An essay by Rodrigo Varela (SABF 2017 & 2019 participant) and Gastón Rizzo (SABF 2020 organizer). If you'd like to write for our blog, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Were one to observe a hoard of feral horses roam the wilderness, one could, to a high degree of certainty, infer the order of hierarchy of its members. As it turns out, horses have a highly stratified social structure that determines the way the band travels: organised from the one highest in the pecking order at the front to the one that scrubs the floor, at the back. Between hierarchical levels travels the offspring of the one in front. The pyramid also defines who is to eat first, and who is to respond to dangers.
Horse power structure is, more frequent than not, linear. Yet there are numerous studied cases of nonlinear hoard systems: horse A may be dominant over B, B dominant over C, and yet C could dominate over A. Add to that the fact that different individuals can be dominant over different resources, and you got yourself a mind puzzle.
This might be a good time to point out that bands of equines are no larger than 25 individuals in size. If complexities in group organisation can be such when dealing with small hordes of animals, how can they not be vast when talking about massive societies of intricate beings, as are humans?
Since the dawn of civilisation (oh boy, what a soothing cliché), humanity has found an ever more complex organisation structure. Primitive societies first packed into nomadic groups of around dozens of people. With the sway of millennia, those packs evolved to become tribes of hundreds and chiefdoms of small thousands, which either grouped together or fought each other (more often one than the other) to form states of many more. The centralisation of decision-making and the levels of bureaucracy evolved, and so did economic and religious perceptions.
The 18th century, with its revolutions and whatnot, then came along to make a proper mess of all we have just said. Exponential expansions in wealth and new conceptions of the individual shaped societies in elaborate networks of various geometries. Globalisation later contributed to the construction of a massive underlying social structure with seemingly unending links.
A brief history of pandemics.
Let us divert for a minute and refresh our memories on what happened in October of 1347. Commercial ships sailing through the Mediterranean brought to medieval Europe what would later be known as the black death, a very deadly strain of bubonic plague likely carried by fleas on rodents. The disease killed between 30% and 50% of the population of the infected areas—the death toll was so immense that it took Europe 200 years to recover its population.
Medical understanding in times of the bubonic plague was very limited: patients were treated by being submerged in vinegar, made to sit close to a fire or rubbing a half pigeon over their wounds (history is gross by nature). It would be unfair to our forefathers, though, not to point out that some of the prevention methods used nowadays were also implemented in the middle ages, as this municipal order from Ragusa, modern Croatia, goes to show:
‘Those who come from plague-infested areas shall not enter [Ragusa] or its district unless they spend a month on the islet of Mrkan or in the town of Cavtat, for the purpose of disinfection.’
The spread of the black death followed trade routes: the dark and humid deposits of ships were home to many a traveller rat, and land transportation also presented a viable means. It will hardly shock the reader, then, that places like Poland or the Italian city of Milano, which forbade all foreigners to enter their borders, got hit to a much lesser extent. There were also cases of isolated Mediterranean islands that did not face bubonic plague infections.
Fast-forward hundreds of years into the future, to a time when telephone lines were already a thing and the use of forks was widespread at last. The unfairly-named ‘Spanish Flu’ outbreak of 1918 infected a third of the world population and in a very short period became the deadliest pandemic in centuries. Since the West was still wrapping up its first World War, it is hard to draw a parallel with government responses to other similar outbursts. Only by analysing less compromised countries like Australia, which blocked the entrance of foreign ships to its ports, do we find the same pattern of reaction to the disease: closed borders and complete self-preservation.
The 20% drop in air travel on eastern Asia in 2003 over the SARS epidemic and flight restrictions in times of the 2009 influenza outbreak further attest to this fact.
If we said societies have different geometries, we could think epidemics evolve in shape to fit those geometries: what governments have essentially done is fragment them to stop their spreading.
So, the logical question is, how do each of these societal shapes hold up against mother nature’s continuous tests of our survival skills? And how do they compare to one another? That is to say, is it preferable to favour a nation-based approach? Or an international, cooperative effort?
There is plenty of evidence that might attest to the suitability of individual efforts, rather than collectivism, to face such threats as pandemics. In fact, it seems the old adage that gave birth to classical economic theory becomes a reality, more than ever, when dealing with large scale outbursts of infectious diseases. After all, if every country does conduct itself in whichever way helps control its situation better, then the sum total of their efforts adds up to an improvement in the general global condition.
