As far back as 2015, Bill Gates gave a now famous TED talk in which he predicted the occurrence of a pandemic “in the nearby future”. Mr. Gates is getting quite some flack for that prediction, which is quite unfair. Tin-foil-hat-wearers think that Bill Gates has some darker motives, whereas it is my guess that the truth is far more benign: Bill Gates simply reads a lot of books and articles; which are actually freely available to all of us. And if you start reading those, you will quickly realize that it isn’t such a surprise that Bill Gates arrived at his conclusion.
Over the years, a number of people, including many scientists and authors (fiction and non-fiction) have predicted the occurrence of a pandemic. Over-population, the massacre of the environment, climate change… all of these are factors in a dramatically changing playing field for pathogens.
Still not convinced? As a biologist and author, I published a novel on this topic back in 2010: TWO JOURNEYS (available e.g. on iTunes or amazon.com) describes the devastating impact of a CORONA VIRUS pandemic – see TWO JOURNEYS, pages 122/123 – photo below.
I must admit that there was no magic or clairvoyance involved; the SARS and MERS epidemics convinced me (as a scientist) that such a scenario was bound to happen. Sure, my prediction that the pandemic was the result of a CORONA VIRUS was surprisingly spot-on. The main reason for my selection of CORONA (and not e.g. H1N1) was that I needed a culprit that could spread at top speed across the globe – CORONA viruses have a prominent ability to do so through droplet and surface infection. In addition, it is challenging to develop vaccines against CORONA viruses, which at the time of writing the book also passed my mind as a suitable characteristic; I recall toying with the idea of introducing that aspect further on in the series.
What makes TWO JOURNEYS truly special is the analysis of the psychological effects of such an occurrence on the hero; and how populists will misuse the narrative for their own purposes. Quite a few story lines in the book have now (alas) become reality. That is where the novel has its true predictive strenght.
So, TWO JOURNEYS (and its sequel FIELDS OF FIRE) indeed describe the aftermath of a CORONA pandemic. The rest is high speed, adventure fiction – but you will recognize several characters and occurrences again, e.g. the misuse of the pandemic by the villainous dictator Somerset may well remind you of some of our current political leaders – those that put fiction before fact, and self-interest before empathy. I recently addressed this in a (yet again!) predictive blogpost, first published back in March 2020: The Corona Pandemic and How it Affects All of Us.
There it is, on page 122/123. Corona is the culprit of the pandemic that left Alan (hero of TWO JOURNEYS) stranded in Tokyo. Note the line “Corona viruses spread by droplets or surfaces” – better keep your distance, wear a mask and wash your hands.
Over the last few months I have blogged extensively about Corona. Today, it looks as if this disease will be continue to be with us for some time. It may become a virus hat remains “in parallel” to all the flue and common cold viruses out there. There is even some speculation that the appearance of novel viruses may become more common.
Although some countries are opening up again from complete lock-down, other countries haven’t yet reach the peak in the pandemic. The hunt for a vaccine is in full swing, but with my background in biology I agree with some experts that that this may not succeed soon, or even at all. On the other hand, Dr. Fauci is optimistic.
In any case, for the foreseeable future, it is key for all of us to protect ourselves, but especially vulnerable people around us. One of the ways to do this is the use of a face-mask. We would be wise to continue their use also in the future; even when the pandemic should quiet down. People in Asia wear such masks, on a regular basis,and that is good health practice.
Even though such masks are non-medical, they have several advantages. For one they provide (and this has been proven) some basic protection from distributing the virus should you have been infected. They also provide some minor protection against catching the virus (although this protective quality should not be exaggerated). In addition, such masks keep you from touching your face, and they also alert people to keep their distance from you.
Today’s world is complex. We are bombarded with a never ending flood of information; through news, social media and personal conversations. News hits us from all corners of the globe: a hundred years ago nobody would have known (or cared) about forest fires on the other side of the world; today we feel directly affected by them. In addition, we are more than ever confronted with developments that impact all of us, such as the Corona/Covid19 pandemic (see previous blogpost) or climate change.
How to handle this confusion? Only a level-headed “cool analysis“ of the facts helps us deal with this complicated world. Without reliance on facts, the world becomes even more complex and reality even more difficult to handle. And we start making mistakes, after all, who wants to base decisions on wrong facts?
But how to distinguish fact from fiction? People spread half truths or lies in a number of ways. Here’s an example of how that works.
