by Dimetri Orlov
At the moment, the Ebola virus is ravaging three countries—Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone—where it is doubling every few weeks, but singular cases and clusters of them are cropping up in dense population centers across the world. An entirely separate Ebola outbreak in the Congo appears to be contained, but illustrates an important point: even if the current outbreak (to which some are already referring as a pandemic) is brought under control, continuing deforestation and natural habitat destruction in the areas where the fruit bats that carry the virus live make future outbreaks quite likely.
Ebola’s mortality rate can be as high as 70%, but seems closer to 50% for the current major outbreak. This is significantly worse than the Bubonic plague, which killed off a third of Europe’s population. Previous Ebola outbreaks occurred in rural, isolated locales, where they quickly burned themselves out by infecting everyone within a certain radius, then running out of new victims. But the current outbreak has spread to large population centers with highly mobile populations, and the chances of such a spontaneous end to this outbreak seem to be pretty much nil.
Ebola has an incubation period of some three weeks during which patients remain asymptomatic and, specialists assure us, noninfectious. However, it is known that some patients remain asymptomatic throughout, in spite of having a strong inflammatory response, and can infect others. Nevertheless, we are told that those who do not present symptoms of Ebola—such as high fever, nausea, fatigue, bloody stool, bloody vomit, nose bleeds and other signs of hemorrhage—cannot infect others. We are also told that Ebola can only be spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected individual, but it is known that among pigs and monkeys Ebola can be spread through the air, and the possibility of catching it via a cough, a sneeze, a handrail or a toilet seat is impossible to discount entirely. It is notable that many of the medical staff who became infected did so in spite of wearing protective gear—face masks, gloves, goggles and body suits. In short, nothing will guarantee your survival short of donning a space suit or relocating to a space station.
There is a test that shows whether someone is infected with Ebola, but it is known to produce false negatives. Other methods do even worse. Current effort at “enhanced screening,” recently introduced at a handful of international airports, where passengers arriving from the affected countries are now being checked for fever, fatigue and nausea, are unlikely to stop infected, and infectious, individuals. They are akin to other “security theater” methods that are currently in vogue, such as making passengers take off their shoes and testing breast milk for its potential as an explosive. The fact that the thermometers, which agents point at people’s heads, are made to look like guns is a nice little touch; whoever came up with that idea deserves Homeland Security’s highest decoration—to be shaped like a bomb and worn rectally.
It is unclear what technique or combination of techniques could guarantee that Ebola would not spread. Even a month-long group quarantine for all travelers from all of the affected countries may provide the virus with a transmission path via asymptomatic, undiagnosed individuals. And even a quarantine that would amount to solitary confinement (which would be both impractical and illegal) would simply put evolutionary pressure on this fast-mutating virus to adapt and incubate longer than the period of the quarantine.
Treatment of Ebola victims amounts to hydration and palliative care. Transfusions of blood donated by a survivor seem to be the only effective therapy available. An experimental drug called ZMapp has been demonstrated to stop Ebola in non-human primates, but its effectiveness in humans is now known to be less than 100%. It is an experimental drug, made in small batches by infecting young tobacco plants with an eyedropper. Even if its production is scaled up, it will be too little and too late to have any measurable effect on the current epidemic. Likewise, experimental Ebola vaccines have been demonstrated to be effective in animal trials, and one has been shown to be safe in humans, but the process of demonstrating it effectiveness in humans and then producing it in sufficient quantities may take longer than it would for the virus to spread around the world.
The scenario in which Ebola engulfs the globe is not yet guaranteed, but neither can it be dismissed as some sort of apocalyptic fantasy: the chances of it happening are by no means zero. And if Ebola is not stopped, it has the potential to reduce the human population of the earth from over 7 billion to around 3.5 billion in a relatively short period of time. Note that even a population collapse of this magnitude is still well short of causing human extinction: after all, about half the victims fully recover and become immune to the virus. But supposing that Ebola does run its course, what sort of world will it leave in its wake? More importantly, now is a really good time to start thinking of ways in which people can adapt to the reality of a global Ebola pandemic, to avoid a wide variety of worst-case outcomes. After all, compared to some other doomsday scenarios, such as runaway climate change or global nuclear annihilation, a population collapse can look positively benign, and, given the completely unsustainable impact humans are currently having on the environment, may perhaps even come to be regarded as beneficial.
I understand that such thinking is anathema to those who feel that every problem must have a solution—or it’s not worth discussing. I certainly don’t want to discourage those who are trying to stop Ebola, or to delay its spread until a vaccine becomes available, and would even help them if I could. I am not suicidal, and I don’t look forward to the death of roughly half the people I know. But I happen to disagree that thinking about what such an outcome, and perhaps even preparing for it in some ways, is necessarily a bad idea. Unless, of course, it produces a panic. So, if you are prone to panic, perhaps you shouldn’t be reading this.
