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Coronavirus: A warning from history

Indian pangolin. Some people believe coronavirus entered the human domain because the pangolin  (found in Africa and Asia) is considered a delicacy in China


ADELAIDE - I spent 32 years working in various capacities within the health, hospital and aged care sector.

It was a continuous learning experience for me and one which, despite the anxiety and distress it sometimes generated, was richly rewarding in providing insights into the nature of humanity.

A fascinating part of my long term learning experience was working in the public and environmental health division of South Australia’s department of health.

Over a period of about four years I was exposed to information relating to all manner of public health issues ranging from the basics of disease, dunnies and drains through to the more esoteric but no less important worlds of radiation physics, pharmacology, food technology, epidemiology and communicable disease.

Public health as a speciality is often regarded by doctors as a slightly quaint branch of medicine, a place where failed clinicians tend to congregate.

This is a very unfair characterisation of the discipline which is undoubtedly the most important and effective in protecting overall public health.

Imagine what sort of world we would live in if the sewage system ceased to function properly or the water supply became tainted or, as we are now discovering, a new and lethal communicable disease got loose.

The great fear that has haunted public health specialists for many decades is the possible emergence of an organism which was so virulent and so fast moving that it would leave our health systems playing a desperate game of catch up while it wrought havoc across the world.

Let me tell you, there are some very, very scary organisms out there that fully justify this fear.

The COVID 19 virus (coronavirus), horrible as it is, does not rank amongst the most virulently lethal communicable diseases that might one day confront us.

History has provided many horrible examples of diseases that have killed huge numbers of us in very short order.

The best known is, of course, the black plague (Yersinia pestis), which wiped out at least one- third of Europe’s population when it first appeared there in the 14th century.

It carried on killing humans across the world in great numbers well into the 19th century before effective preventive and treatment methods finally brought it under control.

The last known case in South Australia was a sailor who contracted the disease at Port Adelaide in 1919.

Still, there is no room for complacency, as the black death is still with us, notably in parts of Africa. Rather startlingly, cases continue to be reported in the USA from time to time.

Other hardly less virulent communicable diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis, typhoid, diphtheria, poliomyelitis, cholera and yellow fever cut a swathe through humanity for centuries before large scale immunisation finally brought them under control.

Less virulent but still serious so-called “childhood diseases” like measles, mumps, chicken pox, rubella and scarlet fever are also well controlled.

Influenza, a disease that most people erroneously regard as innocuous, still kills around 3,500 Australians every year. This is despite a large scale and very effective vaccination program.

So successful have public health services been in suppressing communicable diseases, that many people in the so-called developed world have become very complacent about the risks attached to such illnesses.

Indeed, we now have the anti-vaccination movement which is based upon the utterly wrongheaded belief that vaccines are in fact more dangerous than the diseases they are designed to suppress.

This belief is only possible because the incidence of these diseases is now so low that people have completely forgotten how much harm they once did and, in fact, can still do.

This has led to a resurgence of cases of diseases like measles and whooping cough. Although the associated death rates are still low, the distress and residual disabilities that are caused by a disease like measles, notably partial or total deafness, can be life changing events.

It is important to understand that, almost without exception, communicable disease arises from human interactions with something in the environment.

So, the black plague was transmitted by the bite a flea carried by the common rat, while yellow fever probably first passed from primates to humans in Africa during the 18th century. Cholera has existed for many millennia and humans contract it by drinking from a contaminated water supply.

The essential lesson from the origins of all these diseases is that we ignore the environment we live in at our considerable peril.

This brings me to COVID 19 (the virus) which is now raging rampant across the globe. This is one of a large family of Corona viruses which exist in our environment, mostly without causing humans any harm.

This disease made the jump from an animal species to humans only a matter of a few months ago. Where and when this occurred is not yet clear but it seems to have originated in the so called ‘wet’ animal markets in the Hubei Province of China. These markets specialise in the sale of exotic animal species for human consumption.

