Among the major perils that can seriously disrupt western civilization as we know it would be future pandemics.
I haven’t covered the idea as much here as some other threats (EMP, cyberwar, solar storms, nuclear) and I actually don’t think that the threats are as likely.
Nevertheless, it’s good to review the various pieces in play.
In modern times, the most obvious major pandemic has, of course, been HIV, which grew in the male gay community and overseas in other communities, exploding with a kind of big bang in the early 1980s, with social and political consequences already widely covered (as with the HBO film of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” in 2014). But HIV, as an STD, is extremely unlikely to affect the general public outside of restricted modes of transmission. Other viruses, including recently Hepatitis C (and b) have behaved in a somewhat similar fashion without becoming enormous threats. More recently, Zika virus has presented the idea of a virus transmitted both by sex and by arthropods (mosquitoes), which can pose some theoretical dilemmas about “amplification”. Imagine a sci-fi scenario where a novel virus is normally harmless but can gradually make a population sterile (“Children of Men”, 2006), or pose novel results involving personal identity (as in my own novel manuscript “Angel’s Brother”).
After 9/11, the idea of bioterror took root very quickly with the almost coincidental “Amerithrax” anthrax attacks, that apparently started in Florida with an attack on a company that publishes supermarket tabloids. In the beginning the attacks appeared to come from domestic Islamic extremism, but later attention was drawn to a scientist at Fort Dietrick, MD, with tragic results. I do remember arrests at a Trenton NJ apartment complex (not too far from where I lived on my first job) that never got mentioned again. Back in 1999 (two years before 9/11), ABC Nightline did a several-evening simulation of a fictitious anthrax powder attack in the BART subway in San Francisco, where powder with spores was thrown into a tunnel. So the idea had been thought of before. After the 2001 incidents, people were sometimes questioned by police when any powdery substance appeared in mail they had sent, an idea that would never have occurred to anyone before.
More speculation has been drawn to the possibility of re-weaponizing smallpox (as in Revolutionary and even French and Indian War times). Daniel Percival developed this possibility in the FX 2002 film “Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon”. All of this depends on the fact that the practice of vaccinating Americans for smallpox has been allowed to lapse.
But the biggest concern in the past fifteen years or so has been the possibility of pandemics based on respiratory illnesses, mainly influenzas (with the Spanish Flu of 1918 the archtype) and SARS-like illnesses, caused by corona viruses, most of which are relatively harmless. Major films on this issue include “Contagion” (2011, Steven Soderbergh), “Pandemic” (2007, Hallmark), and “Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America” (2006, ABC Studios).
Wikipedia list many “avian influenza” viruses but two of the most important are H5N1 and H7N9 (which a China Today newspaper wrote about recently). The practice of having poultry and farm animals very near houses in poor countries (or especially in Southeast Asia) raises the probability of animal-man transmission, and so far subsequent person-person transmission remains rare, but it if happens, air travel can spread it around the world. The avian influenza issue raises the idea of “herd behavior” and how ordinarily private behavior sometimes has major secondary public consequences.
Then, of course, we have the history of Ebola Virus hemorrhagic fever, as broke out in West Africa in 2014. A number of doctors and health care workers or relatives became infected, and a few returned to the U.S., including one death. In fact, Ebola is a Category A bioterrorism agent (whereas bird flu in Category C). A major controversy developed over the need to isolate or quarantine those who might have been exposed, as on airline flights.
All of this brings up two major questions. One is vaccine development, and the interest of the public in accepting the vaccines, given a new administration somewhat anti-science and sympathetic to vaccine denial. Indeed, an effective Ebola virus vaccine may soon be available, which would be essential to encouraging humanitarian volunteer work overseas (again, we have an administration that has the near-sighted nationalistic “take care of your own first” value system). I think we could become more pro-active in developing avian influenza vaccines now, as well as vaccines against corona-virus infections, because natural resistance to these agents does develop with exposure.
I note the flawed thinking behind the vaccine denial movement (as in the film “Vaxxed“), which seems, again, to stem from a “take care of your own first” value system (sometimes religion).
The other measure would be social distancing, and isolation of patients. This has been used (as for example to stop SARS from spreading in 2003) but it hardly sounds practical in the long run, and tends to invoke draconian powers from government.
In fact, the CDC attracted controversy with its “Final Rule of Control of Communicable Diseases: Domestic and Foreign”, issued January 19, on the last day of the Obama administration.
Major reading includes (from the 1990s) Richard Preston’s “The Hot Zone” and Laurie Garrett’s “The Coming Plague: Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance“.
(Posted: Friday, March 10, 2017 at 4 PM EST)