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Viruses and globalisation

The virus outbreak in China and the clampdown on travel and other activity by a Communist country is inevitably going to cause some political commentary about the implications, and it already has. One comment I am bracing for is how this proves how dangerous globalisation can be because of extended supply chains, long-haul flights, etc. In fact I expect some on the Green, anti-trade side might make such points. What the episode shows is that all advanced societies need “firebreaks” that can be imposed – hopefully by public consent for a limited period – (I mentioned firebreaks in my previous item about the Australian bushfires). There may also be lessons to come out about local food and hygiene, as well as what is done to immunise young children and so forth. This echoes what I wrote the other day about how forest fires in Australia got more deadly because the “immunity” of the forests was undermined by neglecting to do controlled burns and thin out dead trees.

But it is wrong in a broader sense to say that viruses are a point against greater human interaction via trade in general. One might as well draw the conclusion that we should all live in sealed boxes. When the Black Death raged, it killed a huge number in relative terms of the population in affected areas, and other plagues in early history have been as deadly, and yet most people at the time did not travel far from home. Some did of course, and human cities were dirty and unsanitary. But overall, the world of the 14th Century wasn’t as globalised in terms of human interaction as it is now.

Let’s not forget that trade also increases options when a population is hit by a local disaster. Take the case of food supply if the local produce goes wrong. Lack of imported food access was fatal for Ireland in the 1840s because Corn Laws hampered imports of wheat into the country.

It is true that people who even friendly to the free market economy and global trade use words such as “contagion” to describe how an issue in country X can affect a nation Y, and so on. (Some have even claimed that Chinese savings “surpluses” helped cause the 2008 financial crisis by funding the US housing binge. And writers such as James Rickards have even attempted to defend protectionism and capital controls on the same basis that one might defend a fire safety door.)

There are also implications for the effectiveness or otherwise of “transnational” organisations (aka “tranzis”), as this article at Pajamas Media states.

China is still a deeply oppressive place in many ways, and the disaster today is grim, and worrying. But bear in mind dear reader how far that nation has come since Mao, one of the greatest mass murderers in recorded history, has gone. The virus breaking out is horrible, but far less horrible than anything that bastard brought about. China is now much richer, and has the resources to tackle this plague. I wish them well.

25 comments to Viruses and globalisation

  • Kalashnikat

    I think you’ll find that Ireland was Exporting food throughout the “Famine”, it was more a matter of money to be made selling to England than giving it to the poor…

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    I think you’ll find that Ireland was Exporting food throughout the “Famine”, it was more a matter of money to be made selling to England than giving it to the poor(

    But that still means that the Corn Laws, by creating artificially high prices, made the issue far worse.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    You write,

    One might as well draw the conclusion that we should all live in sealed boxes. When the Black Death raged, it killed a huge number in relative terms of the population in affected areas, and other plagues in early history have been as deadly, and yet most people at the time did not travel far from home. Some did of course, and human cities were dirty and unsanitary. But overall, the world of the 14th Century wasn’t as globalised in terms of human interaction as it is now.

    The most dangerous time is when two formerly isolated populations meet. One or both of them will not have immunity to the other’s diseases.

    That’s why any attempt to stop plagues happening by permanently cutting down travel across the globe (as opposed to sensible local quarantine measures to stop the immediate spread of a particular disease) is doomed. In so far as you succeed in isolating one part of the world you merely make the day of reckoning worse when it comes.

    It is very like the situation you described in your “Forest fires, bank bailouts and resilience” post.

    The toothpaste is out of the tube when it comes to population mixing. We more or less have a single world population now.

    Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel argues that a major reason for European diseases wiping out so many south Americans when the transmission in the other direction was not so lethal (though it did include syphilis) was that Europeans had more domesticated animals. Just a speculation, could it be that our reduced contact with animals is making us more vulnerable to diseases spread from animals, as this latest coronavirus seems to be?

