Humanity has managed to survive pandemics throughout history, but we must act now to avoid devastating consequences, writes Geoff Dyer.
THOSE WHO DO NOT DENY the effects of COVID-19 have real and understandable fears, but with signs of the apocalypse all around us, now is not the time to promote lies, disunity and confusion. We must act now, to avoid the kind of dystopias often predicted in futuristic novels. We should be wary of creating our own Armageddon out of selfishness and bad judgment.
As humanity spread across continents, from song lines to the Silk Roads, societies flourished through trade and communication routes. However, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Pestilence, War, Famine and Death have traveled these same roads.
In Australia, we commemorate old wars (lest we forget) but don’t acknowledge fellow riders, dismissing them as an aberration of the first world freedoms we enjoy.
In 2019, when COVID-19 left ship on our shores, Australia was unprepared for runners crossing the threshold. In our modern world, we hold the horsemen of the apocalyptic at arm’s length. Conquest — inflicted on others. Famine – pushed back with a full refrigerator. Death – sanitized and pushed back to the back of our minds. Pestilence — almost forgotten, thanks to modern medicine.
To dismiss the Horsemen as biblical, metaphorical or mythical figures from the mists of time is to ignore their very real presence in today’s world. Wars are a constant. Generalized famine. Even the wild beast, an Old Testament rider, thought to be tamed, caged or extinct, still rises and plays a role in modern pandemics.
To better understand the danger we face, we must look at the history that politicians, seeking popularity through division, would like us to forget.
Australia. 1788. Sydney Cove. An Aboriginal guide takes Judge Advocate David Collins to visit his tribe, his family. They find no footprints in the sand. They searched the nearby caves. Piles of unburied bodies. The guide cries with anguish: “All dead, all dead!”
The living had already fled across the land taking smallpox with them. Influenza, measles, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases would follow. Without immunity, approximately 70% of the indigenous population would die. War and dispossession are behind the diseases, reinforced by a wave of settlers.
The Aboriginal world had changed irrevocably. There would be no going back to normal, it seemed like the end of time. Yet they survive.
Since ancient times, the Horsemen have appeared, bringing suffering and grief, fear, terror, disorder. Changing societies beyond recognition.
North America. 1492, when Christopher Columbus sailed the blue ocean. Diseases from overseas wreaked havoc among the native populations as explorers, traders and conquerors descended upon them. About 90% of the native populations fell ill with European diseases during the first 100 years of colonization. Yet they survived.
South America. 1527, Peru. The Inca Huayna Capac reigns over his people, his rich, secure and peaceful empire. The Inca sovereign never sees foreigners from the sea. Illness strikes his court despite everything. He dies, his heir dies, generals die alongside powerful bureaucrats, civil war ensues.
The Spanish conquistadors rode stirrup to stirrup with the plague, ushering in the collapse of the 300-year-old Inca Empire. Diseases such as smallpox, malaria, influenza, cholera, typhus, diphtheria, chickenpox and measles killed 50-90% of the population in ten years.
Europe. 1347-1351. The Black Death (bubonic plague) swept across the continent claiming over two hundred million lives. The 17th and 18th centuries saw successive waves of plague, cholera, smallpox and yellow fever flow from east to west. 1918, The Spanish flu makes 40 to 50 million. HIV/AIDS, 25-35 million. SARS, MERS, ebola, malaria, swine flu.
So many deaths. All deserve to be remembered. Forgot everything.
Can we learn from the past in our globalized, interconnected and urbanized world? Vaccines and preventive measures have reduced many diseases, especially in the first world. Yet, it should be remembered that vaccines have eradicated only one disease: smallpox, a disease that has killed more than three hundred million people worldwide.
Today, many have retreated into isolation, masked, aloof, trying to figure out what the new reality will be. Others, driven by confusion and fear, reject vaccination, fear change and loss of freedom, insisting on a return to “normal”.
In response, some media and politicians are turning their backs on this evolving pandemic, seeking political advantage by promising freedom from government controls. Their promises are hollow and their evasion of responsibility negligent and shameful.
Holocaust deniers and trivializers in government ranks distract us from the seriousness of the problems we face. The world has already changed and there is more at stake than winning the next election.
With 5.5 million people already dead (from COVID-19), let’s face the runners. We must adapt, not riot in disbelief. The fifth rider, Climate Change, preceded by storms, droughts, wildfires and rising seas is already upon us.
We have the science, but do our leaders have the will to act?
The cost of inaction is high.
In the Bob Dylan song “All Along the Watchtower”, there is no doubt that the two horsemen approaching, as the wind begins to howl, foreshadows the advent of the Apocalypse, the end of time:
“So let’s stop talking falsely now. The hour is getting late.
Geoffrey Dyer is a retired teacher with 41 years of classroom experience. Subjects taught include English, Modern and Ancient History, Society and Culture, Indigenous Studies.
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