5 min read

On Plagues, Past, Present, & Future

On Plagues, Past, Present, & Future

This year, mosquitoes were a particular pain in my ass. We live next door to what is, effectively, an abandoned house, and the property has an untended inground pool. Years previous there were tenants in the house, and intermittent work was done on the pool, such that there didn't seem to be much I could do about the festering bog that let mosquitoes breed like mad in our neighborhood. But this spring, I was ready. No one had lived in the house for months, and I had bought mosquito dunks–little gravelly donuts meant to render particular bodies of water hostile to mosquito larvae. No need for spray this year.

But no, we still had mosquitoes. I came to find out that my neighbor on the other side of the abandoned property had been throwing in mosquito dunks the whole time, too. We had not found the only breeding ground. Spring this year was warm, summer of course was primetime, and the start of fall had been warm, and we still had mosquitoes. Anyway, not sure why I shared this anecdote of an extended season for disease-spreading pests and difficulty with their eradication. Weird. Wait, what's this? A WHO scientist has stated that Dengue fever will "take off" in the southern United States this decade?

Our Greatest Enemy

Besides ourselves, it's mosquitoes. And arguably, mosquitoes even beat us out, at 725,000 deaths per year. Of course, mosquitoes are just the vector of various lethal diseases, from dengue, to West Nile, yellow fever, and Zika, but we still blame them. And though most of the world already has mosquitoes, certain varieties tend to carry certain diseases, and not all of those mosquitoes have made their way from primarily equatorial regions north (and south). Thanks to the climate crisis, this is changing.

If you have any experience in city government, you might see that a not insignificant effort is made toward controlling pest populations. And though we could certainly knock off some cop funding and put it toward a mosquito patrol, or something, their efforts surely make an impact. Which is why our current position of crumbling infrastructure and misguided governmental motivations is disconcerting. Watch a more right-wing government move in and you're bound to see funds move away from the public good.

Where this puts us is on our back foot as climate change allows the proverbial enemy forces to advance. Mosquito varietals that carry dengue fever are on the march. Malarial mosquitoes are already in the States. Zika has largely subsided but not entirely. When you project climate change, the migration of mosquitoes, and the slow (or fast) deterioration of government policies, you wind up with sick people straining a healthcare system that is already irreparably broken.

"A Pandemic Era"

Dr. Anthony Fauci described our contemporary period, post-COVID's arrival, as "a pandemic era." And while we might be a while before another actual COVID-sized pandemic swings through, that doesn't mean that we won't be assailed with new or new-to-you diseases on a fairly consistent basis. The way we run roughshod through the world, these days, and the environment that climate change has fostered around that world, means that we are constantly expanding the range of diseases that we're familiar with and encountering diseases that have, up until now, been sequestered in the farther reaches of the globe or in populations of animals that were heretofore uncontacted. I have linked this Rolling Stone piece in W/I before, because it's great, and I will do so again and probably in the future, too. In it, author Jeff Goodell describes our world to come–and it is not a pretty picture.

Mosquitoes, of course, are not our only worry. As climate change alters ecosystems, animals of all sorts flee their normal environments in search of food and shelter. This puts us on a collision course–an inevitable one. Averting this disaster is an impossibility, as even the end of CO2 emissions would not halt the warming that's already baked into the Earth's systems. Vectors are going to spread, diseases are going to spread. We're going to spread. New threats will evolve. COVID itself may not yet be done evolving, could yet turn into a new variant that threatens the world all over again (though, to be sure, it is still a threat now).

As we continue, rather blithely, into this era of diseases that make you bleed from your eyes, I think we on the left have learned one thing, if nothing else: we cannot rely on the government to take care of us. At the same time, disease is not something that we can fight ourselves. This puts us in a uniquely crappy position, but not one without paths forward.

In the early days of COVID, we saw people banding together in networks of mutual aid–regardless of whether or not they knew the term–to take care of neighbors, friends, and family. Folks distributed food, medicine, masks. We stayed home, hunkered down, started preparedness newsletters. As supply chains broke apart, people made masks at home, distilleries made hand sanitizer. Even though we have largely moved on from the pandemic (though it has not moved on from us), there are lessons we can learn from our behavior then, both bad and good.

What We Can Do

One way or another, we're going to have to act in response to the threat of disease in the near future. Whether it be something that's insect-borne, spread through the community, or some other vector, we're bound to be at risk. Even a small outbreak can be of real concern, as, in the case of mosquitoes, they likely represent only a glimpse into the future of a more endemic spread of disease.

Obvious things are obvious: we should be stocking high-quality masks as preparedness supplies for ourselves and, ideally, for our community. We should likewise be stocking materials like hand sanitizer and air filters (such as those box fan contraptions used to draw pollutants out of the air during fire season). We should be availing ourselves of modern solutions while they are still available–so go get your flu shot, etc. But we have also got to be thinking of solutions that don't involve the supply chain or rely on extant forms of control. This means that we have to look beyond simply purchasing our remedies and researching methods of treatment for illnesses that we can grow–with the explicit understanding that nothing beats real, clinical treatment. It also means, perhaps more importantly than anything, that we hold the health of our community in higher regard than our entertainment or convenience. Mask up, isolate, do the not-fun thing.

And since we started the letter with mosquitoes, let's end it, as well. We may have left mosquito season in much of the Northern Hemisphere, but we won't be out of it for long. If you own property, even if it's just a balcony with a little lawn furniture, make sure you're not providing any standing water for mosquitoes to peruse. Wear appropriate clothes if you're going hiking, so as to avoid ticks and the like. It's simple stuff, but I promise you'd look back on this advice differently if you came down with some of the maladies that are only going to get more prevalent on our hotter, sweatier planet.