It is a peculiarity of Chinese culture to eat such animals. Usually, humans stick to a diet of animal protein derived largely from domestic animals or wild animals that have been hunted for food for many centuries.

Whatever the causal mechanism, it turns out that this virus is very easily spread by human to human contact and is unusually virulent compared to most other viruses of its type such as the common cold.

The overall death rate appears to be not less than one percent which is 10 times higher than that of influenza, but could turn out to be as high as 3.5%.

Italy is currently reporting a death rate of around 7% but there may be particular factors in Italy, such as its higher proportion of the population over age 65 years that is skewing the death rate upwards.

The speed with which this virus has spread has been simply incredible.

In a globalised world, crossed daily by tens of thousands of air journeys, the virus has arrived almost simultaneously on every continent and seems destined to invade literally every corner of the planet within a very short time.

The health impacts have been profound enough, with many people dying very rapidly and our health systems being overwhelmed by the need to admit and treat the 20% or so of victims who need hospitalisation.

The race is on to develop a vaccine for the virus and no doubt the winner of this race will make a vast fortune.

But even if everything goes well, a vaccine will not be available for another year or so. By that time, the virus will have wrought huge harm across the globe.

In the meantime, international air travel has ground to a halt, tourism as an industry collapsed more or less overnight, the supply chains for many goods and services have been serious disrupted and the world’s finance markets have once again frozen as lenders try to figure out which individuals or companies seeking their funds actually have the capacity to survive the current downturn and pay them back.

Financial experts are trembling at the prospect that the world’s gigantic debt mountain (K1,090 trillion and counting) will finally collapse as many debtors are either unable or unwilling to repay creditors.

Once again, it will be the taxpayers who foot the bill of trying to save the worthy as well as the profligate from disaster and, in so doing, spare us all the catastrophe of a full blown economic depression.

Currently, there is no expert or analyst who believes that the world will escape a serious recession and many believe that the impact will linger for years, not months.

We are witnessing the much feared but long expected ‘black swan’ event, which by its nature is unforeseen and unforeseeable. Black swan events are characterised by their extreme rarity, their severe impact, and the widespread insistence they were obvious in hindsight.

History says that when the dust finally settles after the virus is tamed and some semblance of economic order is restored, we will very probably draw the wrong conclusions about what caused this debacle and either take no remedial action or the wrong action.

This is certainly what happened after the global financial crisis and there is no reason to have confidence that it will not be repeated by the world’s current political leadership, who are committed to the dangerously unsustainable neo-liberal economic model which I believe lies at the very heart of this debacle.

For me, the lesson is that we have to put a stop to the rapacious exploitation of the natural environment that is a necessary corollary of the neo-liberal mania for economic growth at any cost.

The virus is an example of what happens when our apparently in-built human desire to exploit anything and everything around us leads us to indulge in behaviours that are far riskier and potentially more damaging than we seem able to realise.

It is extraordinary that someone’s desire to profit from someone else’s desire to chow down on a bat or pangolin can lead to a pandemic that will very probably kill millions of people and disrupt the entire world economic system.

We need to urgently rethink the whole idea that never ending growth and consumption of resources is a sustainable economic philosophy. It plainly is not.

Surely it is long overdue to contemplate the idea that economic activity is meant to be a means to an end, being a sustainable and reasonably comfortable life for humanity generally, not an end in itself.

Also, surely it is wrong at every level, moral, ethical and even from an economic standpoint, to have a system whereby the winners accumulate wealth beyond even that of entire nations, while the majority remain in sometimes abject poverty?

The virus should be a wake up call for those of us living in the so-called developed world that we are not going to be immune from the consequences of ill advised exploitative behaviour in even the most remote corners of the globe.

We will not be able to sit here, fat, dumb and happy, while bad things happen to other people.

