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You were finishing your book, How Contagion Works – one of the first about the pandemic – as Italy was becoming the disease epicentre in Europe. How are things in Rome now restrictions are lifting?
This may sound selfish, but Rome has never been more beautiful than it is now. At this time of year, the city is normally packed with tourists; it’s really nice being able to stroll through quiet, almost empty streets. But cities like Rome, Florence and Venice would die without tourists, so I’m hoping a more sustainable tourism industry can be managed in the future.
You have a PhD in theoretical particle physics; you’re also a novelist and non-fiction writer. What insights does your background in physics give you about the scale of the medical and social crisis that is COVID-19?
A lot about COVID is to do with assembling data and interpreting numbers correctly. But maths is more the science of relations than numbers; it’s why behaviour that doesn’t surprise scientists can shock everyone else. This is why a sudden, exponential increase in the number of COVID-19 cases is reported as an “explosion” and “dramatic” in the media, when nature – and in this case, infectious disease – doesn’t behave in a linear fashion. The increase in the number of infected, if a lockdown isn’t put immediately and firmly in place, can be vertigo-inducing.
You write of the critical importance of keeping the R0 factor – the mathematical term for how infectious a disease is – low, not only during the initial lockdown, but as restrictions are being lifted, as they are in Australia at present.
When the R0 is kept below a critical value – the time it takes for pre-existing cases to be identified and contained until they are no longer infectious – for long enough, the rate of infection drops significantly, but it’s still there. Turn the tap back on too quickly, and you risk the water – the infection – gushing out again. That’s why this, the trickiest phase, needs to be handled so cautiously.
If R0 – pronounced “R naught” – equals 1, each infected person can infect one other. But according to a study published online recently in Emerging Infectious Diseases journal, the R0 of SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that led to the COVID-19 pandemic – could be as high as 5.7, which is double an earlier estimate of 2.2 to 2.7.
This is a highly infectious disease. SARS-Cov-2 is the first virus to spread this quickly on a global scale. It took a year to 18 months for the 1918-19 Spanish flu to really spread over the world; for COVID-19 it took a couple of months. Most likely, in the end, the death toll won’t be any higher than other illnesses, because many countries have acted quickly, but it’s the most significant health emergency of our time. Over nine million people have been infected worldwide so far, and the disease still hasn’t peaked in many developing countries.
The great sadness of the first two decades of the 21st century is that our trust in reason and science – the very foundation of civilisation – has been eroded, at the very time we face unprecedented global challenges on so many fronts.
I hope our societies will get in touch with science again, but we’ve been moving in the opposite direction because of the spread of conspiracy theories on social media. Nationalism and populism are effective at manipulating fear and rage but are weak and helpless at dealing with huge crises like COVID, as we’ve seen in some countries.
“The more we become aggressive towards nature, the more we push into rich biodiversity and tropical forests, the more we put ourselves at risk.”
Surely if there’s a broader lesson from COVID, it’s that we have to at least trust the science on climate change?
Climate change is more complicated than COVID. It doesn’t seem so close and urgent to us. You can’t tackle climate change by relying on individual responsibility alone; it is corporate and institutional effort that’s needed, and political will. All of which have been lacking.
You write that the virus is democratic in the way it infects people, but those who have suffered the most are the poor in countries like Brazil and India and the disenfranchised in the US. George Floyd, a black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer, was COVID-19 positive. He’s become a symbol of how people of colour have been disproportionately affected not just by police violence in the US but the spread of COVID-19 and the stark divisions between rich and poor.
When I wrote the book, I didn’t know where the virus would hit worst, and we still don’t. What’s happening in the US is sadly instructive, and reveals not just racism but deep inequities and failures in its healthcare system and social safety net. The pandemic’s epicentre is now in Brazil, and the extent it will spread to other South American nations depends on their government policies. Africa could be next.
