Saturday, 02/05/20; An Australian Chest Physician’s Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic.
“1177 BC. When Civilisation Collapsed”. A Comparison with the Current Situation.
Letters from Australia. No.8 by Prof. Roger KA ALLEN (www.sarcoidosis.com.au)
At present I am reading a book by the American classics scholar, Eric H. Cline called “1177 BC: When Civilisation Collapsed” and led to the Dark Ages in classical times, around 1200 BC and has many parallels with our current situation. In essence, the “globalisation” of countries at that time from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean with its complex trading routes and trading interdependence, suffered an irreversible implosion due to a chain of events including drought, earthquake etc. which led to a snow-ball effect from which there was no reversal. I will leave you to read the book to allow you to draw your own conclusions. I am reading the Greek translation and have not read the original English version. Anyhow, it makes compelling reading but I read a bit slower in Greek.
The current situation from my perspective has revealed both international and national vulnerabilities which need addressing if we are to survive even more such catastrophes of any even more complex nature as happened in 1177 BC or thereabouts. Over the past 100 days or so, we have seen a tectonic shift of cosmic proportions in the human dynamic due to an organism invisible to everything but an electron microscope and this suggests to me that any attempt by man to contact extra-terrestrials which could bear organisms and substances lethal to our planet or species is naïve in the extreme. Even the late Stephen Hawking said so. Putting this astronomical hypothetical to one side, we now have a situation where globalisation has revealed serious weaknesses which outweigh the original financial benefits in terms of cheaper items of trade. The idea of warehouses being empty to reduce storage and increase profits is short-sighted. The dominance of China in this process and the dependence of most nations including Australia on Chinese imports and exports have shown our vulnerabilities. This is not to blame China as we played the game willingly. It was a case of self-interest and profit over common sense and strategic prudence. On the other hand, the political implosion and disintegration of China due to internal factors may not be a good scenario either.
Since I was a boy, Australia has gradually dispelled with its merchant marine, stopped building ships, reduced the number of refineries and shrunk the strategic storage of petroleum products despite our total reliance on them so that we have only a few weeks’ supply. Even now with cheaper fuel, we are storing it in the USA which is another strategic vulnerability as we rely on secure sea-lanes and a merchant fleet owned by foreign nations. How this affects our Armed Forces including our navy, I leave to your imagination.
In addition, even our water supply is at risk as we import water purification chemicals from China as well as many of the chemical constituents of pharmaceuticals, most of which are imported from countries such as India and China. In a real crisis, worse than this, even our tap water would be at risk of being undrinkable and would probably dry up. Even our solar panels are mostly made in China.
Once we had a pharmaceutical manufacturing base but now most penicillin etc. which goes to the USA and Australia comes from China although Howard Florey (Baron Florey) was the Australian awarded the Nobel Prize (1945) with Chain and Fleming for the mass production of this antibiotic during WW2. We have clearly dropped the ball and I and I am sure others have noticed how once basic drugs are now not available to “overseas shortages”. A while back the only source of an anti-fibrotic drug I was using was from India and many common medications often dry up. In a serious conflict, many Australians would risk dying from a shortage of even common medications.
Our reliance on masks, PPEs and ventilators from China is obvious while China now engages in diplomatic polemics with threats to stop importing our exports if we don’t toe the line. Surely with these vulnerabilities, we need to have a big rethink of our national aspirations for the future. However, this crisis has also revealed a tectonic shift in the standing of the USA with its slow-off-the-mark response and its lamentable, non-intellectual national leadership unlike Germany with its scientifically-trained Chancellor, Angela Merkel who has a PhD in Physical Chemistry. Add to that the shaky foundation of the WHO whose biases are obvious, the fragility of both the European Union with its divided house, the European Covid capital, the United Kingdom, the myopic Russian response to Covid, the chaos of countless refugees in the Middle East and we have a scenario akin to 1177 BC. As well, we have the potential implosion of 1.3 billion Africans if this pandemic takes hold there with its suboptimal medical systems and poor governance of many of it states. Economic collapse internationally is no longer a hypothetical and may cause more serious geopolitical effects than the virus itself. In 1177 BC, the final effect of natural catastrophes was invasion by groups of ravaging “Sea Peoples” from various Mediterranean regions akin to the Goths and the Vandals who invaded the late Roman Empire.
Now that many countries are de-restricting the movement of its citizens, it is now going to be interesting to see it there will be a second wave and even a third as occurred after the 1919 pandemic. The opening of borders and international travel with an increase in international trade should be followed by a resurgence of Covid unless there is a globally-available, effective, cheap vaccine. Don’t hold your breath.
The social changes brought about by Covid will act as a catalyst for socio-political and work-place change just as happened in European peasantry after the Black Death where all of a sudden, labour became scarce and as result, the power of labour increased with an increased wages and political rights. However, now we may have the opposite of this, due to lack of jobs, a surplus of labour, mass unemployment and the likelihood that more will continue to work from home. This is in turn may impact on the need for office space with more and more people working from home both part-time and full-time and with more men at home too. There may well be a serious down-turn in the demand for commercial real estate.
Medical services in Australia have been augmented significantly during his crisis by telephone and video consultations which in many occasions have been very satisfactory as not all consultations require an examination. This has also reduced the need to travel (often long distances for country patients), take time off work and find child-minders etc. I therefore hope that adequate provision of financial incentives will continue after the crisis is over as we have found a better way of supplying health services in a more cost-effective way. In addition, there is the potential in Australia to integrate better, private and public hospitals to overcome the intractable problem of public surgical waiting lists provided there is adequate and realistic provision of remuneration for the private system which has its own demands such as the need for those in private medicine to pay for staff, rooms, equipment etc. as well as high medical indemnity costs.
So in conclusion, this crisis which I think will not be the last and may well be more complex and multifaceted next time. While this has revealed serious weaknesses in the global modus operandi, but it has also revealed some significant opportunities for us to adapt and modify our practices and strengthen our strategic capacity to respond to unforeseen threats such military and natural disasters such as pandemics, earthquakes, rising sea levels, asteroid strikes and gamma-ray bursts from space. Perhaps new trading alliances will occur and I suspect a tectonic shift in international power-play and posturing.
Were many such threats to occur at once, I think we could face another Dark Age as occurred around 1200 BC. However, unlike then, as we have over the past three thousand years, gradually degraded our planet ecologically by wiping out species, by pollution and global warming, as well as overpopulating it beyond what it can sustainably bear. Thus the next scenario may be more apocalyptic due to a reduced number of natural and human responses possible as we have seen with many species in the past.
The optimistic notion that we are a resilient species and thus have the capacity to rebound from catastrophes fails to take into account, the new reality that the damage we have done to the biosphere combined with vulnerable globalisation, may be too great for such a “stock market” V- curve to occur. I hope I am wrong.