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The Bat Effect

We had ample warning to gird ourselves for Covid-19. But beyond the specific dangers of a pandemic, we should have recognized the general possibility of a shock to our system.

[An expert from the book, Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, by the author ]

by Fareed Zakaria

The New York Times called it “the spiky blob seen around the world.” In late January, Alissa Eckert and her colleague Dan Higgins at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were tasked with creating an illustration of the novel coronavirus. What was needed was “something to grab the public’s attention,” Eckert later explained to the Times. What they produced was an image of a silvery globe with bright crimson spikes. It was evocative and disturbing, and it was soon everywhere, appearing in newspapers, magazines, and on television news. If right now you are imagining what a coronavirus looks like, then chances are you are thinking of the Eckert-Higgins rendering or a derivation of it. In the slightly macabre world of professional medical artists, the picture is known as a “beauty shot,” an up-close depiction of a single viral particle, making it look menacing but also massive. In fact, the novel coronavirus is about 1/10,000th the size of the period that ends this sentence.

We are often advised to think big. But maybe we need to start thinking small. We’re good at imagining the big, traditional dangers we face, however unlikely they have become, such as military attacks and invasions, and planning large-scale symmetrical responses to them. Governments spend trillions of dollars to build vast militaries, track the movement of armies across the planet, and practice war games against potential foes. The United States alone devotes almost three-quarters of a trillion dollars to its defense budget every year. And yet, we were unprepared to defend against a tiny microbe. It may well turn out that this viral speck will cause the greatest economic, political, and social damage to humankind since World War II.

This is a book not about the pandemic, but rather about the world that is coming into being as a result of the pandemic and—more importantly—our responses to it. Any large shock can have diverse effects, depending on the state of the world at the time and on how human beings react—with fear or denial or adaptation. In the case of the novel coronavirus, the impact is being shaped by the reality that the world is deeply interconnected, that most countries were unprepared for the pandemic, and that in its wake, many of them—including the world’s richest nations—shut down their societies and economies in a manner unprecedented in human history.

This book is about a “post-pandemic world” not because the coronavirus is behind us, but because we have crossed a crucial threshold. Almost everyone alive had been spared from experiencing a plague, so far. But now we know what a pandemic looks like. We have seen the challenges and costs of responding to it. The Covid-19 pandemic could persist, but even if it is eradicated, new outbreaks of other diseases are almost certain to occur in the future. With this knowledge and experience, we now live in a new era: post-pandemic.

What exactly are the consequences of this pandemic? Some have suggested that it will prove to be the hinge event of modern history, a moment that forever alters its course. Others believe that after a vaccine, we will quickly return to business as usual. Still others argue that the pandemic will not reshape history so much as accelerate it. This last scenario seems the most likely outcome. Lenin is supposed to have once said, “There are decades when nothing happens, and then there are weeks when decades happen.” The post-pandemic world is going to be, in many aspects, a sped-up version of the world we knew. But when you put life on fast-forward, events no longer proceed naturally, and the consequences can be disruptive, even deadly. In the 1930s, many developing countries were modernizing at a steady pace, moving people from agriculture to industry. The Soviet Union decided to brutally accelerate that process. This decision, the collectivization of agriculture, led to famine, the “liquidation” of millions of farmers, a hardening of dictatorship, and the deformation of Soviet society. A world on steroids can suffer unpredictable side effects.

Author of the book; Fareed Zakaria

Post-pandemic life will be different for countries, companies, and especially individuals. Even if economics and polit¬ics return to normal, human beings will not. They will have been through an unusual, difficult trial and have a sense of newfound, hard-won opportunity. Having survived the Spanish flu, a character in William Maxwell’s 1937 novel, They Came Like Swallows, feels a sense of “wonder clinging to him (for it had been a revelation: neither he nor anyone else had known that his life was going to be like this).” As the worst passes, we emerge into the “dead cold light of tomorrow,” as the writer Katherine Anne Porter put it in her 1939 semi-autobiographical novella, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, about surviving the same pandemic. Her last line: “Now there would be time for everything.”

PLAGUES HAVE CONSEQUENCES

We should have seen it coming. The coronavirus may be novel but plagues are not. Western literature begins with one. In the opening verses of Homer’s Iliad, the Greek armies are being ravaged by pestilence. It turns out to be divine punishment directed at their leader, the vain, avaricious, and quarrelsome King Agamemnon. The first serious history written in the West hinges on a plague. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War chronicles the long conflict between the two superpowers of the age, Athens and Sparta. Toward the beginning of the war, Thucydides writes, a terrible plague swept through Athens, killing vast numbers of able-bodied citizens and, most significant, the city-state’s peerless leader, Pericles. The two sides had very different political systems: Athens was democratic, Sparta a more rigidly run warrior society. Sparta eventually prevailed, and it’s not a stretch to say that, had there been no plague, Athens might have won, and the course of Western history would have been different—with a vibrant democracy becoming a successful role model rather than a flame that burned brightly, but then flickered out. Plagues have consequences.

