A Forewarning And An Opportunity

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By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News

As we endure the social isolation and devasting economic impacts tearing up lives and businesses caused by the coronavirus, we may be fortunate. This pandemic is a forewarning of what could be an unstoppable, far more deadly virus that strikes the young and healthy.

It may also lead to a reawakening to the value of a rural life where we aren’t so packed together.

Viruses are hyperactive evolutionary machines, always mutating, always seeking ways to spread.

Consider the H7N9 flu. While mostly infecting chickens it makes an occasional jump to humans who come in close physical contact with infected poultry. Such was the case in 2016-2017 in China. Though only 759 Chinese were identified to have contracted the virus, 281 died – a 37 percent mortality rate. Is it just a matter of days before H7N9 makes the final alignment of its makeup that allows it to jump easily from human to human?

Then there is the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus – MERS. It is a coronavirus that spreads from bats to dromedary camels. It is now widespread among camels in the Middle East, camels that humans are in constant contact with daily.

In 2015, a South Korean returning from the Middle East was what world-respected Minnesota epidemiologist Mike Osterholm called a “super spreader.” He had contracted the MERS virus on his trip and brought it home with him. By the time his illness was diagnosed it had spread to 186 other South Koreans with 36 dying – a nearly 20 percent kill rate. Osterholm says the mortality rate for the virus could be as high as 40 percent.

Imagine a virus as deadly as the 1918-19 flu that killed more than 675,000 Americans. With today’s U.S. population, that would equate to 2.16 million people.

The average age of those who died in the 1918-19 flu was 27.2 years. In a typical flu season in the U.S., 90 percent of the deaths are among those over 65. With COVID-19, 78 percent of the deaths have been in the age group 65 and older.

 “I don’t know what the virus will do,” Osterholm, who is the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy said of the flu two years ago. “But history tells us that influenza comes back and comes back and comes back.”

It’s not just influenza that comes repeatedly but new strains of the coronavirus. With the flu, we have antivirals to treat the sick and vaccines to prevent the disease. When a new coronavirus emerges, we have no vaccines or treatments. Just as we are doing now, we anxiously await the vaccine while experimenting with a host of potential drugs to limit the damage the virus causes.

There is a dynamic at work today to increase the frequency at which viruses can evolve and spread. Our world has grown to 7.58 billion people and will hit 9 billion by 2037, then 10 billion by 2057. To feed all those people will require billions more chickens as as well as more pigs. Human-animal contact will increase in the already densely populated regions of the world.

A dense population is the rich breeding ground for the spread of a highly contagious virus. With more than 1.7 million people flying around the world every day (before the coronavirus struck) there is no stopping another pandemic from killing millions and shutting down the world’s economy again.

We fail to learn the lessons taught each time a particularly deadly virus strikes. We fail to dedicate the funds to the scientific research needed to study, detect, prevent the spread of, and treat new viruses. We fail to eliminate the meat markets in countries like China where the close prolonged contact between animals infected with deadly viruses is a guarantee to create a pathway for a virus to spread. And we continue to pack ourselves into mega-cities.

Was this virus a warning shot to densely populated areas; to beehive living. Will this virus alter the mindset of America’s young people and their desire to live tightly into crammed cities?

We know the coronavirus can spread to rural America. But we are protected to a great degree by our low population density. We don’t have mass transit busses or subways, we don’t ride in packed elevators, we don’t wait in long lines in small spaces for a cup of coffee, we don’t touch door handles that were touched by a thousand people that day. The crowds in the metropolitan areas are also far more likely to have high numbers of international travelers coming and going from their business centers.

What this virus may have done is accelerate the work-at-home movement that was growing before COVID-19 started taking so many lives.

“The movement we’re seeing now is not just a reaction to one pandemic,” Joel Kotkin, who studies how and why people move and wrote about the “Coming Age of Dispersion” at newgeography.com, is quoted in The Washington Post. “There will be a longer impact, an acceleration of the process that was already starting. The work-at-home trend was already building, the small towns were already becoming much more cosmopolitan, with more and better coffee places and restaurants, and the big cities were already becoming prohibitively expensive.”

What steps can we, should we, be taking to make our communities ready for a migration from metropolitan areas to the country should this virus be the impetus for change?

One challenge will be overcoming an all too common image of rural America. “You’ll still have urban centers,” Kotkin writes. “But they’ll be less intense and more dispersed. You’ll no longer have to choose between unaffordable, overcrowded cities and incredibly boring countryside. There will be a more attractive middle ground.”

How do we capitalize on the safety our low-density population provides during a pandemic but also on our greater sense of community that adds value and meaning to life?

We need to be thinking about these challenges in the days ahead.

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