Creationists are convinced that, based on the texts in the Bible, the world is only a few thousand years old. You can think about this any way you want (many will conclude that his perception is wrong. As a biologist, I am slightly biased in this matter), but that is not the point that I would like to make. I would like to talk about the dilemma this causes for the creationist. Thecreationist has two options. First, the creationist could decide that the biblical text is correct and that no further discussion is needed. The creationist could then simply stick to this belief and not enter into any further discussion with anybody. This would be 100% consistent. After all, we all believe in certain things, and sticking to those beliefs is fully acceptable. Sure, it may have some disadvantages for the creationist: this person might feel isolated as many people will smirk at this idea, and/or the creationist wouldn’t be able to gain more followers. The creationist would definitely get less air time on national television! Many religious groups follow such an approach (e.g. the Amish people in the USA, who self-isolate pretty efficiently). Perfectly fine: they can go on with their lives, and I with mine. We mutually respect one other and might even enjoy our differences.
The alternative for the creationist is to collect information to prove that the world is indeed only a few thousand years old. The apparent advantage for the creationist is that the creationist can continue to interact and discuss with fellow humans, thus there is less risk of having to live the life of a recluse. It also provides a feeling that the theory is scientifically validated. And you can actually get invited for a quirky interview on TV.
This is what I call the Creationist Dilemma: the creationist needs to choose between these two options.
Remember, I’m not discussing the pros and cons of creationism. This blogpost addresses the dilemma that confronts many believers in many topics.
There are tremendous flaws in choosing the second option: what I call the Creationist Trap. In choosing the second option, the creationist starts to collect (scientific) evidence that “proves” that either the evolution theory has weaknesses, or that creationism is correct. In other words, the creationist starts out with a theory and then picks and chooses the evidence that supports that theory.
However, this is not how science works. To put it bluntly, it completely contradicts common sense.
It’s like driving a rattling car through the desert and firmly believing that it won’t break down (~theory) because you had it checked, the tank is full, the wipers and horn are working, and your highly concerned passengers were wrong in the past (~facts). Based on which you conclude: we will continue driving! (~action).
In contrast, real science starts out by collecting facts, from which a theory is created. To stay with the car example: oh my, the motor doesn’t sound good at all (~fact); is it breaking down? (~theory), let’s stop and check the motor before it gets worse (~action, leading to the collection of more facts).
The “beauty” of the creationist approach is that it allows anyone to “prove” anything.
Example: climate change. Many climate change deniers have a reason (their starting “theory”) for their denial of human-caused climate change. Perhaps they fear for the economy, or their job. Or they love big cars that use a lot of gasoline, or the theory doesn’t fit their understanding of freedom. Perhaps deep down inside they are afraid of change. In any case, they fall victim to the creationist’s dilemma: instead of simply saying: “Hell, I am not going to change my ways. I’m going to produce carbon dioxide and I don’t care what’s going to happen to the climate” (which would at least be consistent), they are tempted to start collecting data that “substantiates” climate change isn’t happening: they choose option two and fall into the creationist trap. They may refer to irrelevant climate change events that happened thousands of even millions of years ago, or to other „mistakes“ that so-called „experts“ made.
You think the Earth is flat? You think that the whole corona reaction was unnecessary? Do you believe humanity never landed on the moon? Are vaccines bad? Is homeopathy a proper medical treatment? You think brushing your teeth has no benefits? I can help. I’ve been working in science long enough to know where to find information, justgive me sufficient time, and I will collect all the evidence you need to support ANY of your theories.
Is that a valid approach? No.
How to spot people that have fallen victim to the Creationist Trap? Have you perhaps fallen into it yourself? Here some indicators to look out for.
First, always question: why is this person making a certain statement? What is this person’s underlying motivation? In the case of the creationist it is simple: religion. Anti-vaccers may be driven by fear or uncertainty, or mistrust in institutions (like Big Pharma). In many cases the motivation may not be directly obvious, e.g. climate deniers may have many different reasons at the same time. And many won’t even tell or disclose what motivates them. Sometimes they do not even know themselves.
Second, are the person’s statements overtly negative, in a sense that the person is trying to DISPROVE a theory? An expert (this can be a scientist, but also a football coach, an iron monger or an accountant) makes mostly positive statements about theories, since they know the facts that support them. They feel comfortable with the evidence on which the theory is based. A flat-earther is on constant defence against scientists, the media, the world, and is thus attacking the idea that Earth is a globe.
Another telltale sign: is the person heaping up more and more evidence (true or false) from as many sources as possible to make their point? And if one argument doesn’t work, quickly switches to the next one?
Is the person relying on (sometimes amazingly good) oratory skills, is this person a smooth talker? Does the speaker transport knowledge or emotion? Knowledge and facts can be very boring; emotion can be very gratifying and exciting.
An expert knows that no one can know everything about a discipline. As a result, an expert will regularly use phrases such as: “there is no data to support that theory,” or even simply admit “I’m not sure.” A person stuck in the creationist trap will not allow any doubt to shine through. They do not discuss; they debate.
Is the evidence provided actually related to the topic? Are observations pulled in from cases that may seem similar, but that are in fact unrelated: whataboutisms? Typical statements to watch out for are “they were wrong about XYZ too” or “something similar happened then-and-then, and it turned out be completely innocent.”