While I am quite sure that the world will be a different place when the virus has run its course, I am pessimistic that it will be a better place unless our children and grand children can show that they are much smarter than us and develop a much more sustainable, environmentally sensible way of running an economic system that is manifestly fairer and more equitable in the way it distributes the benefits of human work and ingenuity.

I believe that the path to such a system will be found in a major revision and restructuring of the current system, not the invention of an entirely new approach.

The total upending of the system has been tried in the past, notably the communist experiment, with disastrous results. Progressive reform seems to offer a more sensible way forward.

If we or our successors fail to do the hard work of reforming the current socio-economic system to achieve a better balance with the environment and in the distribution of resources, then further events like COVID 19 will be inevitable.

As I said previously, there are many very much scarier things out there than this virus. For example, the class of organisms called hantaviruses include things like ebola fever, which kills 70% of its victims.

If something like this gets loose, then discussions about economic theory will very rapidly be rendered utterly irrelevant.

For this reason, I believe that we would be wise to see COVID 19 as not just the terrible disease that it undoubtedly is, but also a warning from history that we must change our ways permanently or suffer from further ‘black swan’ events that are likely to be even more hideous and life changing for us all.


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Lindsay F Bond

Again on the topic of freedom of the press, that is, of reporting news, today there are reports from sources in Russia that have gained headlines with news reporting by CNN and others. These reports are quite scary.

Example is: "It is rare for doctors to fall from windows in Russia, but Shulepov was the third health worker to fall out of a window in the country in the past two weeks."

This does appear to be of incidents that are "curiouser and curiouser." (Sadly that is not of the jolliness intended by that saying originating from author Lewis Carroll in 'Alice in Wonderland.')

One report puts a possible cause for these incidents as "likely reflect the stress doctors are under in an underfunded system during a pandemic".

Maybe readers will become more cautiously curious.

Philip Fitzpatrick

That's a very interesting article Lindsay.

While I 've been wary of Clive Hamilton's articles in the past this one seems well supported.

Donald Trump's blustering and attempts to make the virus and China an election issue doesn't really help because it simply makes the Chinese more secretive.

Lindsay F Bond

Dear Chris - "Political vetting is now required before publication is permitted" according to opinion offered by Professor Clive Hamilton.

Not allowed to be published in China are "words noting that the outbreak originated in China".

Scarier than any virus is that knowledge is not shared and worse, not available when it is most needed.

Australia's prime minister Morrison has called for an inquiry into the actual knowledge of this virus Covid-19, the reach of which must include historic events of actual occurrence in China.

Bernard Corden

"A reasonable estimate of economic organisation must allow for the fact that, unless industry is to be paralysed by recurrent revolts on the part of outraged human nature, it must satisfy criteria, which are not purely economic" -
R H Tawney, 'Religion and the Rise of Capitalism' (1926)

Bernard Corden

Dear Phil,

I have written an entire book about rampant unfettered neoliberalism and laissez faire economics with its deification of the Friedman doctrine and its impact on workplace health and safety. It reviews the gig economy with its McJobs and franchising arrangements involving organisations such as the Retail Food Group, 7-Eleven and Domino's Pizza.

It also reviews Kevin Rudd's home insulation program and the emergence of industrial diseases such as mesothelioma, black lung and silicosis. It offers an alternative using a sophisticated ecoliterate transdisciplinary approach.

It is pretty comprehensive with over 350 pages supported by 40 diagrams with a bibliography containing more than 6000 references and a comprehensive glossary and hyperlinked index.

It is available via:

All proceeds are donated to the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross Sydney.

Philip Fitzpatrick

One thing is becoming abundantly clear as the coronavirus epidemic rapidly escalates and that is that any government based on neo-liberalism ideology is the worst form possible to deal with a crisis of this magnitude.

This is most apparent in the USA, the home of laissez faire capitalism, where confusion reigns supreme and the virus is uncontrollably rampant, but it is also now becoming evident in Australia.

