survival rate, things were not looking good.

As it was shown in the paper, extreme proportions of the indigenous american communities were killed off. With the exact pathogen cause unknown, we are still able to point fingers at the colonizers as playing a major role in this devastation. Now, in a world where global travel is not only widely accessible, it is frequent, the spread of disease is much more interesting (and worrisome). It makes me think back to the popular app game called Plague Inc, in which the player builds a disease trying to wipe out the worlds population before a cure can be made and distributed. One of the first things that happened as soon as the “world” learned of the new disease, was the shut down of air or boat travel to and from specific countries. And yet with all of this, the game was still beatable. Because to shut everything down truly in its entirety, there is money being lost, goods not being distributed, etc. There are these influential factors nowadays that feed into why we still have this major issue of disease spread, and even with the advent of modern medicine, we cannot seem to get it under control.

In a way, we should consider ourselves lucky that Edward Jenner invented the small pox vaccine in the late 18th century, and revolutionized modern medicine. But when there is still the drive of capitalism, the archaic ideals of “Complete freedom” and “manifest destiny”, we will never truly be able to escape the invisible world of pathogens. Human will and need for dominion over others is really setting itself up to be our greatest downfall, and perhaps even the precursor for the sixth major extinction event the Earth will face.

Infectious History

Disease has played a large role in the history of humanity, and still has world-changing effects today. Its history can be traced back thousands of years, but an important point at which disease became more prevalent in human life was with the discovery and subsequent colonizing of the Americas. Disease in this period was responsible for the rapid decline in Indigenous numbers, with various sicknesses being brought over from Europe and causing innumerable deaths. Looking back on this history, it’s not hard to see the impact that disease has had, and it’s clear that we can’t make the same mistakes in our current crisis. Like Lovell, the author of “From Columbus to Covid-19: Amerindian Antecedents to the Global Pandemic,” pointed out, we have many more resources to combat diseases, but we can only hope by the time the pandemic has passed there will be far fewer deaths than there were in the colonizing of the Americas.

Noting that this period has incredible historical significance, it can be used by individuals such as Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, authors of “Defining the Anthropocene,” to discuss potential starting periods of the Anthropocene Epoch. The main argument they seemed to be making in their article was that it’s difficult to put a starting date on the Anthropocene, but that their suggestion would be 1610 or 1964. It’s definitely interesting to put so much thought into defining the beginning of an epoch, but is clearly not an easy task. Their point that 1610 follows the trend of putting a significant event at the start of the epoch is good, as most people would define the start of the Anthropocene at around the Industrial Revolution. Although it’s important to set out an agreed upon date for this epoch, I also think it’s very important that we start taking action to reverse the effects on nature by humanity. We can agree that the Anthropocene is an epoch defined by human impact, but now we need to start slowing down humanity’s effect on the environment.

Humantity’s consequences

When did the Anthropocene start? Well that’s a question many people are wondering. There are  alot of requirements to  fulfill. There needs to be big environmental changes at that instance in time. There might be a high amount of carbon, maybe a high amount of carbon decline, etc. There could be a huge growth in species diversity or loss as well.

We know that humans have had significant impacts on the environment for thousands of years. From the beginning of agriculture we started changing the environment, since we altered the land. Then we continued to progress, until a big moment: the combining of the west and east hemispheres in the 17th century. Cultures combined  and many things  were traded. There was good and bad. Bad being the death of millions of Native Americans due to disease spread by European colonizers, and  good being the trade of goods between both regions. Carbon emissions actually decreased this period, which  may  indicate a relationship between humanity and emissions which is again an  example of  humanity impacting the environment. Then the Industrial Revolution occurred, and all the human impact became amplified. It culminated in the development of nuclear weapons,  technology that could potentially ravage the Earth. All of these events happened, but it is difficult  to pinpoint exactly when humanity  drove  all the changes to  Earth and its components. 

I think elaborating on humanity’s negative influence on the world, specifically other humans is worth mentioning. Disease is the main way humans die, and it has been a huge part of human history. Smallpox and other diseases spread by Spanish conquistadors  like Cortez, possibly killed millions of Aztec  and Native American people. Sickness also spread before contact with the conquerors  leading to the numerous civilizations becoming weaker. This  weakness allowed the explorers to win more easily in the numerous conflicts. 

Humans need to be careful since we have so much power over our surroundings and over ourselves.

A Worrisome Warning ☠️

In the current moment, it can feel like what we’re experiencing this year is totally new and unexpected. A global pandemic has caught us completely by surprise, and we’re reacting to it in a totally new and unique way. But a closer look into history will reveal that this is by no means the first, or even deadliest pandemic we have faced, and it will absolutely not be the last. The Spanish flu. The bubonic plague. These were terrible diseases that wiped out massive populations of people in a fraction of the time COVID-19 has had to do the same. But even these deadly plagues, with all of their historical impact, can’t compete with the myriad of disease and destruction that befell the native American civilizations once Europe arrived to the continent.