The indicators above may apply to any individual. But if many start to bubble up at the same time, your alarm bellS should start to go off.
In the end, the scientific method relies completely on common sense, the two are inseparable. Facts know no religion, no politics, no emotions. But they are key to get your rattling car out of the desert.
In 2011 I published a visionary novel TWO JOURNEYS, which deals with a corona pandemic. I’m a biologist with considerable virology experience which, with the SARS epidemic, inspired my literary work.
Although I do not see myself as a expert virologist, I do track this pandemic with high interest. A lot of data has been collected, which can become very confusing (even to me; although I‘m used to work with scientific data) – but I would like to offer a single data point. Today, May 9, globally 275,000 individuals have died. As certain countries (China, Brazil, Russia, Iran, even the UK, and others) are poor at reporting corona deaths, my guesstimate is that the actual number of deaths is probably closer to 600,000. This happened in about 4 months. Imagine no lockdowns would have happened!
It is hard to extrapolate (as crucial data is still missing), but my guess would be that the total number of deaths from this pandemic could easily be within a range of 10,000,000 to 100,000,000 (see the Spanish flu, which had probably 17,000,000 victims – in a less densely populated world). This is a “guesstimate” for the case of no lockdowns at all.
Now let’s take a different angle. The challenges that we are confronted with are three fold: (1) circumvent human suffering (2) limit economic repercussions (3) as primates, we are eager to have full social, face-to-face contacts. We want all three, and as soon as possible.
These goals seem to contradict one another. However, the beauty is that the solution for all three is identical. And very straightforward: we must all follow the WHO guidance rigorously, and do this now: wash your hands multiple times a day, do not touch your face, sneeze and cough in your elbow, keep a distance to others of 2 meters/6 feet, stay at home & only leave your house for essential business.
My main concern is the weakening of discipline, this is the true problem. People are beginning to move the goalposts, there is a trend to soften the handling of social distancing.
You can help to reduce the number of deaths AND also make sure that the lock-downs are lifted quickly. This means you will have to inform yourself. How often and how to wash your hands? What should my children do (especially teenagers)? How are aerosols created and how far do they travel when talking, coughing or laughing? See this great article by Erin Bromage.
If all of us are very consistent and self-disciplined throughout this pandemic, then we save lives… and the economy.
As the author of the 2010 corona-pandemic novel TWO JOURNEYS, and as a biologist with 20 years of laboratory experience with microorganisms, viruses and radioactivity, I provide some insights on how viruses may contaminate us as individuals. I am not a medical doctor: as a scientist my general advice is to always listen to the experts, such as the WHO or your government. However, as my work in the lab has taught me, you should always work from the premise that any object that has been touched by other people has to be considered contaminated (the same is true for any object that you touch with unwashed hands). That is one of the key ways to stay safe.
What I do not mention in the movie is that several surfaces in your surroundings are potentially high risk. From my lab experience working, when for instance radioactivity was accidentally spilled, my colleagues and I usually found the highest levels of contamination on the surfaces that people touch, sometimes without noticing. So always clean:
Water taps / water handles
Any button, switch or keys on any appliance. Here you can think about: the buttons on your espresso machine, the door of your fridge, the flush button on your toilet, the buttons in the elevator.
Also consider the car steering wheel, the gear stick, car door-handles (in- and outside), or the handles on your bike.
As Alan, the hero of TWO JOURNEYS says: Stay Healthy, Stay Sane. Let’s kill this bastard virus!
Also see this blog post:
The Corona Pandemic and How it Affects All of Us – link
As a biologist with virology experience (obtained at a large pharma company during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s) and as an author of the 2010 corona-pandemic novel TWO JOURNEYS, I can claim to know more about epidemics than most… yet definitely not enough to call myself an expert. Nevertheless, I’ve come to the realization that this is a lonely situation: I seem to be surrounded by virologists and economists, literally EVERYBODY suddenly seems to have deep insights into Corona and its effects. I already hinted at this phenomenon in my previous blogpost “The Corona Crisis and how it will affect all of us.”
I read about Corona on a daily basis, and have found some trustworthy and good resources too (within the hyperlink above). I have also been reading up on Corona on social media. Mildly put, this is an unwise decision, as the average post or comment on e.g. Facebook has as much value as a fart at a funeral. It seems that every Hans, Fred and Harry, who in the past would blurt out their skewed view of the world in a neighborhood speakeasy, now knows how to use highly efficient social platforms to create considerable reach. People talk about herd immunity without understanding the true issue with that approach. People start to confuse result and cause: „corona isn’t a dramatic disease, because nothing much happened.“ Yeah… but perhaps that’s because of the measures that most countries implemented, dumbhead? And, yes at least 100,000s if not millions will die because of this pandemic. Throw into this mix a limited knowledge of data and data interpretation, some conspiracy theories and strong personal opinions, and bingo: suddenly any government or official advice on how to deal with the pandemic does not sound so sensible anymore.