The most consequential by far was the bubonic plague, which began in Central Asia in the 1330s and spread to Europe in the following decade. One medieval chronicler accused the Mongols of introducing the disease to the continent by launching plague-ridden corpses into a Genoese fortress by catapult—an early bioweapon. More likely, the plague spread through global commerce, borne by the caravans and ships that plied goods from the Orient to major ports like Messina in Sicily and Marseilles in France. Also called the Black Death, it was carried by fleas on the backs of rats and attacked the lymphatic system of its victims, causing suffering and death on a scale that has never been seen since. Up to half of Europe’s population was wiped out. The disease, like many, was never fully eradicated. The World Health Organization still reports a few hundred cases of bubonic plague every year, luckily now treatable with antibiotics.

The bubonic plague had seismic effects. Scholars believe that with so many dead, the economics of the time was turned on its head. Walter Scheidel explains that labor became scarce and land abundant, so wages rose and rents fell. Workers won more bargaining power and nobles lost out. Serfdom withered away in much of Western Europe. Of course, the impact varied from country to country based on each one’s economic and political structures. Inequality actually rose in some places that took repressive measures. For example, noble landlords in Eastern Europe used the misery and chaos to tighten their hold and impose serfdom for the first time. Beyond these material effects, the plague prompted an intellectual revolution. Many fourteenth-century Europeans asked why God would allow this hell on earth and questioned entrenched hierarchies—which had the ultimate effect of helping Europe break out of its medieval malaise and setting in motion the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment. From death and horror came science, modernity, and growth. With Covid-19, thankfully, we do not face the same mass mortality. But might our era’s pandemic provoke a similar spirit of societal introspection, an equivalent shock to our complacency?

The historian William McNeill, who wrote the seminal survey Plagues and Peoples, was drawn to epidemiology because he was trying to explain a puzzle: Why were small numbers of European soldiers able to quickly conquer and convert millions of people in Latin America? The Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés, for example, started off with 600 men facing an Aztec Empire of millions. The answer, McNeill found, involved plagues. The Spanish brought with them not only advanced weaponry but also diseases like smallpox, to which they had built up immunity but the natives had not. Estimates of the death toll of the ensuing outbreaks are staggering, ranging from 30% of the population at first to 60% to 90% over the course of the sixteenth century—all told, tens of millions of people. McNeill imagines “the psychological implications of a disease that killed only Indians and left Spaniards unharmed.” One conclusion the natives drew, he speculates, was that the foreigners worshipped powerful gods. That might help explain why so many of them submitted to Spanish control and converted to Christianity.

The pandemic still lodged in our memory is the Spanish flu, which hit the world in the midst of World War I and killed some 50 million people, more than twice the number that died in the fighting. (It was called the Spanish flu not because it began in Spain, but because that country, being a noncombatant in the war, did not censor news. The outbreak of the disease was thus reported extensively out of Spain, which led people to assume it originated there.) Science has progressed enormously since the early twentieth century. Back then, no one had ever seen a virus, much less knew how to treat this new infection: electron microscopes had not been invented, nor had antiviral drugs. Still, the three most important guidelines from health authorities at the time—social distancing, masks, and handwashing—remain three of the four most important mechanisms used today to slow the spread of coronavirus, until the development of a vaccine. The fourth, regular testing, is the one modern addition.

In more recent decades, outbreaks of SARS, MERS, avian flu, swine flu, and Ebola spread quickly and widely, leading many experts to warn that we were likely to face a truly global epidemic soon. The public took note, too. In 1994, Richard Preston’s best-selling book, The Hot Zone, detailed the origins of the Ebola virus. The 2011 film Contagion, inspired by the SARS epidemic of 2002–3 and the swine flu pandemic of 2009, imagined a virus that claimed 26 million lives around the world. In 2015, Bill Gates gave a TED Talk warning that “if anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus.” In 2017, he sounded the alarm louder, predicting in a speech at the Munich Security Conference that there was a reasonable chance that such a pandemic would erupt in the next ten to fifteen years.

By then, it did not take much foresight to imagine a pandemic and to argue for investing more time, resources, and energy toward stopping it. In June 2017, when President Donald Trump proposed budget cuts in the key agencies that dealt with public health and diseases, I devoted a segment of my CNN show to the topic, saying:


One of the biggest threats facing the United States isn’t big at all. Actually, it’s tiny, microscopic, thousands of times smaller than the head of a pin. Deadly pathogens, either man-made or natural, could trigger a global health crisis, and the United States is wholly unprepared to deal with it. . . . One only needs to look back 100 years to 1918, when the Spanish flu pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people around the globe. In many ways, we’re even more vulnerable today. Densely packed cities, wars, natural disasters, and international air travel mean a deadly virus propagated in a small village in Africa can be transmitted almost anywhere in the world, including the United States, within 24 hours. . . . Biosecurity and global pandemics cut across all national boundaries. Pathogens, viruses, and diseases are equal-opportunity killers. When the crisis comes, we will wish we had more funding and more global cooperation. But then, it will be too late.