The nature of infectious diseases is such that this dynamic is but reasonable, as we track human progress and the causes that keep putting us six feet underground. Vaccines, antibiotics, and a myriad of modern medical advances have, for the most part, relegated what once was the bane of humanity to the lesser causes of death. Congenital and chronological degenerations of our bodies, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, or heart-related conditions are at the foremost of our health concerns. And, unless we are spectacularly wrong in our understanding of cancer, a patient is in no way at risk of spreading the tumour to those around them by mere proximity. One cannot cough heart arrhythmia into another, nor leave traces of Parkinson’s disease on surfaces due to poor hygiene, either. Hence, international coordination to try and get the best minds working on stopping those medical issues is our best hope.
But those are modern problems, which require modern solutions, as Dave Chapelle would say. Try and apply the same methods to virulent outbreaks of an older kind of menace, and deliberation would prove so stifling that it might well be our undoing. Thus, as we recede to fight a more primitive enemy, so too do we fall back to primitive strategies that proved successful, from before globalisation. Before massive communication. And only then do we take notice of how physical distance is still very much a limitation in terms of potential interaction, even in this hypercommunicated world.
So, let us pat ourselves on the back, we have solved an impending catastrophe and philosophical dilemma in no more than a couple of paragraphs, with plenty time left for tea and biscuits with our friends in the afternoon—if it were not for the quarantine, that is. Anyway, cheers, lads!
Hold that thought
Yet, for argument’s sake, what if there were more to it? For starters, a fundamental maxim of the economic theory is that individuals, whether we regard those as nations or isolated humans—and no, the irony of dividing individuals does not escape either of the authors—behave as what are called “rational decision makers”. Now, we all know there is little to no doubt that every and all political leaders of this wonderful Earth are rational-to-the-letter, level-headed individuals. But...
The heads of government of several countries either belittled the potential impact of the current pandemic well into its declaration as such, or refused to enforce, or even promote, any social isolation measures, when not both. And this holds true for leaders on either side of the political spectrum. Without looking further than our own Latin America we can point to Bolsonaro and López Obrador for reference. But there are others like them. And so, forgive our scepticism here but one is left to wonder whether our leaders truly are perfect rational decision makers, or, God forbid, flawed human beings—who could take a lesson or two from the medieval administrators of Ragusa.
And if we even question the ability of self-centred policies to have a nation’s best interests at heart, whatever is still beyond doubt in this model? After all, Adam Smith did not contemplate the possibility of any major player being so lousy at looking out for himself in the long run that it may become a hazard for everybody else. It did, however, consider that illogical decisions would be punished to an extent such that they would not have net negative effects. And, to be fair, the model has been pretty accurate so far, so we shall give it the benefit of the doubt.
Following that last economic principle on irrationality, we will entertain the idea that it is not necessary that all nations listen to reason in fighting this coronavirus, but that those which do will succeed regardless of the irresponsibility of those that do not.
To discuss this issue we brought the Aztecs here as our guests. Or, rather, we would have, had their civilisation not been wiped out, in no small part due to the spread of smallpox. Now, of course it would be a gross twist of evidence to blame the entirety of their disappearance on a virus, as even today the degree of influence the epidemic had varies from one expert to another. But there is little doubt that it did play its role in the fall of Tenochtitlan, that attempts to contain the outburst failed miserably, and that the fact that the Spanish force had no need to face the same threat contributed to the first two. Granted, we now face no ongoing armed conflicts—even ISIS called its terrorists back from Europe—but neither did the Aztecs have to worry about out-of-control globalised travel. And, nevertheless the means through which the interference may take effect, the point stands that harmful foreign activity can hinder any given society’s ability to face a pandemic, beyond its own resolve.
In other words, there is a need for an implicitly shared, intelligent manner of self-focus. Perhaps even a coordination of sorts... Wait, were we not advocating for individualism? And if coordination is a key element for this individualism to work, in which way is that individualistic? Were we oblivious to a sudden switch of positions mid-argument, or was the question itself flawed all along?
So, a better question to ask might be not if individualism works better than collectivism when it comes to fighting pandemics, but rather where in that spectrum the undisputed superior strategy falls. Or even, where do we draw the line between an individualism that justifies its apparent selfishness in an overall net gain at large and a collectivism which measures its success based on the sum total of universal individual improvements? However obvious the difference might seem at times, less polarising and more intricate situations force us to reassess well established binary logics we cling to for a sense of control.
And we ought to consider that the challenges that come from the most recent update in our pandemic repertoire may be nothing more than another expression of those already concerning us when it comes to outlandish new technologies and structures going viral. It well may be that, much like trying to scale horse social dynamics to those of humans, the template is too oversimplified to be an accurate depiction of reality, no matter how much we marvel at its complexity. That the blind faith we deposit in our own feeble grasp of reality is at the root of our current aimless wander, and that we are at a loss for clarity for no other reason than that we realised we never had it.
Or perhaps not. After all, it is nothing if not uncertain.