In the Spring of 1918 a strain of Influenza that had never circulated in the human population before popped up in a group of soldiers training to fight in WW1 in Kansas. They took the virus to Europe with them. At first the infection was limited to the camp where the soldiers lived, and it killed a few hundred people. Not much of entry for a sickness that just a little less than a year later would sweep around the globe killing somewhere between 50 and 100 million people worldwide. Viruses are like the thermonuclear weapons of the biological world. They are mysterious, can strike without warning, and have the potential to cause destruction on a truly terrifying scale.
This was a nasty strain of H1N1 flu, probably of avian origin, making it a bird flu. By most estimates it only killed between 10-20% of its victims, but it infected more than 500 million people (27% of the pop. of the world at that time). At that level, even 10% is a very big number, a terrifying number, really, at 50 million people. That was around 5% of the total population of the globe at the time. A similar proportion of our own global population would be roughly 2.05 billion infected and roughly 205 million to 410 million dead. That is a staggering impact, but it’s really rather tame when it comes to the world of true microbial disasters.
There have, in the past, been some real whoppers when it comes to pandemics and plagues. The Black Death, for instance, killed more than half of the population of the world at the time it hit in the mid 14th century. At that time whole towns and villages simply disappeared in a fog of death that swept across parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. There were other places where only a handful out of thousands survived the disease as it burned through sections of larger cities. Only when the population fled for the countryside, many taking the Plague organism yersinia pestis with them, did the chain of transmission in the cities finally fizzle out and cease.
If a disease were to hit today that wiped out half of the global population, there would be 3.8 billion dead, give or take a few million here or there. The global upheaval from such a situation is difficult to overstate. If you look at the situation already happening in China with the emergence of a novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that causes COVID-19, the ripples of a large scale viral epidemic tend to spread rapidly and they are very disruptive to commerce, manufacturing, retail operations, travel, etc. etc. etc.
Now, imagine a situation where within 18-24 months half of the world’s population, its workforce, simply disappeared. The social, political, and economic upheaval losing three and a half billion people would cause would be unbelievable. It is literally difficult to imagine how such a scenario might even play out it’s so catastrophic. Social order as it has existed for several hundred years, predating Marx and Smith’s attempts to define it in economic and political terms, that inescapable and in some ways enigmatic social order that seems to pervade our ‘polite’ civilization, would be rewritten at a fundamental level. This is precisely what happened in the wake of the Black Death, after all.
Suddenly there was upward and lateral mobility for the population. Areas that had previously been well-staffed with artisans, craftsmen, farmers, etc. were suddenly starved for labor. In some areas people were able to use that sudden labor shortage to their immediate advantage. For the first time in European history it becomes possible in some places to buy ones way into the nobility, if not the royalty, in some nations. Power hates a vacuum, and there were offices to fill without enough nobles to go around, and so some governments became creative with how to filter to get the cream of the crop, so to speak, and one way was to sell vacant offices to the highest bidder.
That kind of social mobility was absolutely unheard of before the destruction of the Black Death, and the gaps it left in society. A similar situation would happen with modern society today. Viruses and other diseases are notoriously indiscriminate and in the aftermath there would be a shortage of manpower in just about every market across the globe. The opportunities for the ones who survived the virus would be plentiful. . . assuming, of course, that society itself survived the fall.
There is mounting evidence to show that there have been ancient civilizations so ravaged by sickness and disease that they have effectively collapsed and disappeared. Other ancient civilizations nearly fell to microbial killers like the Plague, Small pox, and other illnesses. This seems to be a recurring pattern throughout human history, in fact. Nearly every time our culture begins to move towards a more urban, centralized, and ultra-dense population, like clockwork the diseases and illnesses that spark pandemics raise their ugly heads again.
In fact, many microbiologists have said that our species is rather overdue for another sweeping pandemic to impact the gene pool, one similar to or possibly worse than the 1918 Influenza pandemic that is the worst in modern history. This realization was one of the driving forces behind my book Emergence, and the Red Death series. I wanted to remind people that we are not as secure in our dominion over Planet Earth as we might like to believe, and to examine the brutal reality of what a true near-extinction level viral pandemic would look like.
In designing the virus that would spark the fall of modern society, I spent a lot of time researching–years, in fact. I read thick textbooks on DNA replication, synthesis, translation, mutation, etc. I studied scholarly articles on the replication process of Ebola virus, I read everything I could get my hands on about the channels that virus uses to enter the cells, how it masks itself to confuse macrophages, then targets them first to destroy the immune response. I worked with doctors and scientists, including Dr. Kevin Arien, a world-renowned virologist and Ebola specialist.
With their help, I designed a virus that was a member of the filovirus family that also includes Ebola, Marburg, and Cuevavirus. This fictional virus would have a long incubation period, 2-3 weeks in some cases, which would make it nearly impossible to isolate effectively. The transmission rate would be frighteningly high, worse than even the measles, 17 or so to start with. And finally, a mortality rate approaching 80% of infected patients. This was the virus nightmares are made of, and in my book Emergence, it crosses over into the human gene pool in western Brazil in a city of more than 2 million people.
With that kind of breeding ground, such a virus would be impossible to contain. By the time it became clear there was a problem so many people would be sick and transmitting the virus that there would be no way to track them all down and nowhere to quarantine them even if they were found. This is remarkably similar to the current situation in China. The 2019-nCoV coronavirus that is burning through central China started in an incredibly densely populated city of 11 million people. By the time authorities began putting quarantine measures in place, the number of infected had already spiraled out of control. Thousands of cases continue to pop up in and around the central provinces in China, and given this virus’s extremely long incubation period (2-3 weeks with an average of 3-5 days) it has been very difficult for the authorities to get ahead of the virus and slow it down.
There have been videos posted online allegedly showing confrontations between citizens being taken to quarantine facilities who are resisting the authorities. Other videos show what appear to be government officials welding shut the outer doors on apartment buildings. Whether these are hastily appointed quarantine facilities, buildings emptied of people and being secured against looting, or some other explanation that avoids the dreadful possibility that they are exactly what they seem, evidence of official action to forcibly isolate and sacrifice a smaller group of people to try and preserve the community at large.
One thing is clear, when a community that is under that level of direct government control is faced with what they consider to be a serious health risk and threat to public safety, they can respond very quickly, and sometimes rashly, to try and combat it. And sometimes the methods employed can be brutal. Watching the situation in China has been like watching some strange echo in reality of the work I’ve spent so long crafting in fiction. And for me it is a stark reminder of why I began this project in the first place.
Fair warning, Emergence is a long book. It was meant to be. You can’t really tell the story of the fall of civilization in a hundred and fifty pages. Or rather, if you can, you’re better at it than I am and I’ll tip my hat. As it stands, this is the first book in a 3 part series. I may do follow up books or something down the road, but the Red Death series is a hard trilogy. This is the opening act, so keep that in mind when you get to the end. I assure you, the other two acts are coming. The second book will be called Quarantine and the third will be called Collapse. These are working titles, of course, but I kind of like the way they line up in my head, if that makes sense.
In any case, I hope you enjoy the book, and I hope the health authorities around the world continue to get a grasp on the current COVID-19 epidemic. The men and women facing these molecular threats posed by viruses every day are incredibly dedicated and brave. Their lives are very much on the line in this fight, and their sacrifice is greatly appreciated. As we have seen in the current situation, healthcare workers and those on the front lines working against the virus are often some of the first to fall victim to it.
As you read Emergence, and the books to follow in the Red Death series, keep in mind that this fictional tale is one short and terrifying step from reality.
And, as always, thanks for reading!