Nowadays, diseases like smallpox, measles, typhus, or cholera are still scary, but we have antibiotics and other medical things to negate the damage. Smallpox itself was entirely eradicated in the natural world. But to the varied people of the Americas, it was a death sentence. Having been separated from their Old World ancestors tens of thousands of years ago, they had no knowledge or comprehension of these diseases, and never developed any sort of immunity towards them. This isn’t to say the Americas were bereft of sickness, but the bacteria and viruses that Europe and Asia spent centuries getting used to were unknown to them at the time. So when Columbus broke the barrier between them and reintroduced the Americas to the Old World, there was nothing they could do to prepare. Exact numbers are impossible to know, and predictions range anywhere from just 60 thousand to over 8 million. Either way. it was an apocalypse. Entire cities and societies were eradicated, and by the time proper exploration of the land by the Spanish and English began, whoever remained represented a remnant of their former prosperity.

It saddens me to think about all the great and powerful empires that dotted the American continent that once existed, as motivated by trade and war as any European power. The Spaniards who plundered these lands had a great advantage over these people for many reasons, but none moreso than the cultural and societal bravado they possessed. But this was merely a de facto, as whatever strength the indigeonous had left was splintered into chaos and a vaccuum of power. While the world may be connected together more than ever before, this type of natural threat still exists. We may understand how viruses work, and how best to prevent them, but still they remain, and wreak havoc on our societies. COVID-19 is not the greatest adversity our species has ever faced. Nor will it be the last. But it serves as a worrisome warning to what may come, and to whatever natural calamity may overpower our anthropogenic worldview. The native Americans had no idea what was coming for them. And we might not either, until it’s too late.

Lewis, S. L., & Maslin, M. A. (2015). Defining the anthropocene. Nature, 519(7542), 171–180.

Lovell, W. G. (2020). From Columbus to COVID-19: Amerindianantecedents to the global pandemic. Journal of Latin American Geography.

Mankind is incredibly vulnerable

Unlike past readings, I feel that these readings offer multiple topics on which to write this blog post. The markers of the Anthropocene, colonization, past epidemics, the Amerindian holocaust, Covid-19, and future pandemics are all bubbling in my mind. The first thing I did after finishing these readings was to research how many people have died thus far from Covid-19. As of today, it is reported that 5.09 million people have died of Covid-19. This is drastically different than the 55-70 million indigenous people who died (mostly due to epidemics) when Europeans stole the Americas. This 5 million does not come close to rivaling the 50 million Europeans who died from the black plague, nor the Spanish Flu of 25 million deaths globally. 

One of the reasons behind the decrease in death is, of course, modern medicine and science. Only a few months into the Covid-19 pandemic, mask mandates went into place. Because of modern science, we understood the primary way the virus transmitted itself. Plus, modern medicine also has the ability to prevent people from getting sick (vaccines) and a stronger ability to cure people when they do.

Covid-19, however, is certainly less contagious than other diseases, such as measles. It is also certainly less deadly. This makes me wonder how many people haven’t died from Covid-19 because of modern medicine, versus how many people haven’t died because we “got lucky” with this virus not being as deadly and contagious as others.  Although mankind has been ravaged by diseases for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, we were still ill-prepared for Covid-19. This is shocking and worrisome. Lovell writes: “That an outbreak of disease could cause such calamity and so endanger the human condition after we have deluded ourselves for so long that Homo sapiens controls all, shakes us to our foundations” (181). This quote strings together the Covid-19 pandemic and mankind’s feigned superiority over Nature (a frequent topic in this class) quite nicely. Mankind can destroy a forest, plow down a field, exterminate beasts large and small, yet viruses, impossible to see with the human eye, are a reminder of mankind’s vulnerability.

We are just as vulnerable to disease as any plant, animal, or fungi, perhaps even more susceptible. With crowding in cities, humans needed to start being sanitary. This started with soap, water, vinegar, and alcohol, but now there is a vast array of strong antimicrobial products on the market. This makes it so our human immune systems in Western countries are exposed to very little, which has obvious positive and negative consequences. With our Western diet, lack of proper exercise, a surplus of Western diseases, and general lack of good health, we are incredibly vulnerable to viral infection. Covid-19 should be taken as a warning to the human species, a warning that we are far from invincible. It will be interesting to see if we are prepared for the next pandemic (there will be one) because it might not be as “forgiving” as Covid-19 has been.

Power and Disease

As Columbus’s arrival on American shores marked the beginning of globalization, COVID-19 began a new era of globalization as trade and movement have been restricted and altered. I find it an interesting connection between disease caused by imperialism and the virus of COVID-19 because COVID lockdowns affected people on a global level, not just native vulnerable populations such as during imperialism. It is very tragic how many people were killed by these diseases while their homes were being overtaken by an invader. A very complex and interesting point is brought up in this reading, referring to how COVID-19 caused so much damage in our modern world. The reading points out that it seems unreal how much destruction was caused by the virus when we have so much knowledge. I think a big reason it caused so much damage – and continues to do so – is that our leaders and restrictions, mandates and regulations, etc.. were not consistent and still aren’t – for example, with mask mandates. Leaders are also making decisions based on science that really isn’t solid science, just science that supports their agenda. For every study that supports one point, there is another study to disprove it. It is also important to make the distinction that COVID-19 did not cause the economic crisis – it was the lockdowns and shutdowns – although secondary to the virus –  that caused the economic crisis. The same leaders telling us to all wear masks are also the ones attending expensive, lavish parties maskless while people are losing their jobs, homes, and livelihoods. The government does not care about our health, but rather control — just as Columbus did and his crew did when they came over and took over native regions. He did not care about the people that were being harmed, only about his own interests of wealth and power. History continues to repeat itself, but people stay blinded and do not learn from it. 