And so, for the benefit of those who are not particularly panic-prone, I am going to trot out my old technique of examining collapse as consisting of five distinct stages: financial, commercial, political, social and cultural, and briefly discuss the various ramifications of a swift 50% global population collapse when viewed through that prism. If you want to know all about the five stages, my book is widely available.
Our current set of financial arrangements, involving very large levels of debt leading to artificially high valuations placed on stocks, commodities, real estate, and Ph.D’s in economics, is underpinned by a key assumption: that the global economy is going to continue to grow. Yes, global growth started stumbling around the turn of the century, stopped for a while during the financial collapse of 2008, and has since then remained anemic, with even the most tentative signs of recovery having much to do with unlimited money-printing by the world’s central banks, but the economics Ph.D’s remain ever so hopeful that growth will resume. Nevertheless, this much is clear: halving the number of workers and consumers would not be conducive to boosting economic growth.
Quite the opposite: it would mean that most debt will have to be written off. Likewise, the valuations of companies that would supply half the demand with half the workers would be unlikely to go up. Nor would the houses, half of which would stand vacant and dilapidated, increase in value. If the supply of oil suddenly outstrips demand by 50%, then this would cause the price of oil to drop to a point where it no longer covers the cost of producing it, and oil producers will be forced to shut down. This would not be a happy event for those countries that are heavily dependent on energy exports in order to afford imports of food to feed their populations. Nor would such developments spell a happy end for those countries that need to continuously roll over trillions of dollars of short-term debt in order to continue feeding their populations via government hand-outs (the United States comes to mind).
“But what about wealth preservation?!” I hear some of my readers screaming in anguish? “How do I hedge my portfolio against a sudden 50% global population drop?” Well, that’s easy: you need to be short all paper. Short it all: currency, stocks, bonds, debt instruments, deeds on urban real estate. Get out of most commodities: energy, obviously, but also precious metals, because you can’t eat gold. Go long people (who will be in ever-shorter supply) and arable land (because people have to eat) and stockpile everything else that they will need to learn to feed themselves. If they are sufficiently grateful for all you help, they will feed you too. Alternatively, you can just sit on your paper wealth as it dwindles to nothing, and wait for the torches and the pitchforks to come out. Since wealthy people squander a disproportionate amount of wealth on themselves and their families, killing them off is a good wealth preservation strategy—for the rest of us, so feel free to do your part.
It would be a challenge to keep global supply chains in operation while commodity prices plummet in value, credit becomes unavailable, and other knock-on effects of financial collapse make themselves felt. Since a lot of production depends on overseas suppliers, it would shut down shortly after international credit becomes unavailable. Countries that have food security, strong central control, many state-owned companies and long-term barter agreements with other countries (Russia and China come to mind) may find it possible to switch their economies into the old command and control mode, so that the few products that are key for keeping the survivors alive remain available.
It should be expected that certain forms of production—those particularly capital intensive—would disappear entirely. Examples might include integrated circuit manufacturing, pharmaceutical industry, offshore oil drilling, satellite technology and so on. Certain long-lasting forms of technology, such as manual printing presses, manual typewriters and solar panel-powered shortwave radios, would remain in use, treasured and passed along as technological heirlooms.
For many operations, different staffing arrangements would need to be put in place. For instance, ships would need to double their crews, in expectation that at least half the crew might drop dead during any given trip. This would not be as problematic as it sounds: during the age of discovery it was not unusual for half the crew to be lost during a voyage from causes ranging from blunt trauma to scurvy. The shift to double-staffing would be particularly important for operations that affect public safety in a major way, nuclear power plants in particular.
A 50% reduction in global population would no doubt accelerate the already speedy process by which nation-states fail and turn into ungovernable regions. Not a year goes by without one or two more countries joining their ranks: Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine… Several African countries may join this list before the year is out.
Especially at risk are those countries that would be unable to continue feeding their populations once oil prices plummet. Saudi Arabia, for instance, would be quickly wiped out as a country once the vast welfare state supported by the House of Saud ceases to function. As soon as that happens, Saudi Arabia would become a particularly soft target for the Islamic Caliphate, with very interesting consequences for the entire region.
There is one effect that would be common to all countries, or at least to those who have not yet undergone political collapse: since the population would become much younger, gerontocracy would become a thing of the past. The swift die-off would cause life expectancies to plummet, but we should expect the effect to be much more pronounced at the higher end of the spectrum. In many of the prosperous, developed countries in particular, there is currently a very large bulge near the geriatric end of the age spectrum. In these countries, people have been living longer and longer thanks to aggressive medical interventions: cancer surgeries, drug regimens and a variety of therapies. Many of these people are living longer but in increasingly poor health, and we should expect Ebola to carry them off in disproportionately large numbers. Organizations such as the US senate, with an average age over 60, would be expected to lose much more than half of their members—to most Americans’ inordinate glee, if public survey numbers are to be believed.
