Riblet#20: Re-reading the Signs

Governments and organisations are often reluctant to spend money on resilience, particularly in relation to high impact, low likelihood events.  In 2018, President Trump disbanded President Obama’s Pandemic Response Unit in the White House and all its processes; the UK government failed to take action on the findings of the National Health Service 2016 pandemic exercise that found that the NHS would be overwhelmed by a pandemic; and only a few months ago, some German MPs argued that there were far too many hospital beds in Germany.


Well, if you won’t spend on preparations when it seems unlikely to you, then at least set up some sort of monitoring to detect when the event may be becoming more likely (and have speedy ramp-up processes in place).


The classic early warning indicator (“EWI”, also referred to as a Key Risk Indicator or “KRI”) is the canary in the coal mine.  In the UK, canaries were taken down into coal mines to indicate where there might be toxic gases such as carbon monoxide or methane.  The idea was that low levels of the gas would kill the canary and let miners get out before the concentration increased and killed them, too.  This practice only ended in the UK in 1986.


Global warming is an existential threat to humans, albeit self-inflicted.  A 100cm rise in sea level will wipe out the likes of Miami and Bangkok. One early warning indicator may be provided by the numbers of chinstrap penguins in Antarctica.  One large colony of chinstraps has halved in numbers over the last few decades.  The importance of chinstraps as an indicator is that they are relatively easy to count, and their numbers give an idea of the availability of krill in the sea, which gives an idea of what is happening to the sea around Antarctica (warming and becoming less salty).  The Antarctic Circumpolar Current circulates water around the oceans, it is the beating heart of the world’s oceans, and if ice continues to melt fast, it will stop the heart.  So counting and reporting on chinstraps is crucial as a warning about what might be about to happen.


The pandemics that have occurred over the last few decades have all been cross-overs from animals and are someway connected to abusive practices and cruelty towards animals.  This seems to have been the source of bird flu (from diseased poultry), SARS (from bats via civets), MERS (from camels), ebola (from gorillas and chimpanzees), and now coronavirus (currently believed to be from Wuhan’s “wet markets” – where live animals are slaughtered on purchase in the market).  Intensive farming strains animals’ health and also allows disease to spread rapidly in the animal population; and it can then jump across species.


Clearly something needs to be done about these practices, but an indicator might also provide a warning of future pandemics. It is less than 100 years since promising that ordinary people would be able to afford meat at least once a week was a US presidential campaign slogan.  Since then, meat consumption has skyrocketed and continues to do so, driving these intensive farming practices.  So some sort of indicator of meat consumption per person in each country (where good might be up to three times a week, but no more), and maybe a separate index for exotics, might be able to warn us of future dangers, and may also drive action to reduce both.  


Data sources: The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Observer

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