Nature in Man or Man in Nature

This weeks reading is a very philosophical piece on how we view nature, how we could view nature, and how we should view nature. It focuses on our relationship with nature and how that shapes our understanding of nature and our place within it.

Our relationship with nature is really really weird and it just keeps getting weirder. I don’t really know what it means to be a human anymore considering how alienated we are from this earth. Growing up in Oregon was a blessing as far as the United States goes, but even with the mountains and vast forests and ocean readily available for us to experience do we actually experience them? I’ll go on a hike but only walk on a procured human walking path, I’ll go skiing on Mt. Hood and will practically just be playing a game on the mountain between trips to the lodge for a hot drink, I’ll go to the beach and lay on a towel and use a plastic shovel to dig a hole, I’ll go camping and sit in a warmed trailer or a closed up tent. I done this stuff a lot, and I feel like I’ve “experienced” nature more than the average person, but have I even experienced it? When I walk down the street here at OSU I love to view the trees as they change colors, but these trees have been placed there for precisely that reason and nothing more. Arranged in a row and evenly spaced out. I don’t feel like modern day humans in this western culture have a connection to the earth past the relationship that produces us a profit. We view it as a sport, an activity, a view, an attraction, a resource, something we can exploit, sometimes something we can protect, but never as a part of us.

How much do we know about nature?

People have varying degrees of understanding of what Nature is. Nature is everything, but what does it actually make it? Shaviro’s 22 Theses on Nature gives an attempt to answer that question. 

Well, we know that humans and whatever they make are a part of nature(Shaviro). By that logic, nature is not of anthropogenic characteristics(Shaviro). Nature always changes and never stagnates. Evolution is always occurring. Nature’s extent is infinite. It is very hard to capture the scale of nature. Similar thinking leads to the conclusion that you cannot predict nature’s future. The things inside nature do not usually reach extreme points. Nature’s metastable, there are energy gradients  activating constantly causing things to happen(Shaviro). Individuation disrupts metastability. Energy is one form of individuation. It  is a common fact  that energy is never created or destroyed. Energy just becomes used  and lost, leading to entropy for example. 

Information is  another component of individuation. Information’s importance  varies on the entity, and nature helps spread it all over. Perception is done by all living organisms to gain  information. Even  trees conduct it. Perception ultimately causes action. Sentience is not  consciousness. Sentience  just implies  that an organism can do information processing.  Consciousness actually invoices conscious thought processes. Information becomes processed  even  without perception. The example Shaviro cites is the virus that causes one to be sick, we  only  feel the symptoms in that case, not the virus. 

In nature cause and effect is huge. There are uncountable causes that cause almost  infinite effects.  Even things that are not alive “feel” things in nature, Shaviro claims, like a  rock falling off a cliff.

Nature is above all, yet not outside anything. We should continue to respect nature for the entity it is.

Thank Nature For Your Freewill

Of all the theses I find myself drawn to number 4 and 5; most importantly the powerful association they propose between nature and the future. As most these agree nature is the unpredictable cacophony of the universe that has been set in motion since the beginning of time. If we think about the entire universe as an astrophysicist would we know that entropy is always increasing, meaning our world is consistently spontaneously dispersing energy until what we predict to be the end of the universe. This will be when there is nothing left in the universe to react, with no reactions then its the same as time being frozen. We know the world will stop once it has distributed all its energy, just like how we know that a ball will fall to the ground once it’s been thrown. Since we know its final position and the action it takes to achieve this position then we can calculate all known positions of the ball as it travels.

If we can calculate the exact position of the ball, couldn’t we theoretically use the end result of the universe and the knowledge of how it is dispersing to predict all known positions of everything in the universe? Meaning we could create a grand theory that can tell us the exact position of all living things with respect to time. It would be the ability to see the future. But if we could use the starting position of the universe and its end to predict everything then wouldn’t we just become actors in the great movie of the universe? The world as we know it would be one predetermined series of events that transpire with our individual actions being already set into motion before we were even born. I think this is quite a hysterical ponderance, the idea that all of our decisions don’t matter. Which is why I’m grateful for nature.

In theses 4 and 5 we say that nature can’t be reduced to a calculation, and that there is absolutely no way to add up every interaction in the world to create a fixed equation that would be able to predict the future. Because nature in its very essence is an idea that can’t be calculated for, it’s the very thought that what ever is impossible is possible. Nature is hope. It lets me know that I have free will, that what I do matters. Nature assures us that our reality isn’t occurring inside some math equation, nature finds a way to tell us that we are all alive in this world.