Not that any alternative is offered; it is just criticism.
Bluntly criticizing without offering alternatives – in any setting a poor show. I talked to a neighbor next, a gentleman over 70, who, due to a previous lung disease, clearly belongs to the COVID-19 risk group. An intriguing conversation, mildly put. First, this whole “panic about corona is a complete exaggeration” (that was probably also the reason that he kept moving closer, forcing me to step back to keep a safe distance). Second, “They will make us pay the bill for this”. He said this in a way as if the “others” are yet again forcing him to pay something; as if this is a ploy by our (democratically elected) government to get his money. Again, criticism against ‘others’ without any constructive idea on what the alternative could be.
Some pundits on social media do this in a very clever way, by overloading their arguments with factlets and selective information – but in the end, again no proposal on how tor resolve the issue. Obviously, populists and extremists are very good at this. They are conspicuously quiet at the moment, although I can guess why: they never talk about SOLUTIONS, only about PROBLEMS. And in the current situation, what we need most are solutions. But don’t worry, once the virus has been defeated, they will come out of the wood works with full energy.
The issue is that if a catastrophe happens, society as a whole will need to pay the bill. This happens after every storm, every explosion, every war and every pandemic. And society is made up of citizens, which means that this pandemic will cost US money, yes: YOU. It will also cost ME money, if that offers any comfort. Economic crises happen about every seven years (the old testament already mentioned this), and every fifth crisis is probably a real big one, so get used to the idea that you will encounter a financial crash several times in during your life time (see my blogpost “Getting Started as an Investor. Six Straightforward Steps.”You can’t blame the government (that you may have elected into office?) or anyone else. This virus is bigger than all of us together. You can criticize them for how they handle the pandemic, but what does the alternative that you suggest look like? Is it really better? What is your evidence, or is it conjecture? What actually is your personal contribution to improve the situation? And did you vote this government into office, and why? Would your favorite party or politician be able to do a better job?
My corona-pandemic novel TWO JOURNEYS sets off in Japan, a country that I was privileged to visit a dozen times or so. We can learn a lot from Asian countries in this crisis. I am sure that Japanese also have grievances with their governments and fellow countrymen; but what is obvious in Japan is that when the government communicates advice on how to behave in a pandemic, the Japanese seemingly do a better job at simply following the guidance. Now, you may argue that Asian people are much less critical and outspoken. However, my impression is that the Japanese do this because they simply have respect for other people. That is why, even in times when no pandemic is about, many people in Japan keep their distance to other people, or wear face masks when they have a cold. This respect is something that we should try to adapt, as it makes coping with this situation much easier.
We, in the west, are all critical of our government, any government. By itself this is laudable, but in case of a pandemic, this has lead to many of us being very slow in accepting the government guidelines with possibly dramatic consequences (the postmortem on this pandemic may provide interesting insights). This starts out by a certain stubbornness, for instance the refusal to keep any distance, or refusing to wash hands properly. Several people told me: “I always wash my hands. I don’t understand this guidance. My mama taught me so.” My answer: “What? Your mother taught you to wash your hands for 25 seconds, to also scrub the inside and back of your hands, each single finger, and 5-10 times each day – and you already did that BEFORE the pandemic? NO WAY!” This stubbornness goes all the way to partying on the beach or in the park, going out even if infected, or even purposefully sneezing in the face of policemen (an incident that occurred in the Netherlands. The culprit was sent to jail). At the moment, the government in Germany is afraid to say that face masks are a good thing to stop the spread – mainly because they know that immediately all face masks will be hoarded and that none will be left for the hospitals. You can’t make this up.
What my neighbor doesn’t understand is that sometimes it is best to just shut up and follow the rules. If the rubber hits the road, pause the discussion. Our democratically elected governments, the hospital staffs and the “real” virologists and epidemiologists (yes, the experts that we think we are) bring considerable experience to the table, and they seem (from where I am sitting) to be conscientiously evaluating the situation day-by-day, if not hour by hour. And the guidance that we have is simple: stay in your home if you do not have to go out, keep 6 feet distance to strangers, and wash your hands. That isn’t asking too much: in China they are spying on their people through mobile phones, no wonder they can claim that the infections go down (whether that is really the case at the rates they suggest is a completely other matter). And the beauty is that if we all do this, very stringently, we will in the end flatten the curve, save lives and be able to return to work again. More food for thought in my blogpost: Corona. How you can help stop this Pandemic in its tracks.
Stay healthy and help kill this thing.
The Author with a anti-corona (non-medical) mask, made out of a clean handkerchief and two rubber bands.