At the moment there are huge queues of people outside Centrelink offices who have lost their jobs because of the lockdown of businesses trying to get unemployment benefits.

The staff in these offices who have survived the purges by the current government have very little chance of dealing with all these people. It beggars belief that no one in the government realised this would happen.

In the forty years or so that neo-liberalism has informed economics the world has seen government organisations and services privatised in the mistaken belief that private business can do a better job (and make a fast buck in the process).

In Australia the current government has indulged in an orgy of outsourcing, casualization, cost cutting and ‘trickle down’ favours to big business.

This has left us with inadequate levels of healthcare, education, welfare, public housing, aged care, child care, law enforcement and a plethora of other services. The purging of public service numbers has ensured that what remains has to struggle to fulfil its roles.

A similar situation also pertains in Papua New Guinea but its causes are more to do with corruption and incompetence.

It is therefore no surprise that the government’s response to the crisis in both places, as they realise they don’t have resources to deal with the crisis, has been chaotic with confusion, indecision and delays being overriding characterisations.

The Australian government still seems preoccupied with its economic stimulus measures while the health aspects take second place.

Pumping money into the business sector is hardly going to help support ordinary citizens get through the crisis.

As Van Badham, a ‘Guardian Australia’ columnist notes, “To believe that private businesses will suddenly redirect their entire rationale from money-making into selfless acts of collective public service to cope with catastrophe is at best a determined misreading of capitalism”.

She goes on to add that “if there’s hope to cling to, it’s based in the universal realisation of Australian households that a transformation of our economic system is imperative to our reconstruction, and survival.

“It was the same realisation that built the better, fairer, more resilient Keynesian systems of regulated, socialised welfare-state economies in the wake of the Depression and the Second World War”.

If we get through this crisis in reasonable shape there is still the crisis of climate change to deal with. That crisis is ever gaining momentum even as we are preoccupied with corona virus.

We will no less need a form of government that supports people rather than just wealthy corporations if we are to get through that crisis and whatever new crisis comes later.

John Mackerell

I'm still working in the PNG health system. Kudos must be given to the government here for taking the right actions rapidly. Admittedly, we do not have sufficient resources for properly treating severely infected people but rational and effective prevention is not rocket science and has been instituted.

Bernard Corden

Henry Giroux is always a good read and has obviously been swigging the raspberry cordial:

Bernard Corden

The trajectory of coronavirus has many sinister consequences, which include Schumpeter's gale of creative destruction that will enable the rapid onset of artificial intelligence and even eugenics.

My thoughts regarding government stimulus packages are "Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes" - Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

Ian Ritchie

It's a scary thought.

Many years ago, I read (or heard, can't remember which) someone with far greater understanding of the world economy than me, state that we cannot continue to grow at any cost.

An economic model that labels negative growth as something akin to the creature from the black lagoon, is neither wise nor sustainable.

The raping of our planet for money is quite simply wrong. The power wielded by corporate monsters is wrong.

I liked the throw back to recent history where Chris used the sheer stupidity, greed and callous nature of the US banking system to highlight just how poorly governments learn.

Whilst many people the world over, lost businesses, houses, marriages and even their lives, the sickening banking execs continued their self-centered pillaging of the money industry and continue it today.

I remember the Goliath automotive industry execs flying into Washington in their fleet of private jets to demand congress bail them out, such was the utter disdain shown by these corporate land leviathans to the average tax paying citizen.

Unfortunately, I fear history will repeat itself. We are lumbered with a PM and associated gaggle of mediocre to poor misfits on the benches who refuse to act prudently, which is lunacy even if they genuinely believe their closed minds are right.

Big money buys anything it wants and the average citizen can do nothing about it. This crisis will worsen before it runs its unknown course and even whilst we take stock of the many failed businesses, large and small and the bankrupted population, we will hear again about how we must continue to grow, to rape, to pillage and the deaths of many people will simply be another footnote in history.