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    By the way, it might amuse the company to see that the Guardian has a completely predictable take on the subject:

    The coronavirus panic is turning the UK into a hostile environment for east Asians

    Stereotypes are spreading as quickly as the virus. On the bus, in the street, people have started treating us as if we’re infected

  • Fraser Orr

    @Natalie Solent (Essex)
    By the way, it might amuse the company to see that the Guardian has a completely predictable take on the subject:

    But surely the Gruniard also published an article explaining how Brexit, with its reduced free movement of people, will decrease the chance of communicable disease transmission? Right?

  • Fraser Orr

    FWIW, the most significant cause of plague is poverty. Certainly disease agents cause the disease but a poor and weakened population are much less able to resist and fight the disease for several different reasons (their weakened body state, poorer healthcare options, reduced travel options, inadequate nutrition, inferior public services for quarantine, vector control, sanitation and disposal of corpses, ignorance of causes etc.)

    The black death was not so much caused by yersinia pestis bacteria but by an inadequate response to it both in terms of healthcare and sanitation and ignorance.

    From what I understand the primary reason the Spanish Flu of 1919 was so severe (killing more people than World War 1 did) was because of the poverty, ill health and poor infrastructure that resulted from the previous years of unrelenting war.

    So if you want to reduce the seriousness of the risk of plague, doing things that impact international trade (except perhaps in the very short term) are about the worst choice you can make.

  • Barracoder

    I think it’s interesting that there’s a major infectious diseases research centre in Wuhan.

    Lucky….

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wuhan_Institute_of_Virology

  • Sean

    Having lived through the swine flu, bird flu, whatever flu panics I’m pretty sure this’ll be another non-event in the end.

    The problem will come when the media have lost whatever credibility it has left and a real killer flu comes along.

    Mind you, that could be the plan, and it’ll be too late by then.

  • Fraser Orr

    @Sean
    Mind you, that could be the plan, and it’ll be too late by then.

    Are you saying that the viruses are conspiring together in some dastardly plan to make the media overly panicky so that they can sneak in a pandemic while nobody is paying attention? Like the Virus Illuminati Society or something? 😉 😉 😉

    Interesting insight, and FWIW I welcome our new Virus Overlords.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Speaking of our new Virus Overlords, I advise giving Greg Bear’s Blood Music a 24,000-mile miss on account of its ultra-effectiveness in rendering Men and the Angels so depressed that they were to all intents and purposes dead dead dead; and Natalie, lo these 10 or so years ago, agreed with me. (Except she did skip to the last page, just to see how it came out.)

  • bobby b

    “That’s why any attempt to stop plagues happening by permanently cutting down travel across the globe (as opposed to sensible local quarantine measures to stop the immediate spread of a particular disease) is doomed. “

    My gosh, is every post on Samizdata about some form of artificial-constraint bubble?

  • Russtovich

    “and yet most people at the time did not travel far from home”

    You don’t need to travel if the plague comes to you.

    So… if you keep those people that are travelling out…

    You get the map at the end of the Black Death:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEK6c9Bh5CQ

    Note the huge non-infected area that is basically modern day Poland; who barred people from entering.

    Cheers

  • Julie near Chicago

    Interesting. Must investigate further.

    Thanks.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “My gosh, is every post on Samizdata about some form of artificial-constraint bubble?”

    Protectionist thinking is very common.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    @Barracoder,

    Here’s an article that further elaborates on your link.
    https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2020/jan/24/virus-hit-wuhan-has-two-laboratories-linked-chines/

    A friend of my family said she had friends in China whose parents died recently due to ‘unknown causes’. Doesn’t bode well at all.

    Putting on my conspiracy theory tinfoil hat…

    All signs of the virus suggest in some ways a bio-engineered weapon. Relatively high hit rate (higher than SARS, according to my wife), infectious even during incubation. One counterpoint is its relatively low lethality, though this could be a virus designed to cripple a state instead of population destruction.

  • Paul Marks

    There are good reasons to be wary of trade with the People’s Republic of China – what appear to be private Chinese companies are really, as supposedly private German companies were in the 1930s, joined-at-the-hip with the regime and its desire for conquest and domination. But disease is a separate matter.