For those countries that manage to remain stable, the disproportionately heavy die-off among the aged may pave the way to large-scale economic and political reforms. Older people tend to vote more than the young, and they tend to vote for the preservation of the status quo rather than for change. This pattern is particularly clear in some countries, such as the US, where older people vote to maintain the privileges that had accrued to them during prosperous times, thereby depriving their children and grandchildren of a viable future. The demographic projection where soon there will be just two working-age people supporting each retiree would be invalidated. Other types of rapid positive change may occur; for instance, many academic disciplines, in which nothing can change until the old guard dies, may begin to see rapid progress.
There would likely to be a wide spectrum of outcomes. Those communities that are ethnically homogenous, well-defended, strongly bound together by conservative and uniform social and religious traditions, with a history of favoring self-sufficiency and perseverance, would be likely to survive and recover. On the other hand, those communities that are ethnically diverse with a history of bigotry, racism and ethnic strife, with weak, optional, or nonexistent standards of public morality, which are integrated into the global economy in non-optional ways, and which are unaccustomed to hardship, are likely to perish.
The cultures most favored to survive would be those that can be preserved autonomously at a small scale. Particularly favored to survive would be those that have a strong oral tradition, teach their own children within families rather than submitting them to government-run schools, and insist on internal systems of jurisprudence and governance in defiance of any external interference. It is hard to imagine that the Roma of the Balkans or the Pashtuns of Waziristan would fail to pass on their culture just because half of them suddenly die. Such circumstances may sound dire to most of us, but to these long-suffering tribes it’s a sunny day in the park and a boat-ride on the pond, and they would be sure to add a few epic poems about it to their repertoire once it’s over.
At the other extreme are those cultures that depend entirely on book-learning, and have a writing system sufficiently abstruse to require many years of schooling just to achieve a basic level of literacy (English, Chinese). Education relies on transmitting information from those who are older to those who are younger, and as the die-off compresses the age spectrum toward its younger end, the number of teachers will dwindle. Coupled with other inevitable disruptions, formal schooling may become impossible in many areas, resulting, a generation or so later, in very low levels of literacy. Severed from its main mechanism for acquiring knowledge, the culture of the people in such areas would disintegrate. At the very far end of the spectrum are found roving bands of feral children, speaking a language that no adult is able to understand. It is at this point that we are able to conclude that cultural collapse has run its course.
I have already mentioned that it may be a good idea to make arrangements through which survivors would be able to feed themselves, and provide them with the few other necessities for survival.
Beyond that, there are the basic mechanics of handling the pandemic. The current strategy treats it as a medical problem, best handled by doctors and nurses working in hospitals and clinics. This strategy only works for as long as the epidemic can be said to be under control; once it can be said to be out of control, the surviving doctors and nurses (medics are usually the first to be exposed—and to die) would be well advised to specifically refuse to handle Ebola patients.
In absence of any curative or preventive therapies, Ebola patients need shelter, hydration, hygiene, palliative care and, if and when they die, sanitary disposal of the remains. The goal is to do what is possible to give patients a chance to recover more or less on their own. To this end, it is very important to do all the things necessary to make sure that people are dying just from Ebola, and not from exposure, dehydration, or from any of the opportunistic diseases that thrive in disrupted circumstances, such as cholera and typhus. Sanitation is the most important aspect of the entire operation.
These services need not be provided by trained medics. The main two requirements for such service are: 1. psychological immunity to scenes of horrific suffering and death; and 2. immunity to Ebola. The first of these requirements comes down to natural talent; some have it, some don’t. The second requirement is being provided free of charge by the Ebola virus itself, in cooperation with the survivors’ immune systems.
English lacks a good word to describe this type of specialist, but we don’t have to reach far to find one: the Russian word for it is “sanitar.” A popular Russian saying goes “wolves are sanitars of the forest” because they take care of disposing of the sick, the weak and the lame, thus giving those that survive a better chance. A sanitar need not be medically trained, but some training is needed: in diagnosis, palliative care, sanitation procedures and corpse disposal.
A third requirement is one that applies to the sanitation service as a whole: the number of sanitars has to scale with the rate of infection. Since the number of those infected is increasing exponentially, the number of sanitars assigned to serve them has to be able to increase exponentially as well. It seems outlandish to think that sufficient numbers of people will spontaneously volunteer for the job, and this means that they have to be press-ganged into service. And a super-obvious way to do just that is to simply never discharge Ebola survivors: once you are in, you are in until the pandemic is over, or until you die, whichever comes first. If you recover, you are given a bit of training, and then you go to work.
If you don’t like the mitigation strategy I am proposing, please feel free to propose your own. Keep in mind, however, that what you propose has to automatically scale with the increase in the rate of infection, which is exponential. Sure, you can propose setting a public health budget, but then it has to double every couple of weeks—and keep doubling until the number of patients is in the billions.