The sad part of this, is that there are viable and sustainable alternatives, but it risks the money-grabbing addiction of the elitist few who know intimately how to control a government and they play these political stooges and the general populace like puppets, with threats, bribery and deliberately false marketing.

It's worked for them in the past and it will work again for them in the future.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Here's another essay from Counterpunch worth reading:

Bernard Corden

It was most reassuring to see and hear our federal minister for disease offering advice about social distancing following the gatherings at Bondi Beach.

Previous roles include a sinecure with McKinsey and Company, the organisation behind the Enron scandal back in 2001 and the recent opioid epidemic that swept across the US via Pardue Pharmaceuticals.

Indeed McKinsey's fingerprints can be found at the scene of some of the most spectacular corporate and financial debacles of recent decades.

The chair of Safe Work Australia also spent several years with McKinsey and Company in Washington DC on think tank row. Other senior executive roles included tenures with Westpac and Broadspectrum, which provided facilities management services at the Manus Island hellhole.

Due diligence indeed.

William Dunlop

Simon, re your comments on the late Malcolm Fraser AC CH GCL PC. I have a read of Mary Alexander's 'Life & Spaghetti' in The Standard News of 15 July 2011 and Michael Thorntons 'Jackaroo'.

One of my many Irish Setters was called Dubliner Jackaroo by his breeder, a bank johnny from Adelaide. My girls and I happily called him Jacky. Slainte.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I thought it was a splendid essay too Lindsay.

Simon's response is on the money too.

Bernard Corden

Dear Chris,

A very well crafted piece that rivals anything on Counterpunch, including Jonathan Cook's recent offering:

Simon Jackson

Rich, thoughtful and well informed article. Thank you, Chris.

Like many people who have lived deeply in developing countries, and been exposed to crises people in 'developed' nations see only on TV or at the movies, this observation hit home for me:

"We will not be able to sit here, fat, dumb and happy, while bad things happen to other people."

As the coronavirus spreads in Australia, cases currently doubling every 3-4 days, and people are urged to isolate, Bondi beach is packed. The privilege of ignorance, or perhaps the ignorance of privilege.

Moving to Australia in the late 1970s, after most of my childhood overseas, felt like landing on a different planet.

There were hospitals, TV, toilets, cars and petrol stations, shops, and I could drink safely from almost every tap.

The rest of the world was the 'news', usually mentioned only when something really bad happened, and then only as an 'oh dear' moment, and then back to sport and weather. It was a bubble I could not, and still cannot, fully comprehend.

The coronavirus is putting a pin in that bubble, proving that the real world is still there, was always there, and can be a scary and dangerous place.

Climate change is another pin, but has not yet pierced the thick defences of ignorance, privilege, and nationalism and racism.

In some ways I feel sorry for my age-mates who've only known the bubble. It hasn't prepared them for the realities of life on this planet.

Even bloody Malcolm Fraser got it - "Life wasn't meant to be easy." But there's hard, and there's real hard.

Coronavirus, climate change, our ageing public infrastructure, loss of public discourse (e.g., politicians who run on lies) all attack the ruling paradigm of invulnerability, security, and certainty.

The world can be a difficult place, especially if we don't co-operate, and lack leaders who inspire and instill shared purpose and care.

As Chris says, hopefully coronavirus is a wake-up call to the fact that we are all deeply connected, and that we must respond with joint action and care to this, and other immediate dangers such as climate change.

Respond collectively perhaps even to the wicked problems of poverty, disease, famine, and war. Imagine.

But early signs, like the sacking of supermarkets or the packing of Bondi, suggest the bubble or privilege is still strong. Until it isn't.

Like the quote attributed to Hemingway: 'Gradually and then suddenly.'

Lindsay F Bond

Of all my dalliances at reading PNG Attitude, I can recall none more noteworthy (nor more broad in reach) than this by Chris Overland today.

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