It was too late. We had ample warning to gird ourselves for Covid-19. But beyond the specific dangers of a pandemic, we should have recognized the general possibility of a shock to our system.

After the Cold War, the world settled into a new international system marked by three forces, one geopolitical, one economic, and one technological—American power, free markets, and the Information Revolution. All seemed to work together to create a more open and prosperous world. But it was still a world full of crises—some of which would careen out of control. The Balkan wars, the Asian financial collapse, the 9/11 attacks, the global financial crisis, and now Covid-19. While they are all different, they have something crucial in common. They are all asymmetric shocks—things that start out small but end up sending seismic waves around the world. This is particularly true of the three that will be judged as the most enduring—9/11, the crash of 2008, and the coronavirus.

The 9/11 attacks shook the globe, focusing attention on a particular backlash to this new world, which many in the West had previously ignored. The attacks brought to center stage the furies of radical Islam, the tensions in the Middle East, and the West’s complicated relationship with both. They then provoked a ferocious response from the United States. The country scaled up a vast domestic security apparatus—but also launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and targeted operations elsewhere, spending, by one estimate, $5.4 trillion on the “War on Terror.” That campaign led to bloodshed, revolution, repression, and refugees, with millions of casualties and fallout that persists to this day.

The second shock was entirely different, a financial crash of a kind familiar in history. Good times led to rising asset prices, which led to speculation, then to bubbles, and finally, inevitably, to collapse. Although the crisis began in the United States, it spread quickly across the planet, plunging the world into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The economy recovered slowly but markets boomed, heightening the divide between capital and labor. When it came to politics, the crisis had complex and corrosive effects. Even though the roots of the crash lay in the excesses of the private sector, in many countries, people did not move to the left economically; they moved to the right culturally. Economic anxiety bred cultural anxiety, hostility to immigration, and a nostalgic desire to return to a familiar past. Right-wing populism gained strength across the West.

The third shock is the one we are living through. It may be the biggest of them all, and it is certainly the most global. What began as a health-care problem in China soon became a global pandemic. But that was only the start. The medical crisis prompted a simultaneous lockdown of all business across the globe, resulting in a Great Paralysis, the cessation of economics itself. By some measures, the economic damage from this pandemic already rivals that of the Great Depression. The political consequences will play out over the coming years in different ways in different countries. The social and psychological consequences—fear, isolation, purposelessness—might endure even longer. Covid-19 is having deep and lasting effects on each of us, repercussions we cannot yet fully grasp.

And yet each of these three massive, global crises turned on something small, seemingly trivial. Think about the 9/11 attacks, launched by nineteen young men, armed with the simplest and crudest of weapons, small knives, not so different from those used in the Bronze Age 4,000 years ago. But those nineteen men set in motion a wave of warfare, intelligence operations, revolts, and repression around the world. Or consider the origins of the global financial crisis—one obscure financial product, the “credit default swap,” a kind of insurance policy mostly on mortgages, was bundled and re-bundled, sliced and diced, sold and resold, until it became a $45 trillion market, three times larger than the US economy, and three-quarters the size of the entire global economy. And when that market crashed, it took the world economy with it and, in due course, triggered a wave of populism. Without credit default swaps, there might never have been a President Donald Trump.

And in the case of this pandemic, we now all recognize how a tiny viral particle, circulating in a bat in China’s Hubei Province, has brought the world to its knees—a real-life example of the butterfly effect, whereby the flapping of a butterfly’s wing might influence weather patterns on the other side of the world. Small changes can have big consequences. In power grids or computer networks, if one tiny element breaks and then shifts its load to another, which then breaks, it can produce a chain reaction that grows ever larger, like a ripple that becomes a roaring wave. It is termed a “cascading failure.” A single software glitch or broken transformer can shut down an entire system. Something similar happens in biology. A minor infection in the blood can lead to a tiny clot that, through a chain reaction, can cause a massive stroke—a process called an ischemic cascade.

In earlier ages, epidemics were considered something outside of human agency or responsibility. The word influenza, for example, traces back to an Italian folk attribution of colds and fevers to the influence of the stars. In time, however, perceptions changed, and humans focused more on the features of the problem that were readily apparent, an important step toward then seeing what could be done about the problem. The French started calling influenza grippe, from the word for “seizure,” likely referring to the tightness felt in the throat and chest. Ever since 1990, sudden, massive seizures have gripped the world—about one every ten years—with cascading effects. We will have more. They don’t happen by conscious design, but neither are they entirely accidental. They seem to be an inherent element of the international system we have built. We need to understand that system—in other words, understand the world in which we live—in order to see the emerging post-pandemic world.

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