    It is true that plagues have had a big effect on cosmopolitan societies (societies that engage in large scale long distance trade) – the plague in the time of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (a plague brought from the east) greatly weakened the Roman Empire and opened the door to the barbarian tribes (although it should also be noted that Marcus Aurelius DEFEATED these invaders – the plague did not destroy the Roman Empire which lasted for centuries AFTER this).

    By the way, as every corporal used to know, even the most civilised conscripts can be turned into soldiers if you are allowed to train them HARD – and the ordinary civilians who were conscripted into the Roman army at this time had to be trained hard (the alternative would have been to allow them and their families to be burned alive in in “Wicker Man” cages – remember the Germanic tribes were Pagan at this tome). “I am not a soldier please stop hitting me” – “You are a soldier now – and I am carry on hitting you till you learn how to stop me hitting you”.

    A much later plague (the plague, also from the east, in the years after 535 AD) horribly weakened the Byzantines (in Constantinople the dead are supposed to have outnumbered the living) – although blaming this for the terrible defeats of Greco-Roman civilisation in the East by the rising tribes of Islam is a bit of a stretch (as the Islamic invasion is actually about 80 years later). Although the plague may have weakened the Christians Britons (who traded with the Byzantines) and allowed their defeat by the Pagan Angles and Saxons.

    But what is the alternative?

    Return to a tribal society cut off from the world? Treating people who are foolish enough to visit (to try and trade) as a sacrifice to the Gods?

    We must not lose what we are out of a fear of disease – yes (a 100 times yes) we need to take every medical precaution, but we can not give up international trade and commerce – even though there is a risk of these terrible diseases.

  • Surellin

    Wealth itself is an effective weapon against plagues and other disasters. One must be careful not to impoverish us in pursuit of solving a problem. Bjorn Lomborg points this out in reference to global warming and it is just as true in regard to communicable diseases.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Sean says this outbreak will be “another non-event in the end”.

    More than 100 people recorded as dead so far. That’s an “event”.

  • Itellyounothing

    @ Johnathan Pearce,

    Its barely a sparrows fart in the general death toll from disease world wide every year….

    Stiff upper lip deployed I think.

    When the zombies are banging at my door shouting brains, then I’ll worry.

  • Mr Ed

    ityn

    When the zombies are banging at my door shouting brains, then I’ll worry.

    That’s a pretty neat summary of the Cultural Revolution under Mao.

    We are, in the main, descended from those who lived through the Black Death and many other plagues. We have incomparable advantages to our ancestors in dealing with disease, and to an extent, we may have been ‘selected’ through our ancestors’ immune systems in part, perhaps with more effective immune responses having evolved to predominate in our population.

    And these days, to buy a smartphone, I don’t actually need to meet anyone. A device assembled and programmed from inputs all over the Earth, putting ‘I Pencil‘ to shade in terms of the complexity of manufacture, can be delivered to me without me seeing anyone at all, not even the delivery driver.

  • bobby b

    According to the UN, approximately 156,000 people die every day.

    We’re maybe at the harbinger of an event. Maybe.

  • Mr Ed

    bobby b

    According to the UN, approximately 156,000 people die every day.

    So Blue Öyster Cult were wrong with their ‘another 40,000 men and women every day‘.

    I can’t help thinking that most of our politicians look at how the Chinese deal with this ‘event’ wistfully, perhaps with envy.

  • Sean

    By another “non-event” I mean it’s not going to be anything like the Spanish flu (which is what the media are hoping for I reckon).

    Also, I’m sure more than 100 people die in China/Europe/US every day from medical malpractice – and no-one is making a story of that.

  • bobby b

    Interesting cross-link between the various privacy-related threads here and the virus story:

    In Mexico, Uber has shut down the accounts of 240 users who rode in the cars of two drivers who may have been exposed to the C-virus.

    Good virus-containment strategy? Overbearing interference in the ability of innocent people to travel?

  • Julie near Chicago

    1. Yes.

    2. Did Uber shut down on its own hook or was it “encourged” to do so?

    ETA: It was probably here (?) that somebody recently sent a link to a map that showed Europe and “Eurasia” practically devastated bby the Spanish flu — but there was a white Poland-shaped area where there was little or none of it because the Poles refused to admit anybody at all into their country.

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