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  Number 469 | Agosto 2020
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This is a 21st-century epidemic

This pandemic is the product of this society. It couldn’t have happened at any another time. It is unimaginable outside of our society, our world; it belongs to it. Epidemics will continue to happen; it’s why we have epidemiologists. Just as we have firefighters because there are fires. How do we prevent another pandemic like this one given that we can’t lock ourselves in every year? No economy can withstand an annual lockdown. Therefore, we’ll have to learn.” That’s a sample of this scientist’s thinking. Below we offer more of his ideas on the subject.

Juan Luis Arsuaga

We had to get this pandemic. It’s linked to the changes in society and the economy. Most of the world’s population lives in large cities, where transmission is easier because there are no firewalls. You can prevent mobility between cities but not within the same population unless you confine people in their homes, a very drastic and necessarily temporary measure. And, at the same time, we live on an interconnected planet.

This pandemic can’t
be analyzed in isolation

The conditions that favor this kind of viral pandemic are created. This virus cannot be understood outside of the historical context we are in. It’s very much a 21st-century virus, with which we’ll have problems in this century that we didn’t have in the 20th century. It’s like a computer virus, which is intrinsic to computers. When changes occur in society, new problems appear.

This crisis has affected Hollywood a lot, but not Netflix. And perhaps that’s because we were going towards Netflix anyway and what this crisis has done is show us the future. Apart from the tragedy, maybe it has served us as a reflection to know where we’re going.

A fact can’t be analyzed in isolation. From a social scientist’s perspective, it isn’t a good way to proceed. We can’t analyze one of the Neolithic variables, such as its lifestyle, without considering the rest: how the diet, the relationship with the environment, social relations and property changed... and later, writing appeared...

We’ll have to change our behavior

I think there won’t be more pandemics like this one because we will incorporate it into our lives. In Madrid, for example, we have some pollutant indicators for nitrogen dioxide and carbon dioxide. What do we do when the alarms go off? We reduce traffic. In other words, we change our behavior. We have incorporated pollution into our society. There are still earthquakes but we changed building codes to make earthquake-resistant buildings. This pandemic, this new variable, will be incorporated, as has always happened.

Will there be new pandemics? Inevitably, because viruses mutate but when there’s a virus alert, we’ll do the same thing we do when the pollution alarms go off: we’ll act.

When I say we won’t have a pandemic like this one, I mean it in the same way they won’t have a flash flood in Valencia like the one that destroyed half the city. Why? Because after that happened, they diverted the course of the River Turia. They took measures and flash floods were incorporated into the planning.

Does this mean we’re going to live like before? No. If we do nothing, what we’ve lived through with this pandemic will be repeated. Maybe we’ll develop infra-red cameras that can detect infected people. Will the number of plane trips be limited during some months of the year? It could be.

Every virus has its danger

Life is full of problems, and that isn’t a bad thing. The dead have no problems. It’s okay to have problems, it means we’re alive. There have always been problems. We used to have others: there was smallpox, extreme poverty, illiteracy… What will we do about the new problems? Well, if we are stupid, we’ll all drown in the next flood, but if we aren’t, we’ll divert the course of the Turia and convert the old riverbed into a garden.

I don’t believe Nature has rebelled against us. I don’t do magical thinking; it doesn’t lead anywhere. It’s a religious proposition. Repent, sinners! Such repentances have very short legs. Just like you really regret it when you’ve eaten the whole cake, but the next day you eat cake again.

This must be viewed with a cool head and through social analysis. This is a 21st-century epidemic, not one from the 12th century. There was a focal point in a remote Chinese province and look at us now! All that has happened over the entire planet in just a few months! It has no precedents and that’s because we’re in 2020. Conclusion: in 2050 there’ll be other problems.

Some point to a conspiracy, that this virus had its origins in a laboratory… It’s irrelevant whether the virus did or didn’t originate in a laboratory. I don’t generally believe in conspiracy theories. It sounds very odd to me that it escaped from a research center, but it doesn’t matter. It would be good to know, it’s interesting, but it doesn’t affect the fundamental fact, which is that starting now we have to be careful with viruses, whether they are natural or artificial.

Every virus has its danger. We have HIV, which is already part of our lives and has forced us to change habits. Societies are living organisms that continue learning. Nothing is the same as before. In the past, sexually transmitted diseases were syphilis and others of bacterial origin that were treated with antibiotics. Then they became viral. That’s why the coronavirus crisis is unprecedented, because it’s ours.

Will we learn?

This can train us for what may come in the future. I’m referring, for example, to the consequences that could come from climate change, another variable from which conse¬quences could be derived. When I was studying, nobody talked about or was the least bit interested in climate change. It’s a world-class geopolitical variable of the first order.

It is a mistake to think in medieval terms. The worst crisis in the 19th century was the potato blight. The resulting famine killed millions of people in Ireland and generated a massive emigration to America… And it wasn’t viral; it was caused by a mold. Nobody thinks there could be a food crisis now and, in fact, this hasn’t happened in this crisis. Every era has its crisis, and you must keep a little perspective. In Ireland, the potato crisis is now a folk memory. Today they have others.

In this pandemic some countries have done better than others. We have paid for it in human lives. The economic bill comes now, and it won’t be cheap. This reminds me of a phrase we always use in science that goes: “If you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance.” When they ask me: Do you think we have learned anything from this crisis? I always answer: We’ll see in a few months’ time. I don’t know yet.

Juan Luis Arsuaga is a paleoanthropologist, co-author of The Chosen Species and The Neanderthal’s Necklace and director of the Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain.

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