The most widely accepted evidence on the origin of SARS-Cov-2 is that it’s zoonotic – most likely from the butchering and handling of bats in wet markets – which more than likely infected another animal before spreading to humans.
The more we become aggressive towards nature, the more we push into rich biodiversity and tropical forests, the more we put ourselves at risk. This isn’t speculation; it’s reality. There’s increasing evidence from DNA sequencing that old diseases like smallpox first got into human populations this way.
The number of pathogens (viruses, bacteria, parasites or prions) that jump from animals to humans in the past 50 years has grown, beginning with AIDS in the early 1980s, the principal driver of which was a strain of HIV deriving from chimpanzees in Cameroon, following earlier but limited outbreaks. Since then we’ve had Ebola, bird flu, swine flu, mad cow disease, Middle East respiratory syndrome…
And don’t forget your own Hendra virus in Australia, which jumped from bats to horses to humans.
And last year Chinese authorities killed nearly half the nation’s pig stock because of swine fever.
Intensive mass farming, involving animals crammed together in very small spaces, and the huge overuse of antibiotics, creates environments where pathogens can proliferate. Beyond that, swine fever exposed the weaknesses in China’s animal-epidemic prevention and control. As a species, humans have been pretty lucky so far in avoiding the worst.
A study published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the Royal Society journal found that virus spillover events from animals to humans have been tripling every decade since 1980. The study directly linked this to humans devouring more wilderness for agriculture, mining and urban development, releasing pathogens that normally would remain in these areas.
The accelerated extinction of multiple animal species is forcing several bacteria that lived inside their guts for millennia to move elsewhere for survival. Reckless deforestation is releasing micro-organisms we haven’t even identified or named yet. Who knows what last summer’s Amazon forest fires may have set free, or what life-saving drug we may have lost? Who is able to predict the long-term aftermath of the loss of biodiversity that recently took place in Australia? We can’t survive without the ecosystems that support life on the planet.
Only by recognising we belong to a collective – humanity – can we deal with the huge challenges to come.
The lockdown would surely have nurtured some modicum of empathy for animals trapped in small cages most of their lives.
The treatment and trafficking of wild animals, grabbed from their wilderness homes and put into cages in wet markets where they are killed, is just one part of it. The growing need for food is forcing millions of people to resort to eating animals that should be left alone. In West African countries, for example, there’s been an increase in the consumption of bushmeat, including bats, which are among the carriers of Ebola in the region.
Why have conspiracy theories about COVID flourished, from rogue viruses being deliberately or accidentally released from Chinese labs to fruit-loop ideas about the 5G network spreading it?
Conspiracy theories are sexier than cold scientific facts and more comforting for people searching for a single, simple, specific thing to blame. It’s easy to point the finger at a Chinese lab and imagine vials of the virus being secretly smuggled out than accept the deep complexity of nature and how our relentless and pervasive disruption of its processes is leading to major health consequences.
Those disruptions are already killing more people than COVID, aren’t they? Global air pollution is already a health crisis, killing seven million people a year, according to the World Health Organisation.
We’re all to blame for what we’re doing to the planet. I’ve taken more flights myself than is reasonable. Climate change is a far, far bigger threat than COVID.
You’re 37. How fearful are you of what’s to come?
I’m pretty sure we’re going to see a major catastrophe in my lifetime, much worse than COVID, because threats are intensifying. The environment is being degraded at a higher and higher speed, and population growth is unsustainable for the planet. There’s a long list of illnesses that could benefit from climate change: Ebola, malaria, dengue fever, cholera, Lyme disease, the West Nile virus and possibly others we don’t know about yet. At present these are little more than an inconvenience to wealthier societies, but as problems widen, the increased risk of disease will catch up with us all.
Which means …
We should all start thinking more: not just about our local communities, or our countries, but the world. Only by recognising we belong to a collective – humanity – can we deal with the huge challenges to come.
Greg Callaghan is a senior writer and the Associate editor with Good Weekend.