Humanity has managed to survive pandemics throughout history, but we must act now in order to avoid devastating consequences, writes Geoff Dyer.
THOSE IN DENIAL of the effects of COVID-19 have real and understandable fears, but with signs of Apocalypse all around us, it is not the time to promote lies, disunity and confusion. We need to act now, in order to avoid the type of dystopias often foretold in futuristic novels. We should be wary of creating our own Armageddon out of selfishness and bad judgement.
When humanity spread over the continents, from songlines to silk roads, societies flourished through trade and communication routes. However, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Pestilence, War, Famine and Death travelled these same routes.
In Australia, we memorialise old wars (lest we forget) but do not acknowledge the other riders, dismissing them as an aberration to the first world freedoms we enjoy.
In 2019, when COVID-19 jumped ship on our shores, Australia was not prepared for the riders crossing the threshold. In our modern world we hold the apocalyptic riders at arm’s length. Conquest — inflicted upon others. Famine — fended off with a full fridge. Death — sanitised and pushed to the back of our minds. Pestilence — almost forgotten, thanks to modern medicine.
To dismiss the Horsemen as Biblical, metaphorical, or mythical figures, riding out of the mists of time, is to ignore their very real presence in the world today. Wars are a constant. Famine widespread. Even the Wild Beast, a rider of the Old Testament, who we think tamed, caged or extinct, still rides and plays a part in modern pandemics.
To better understand the danger we face, we must look into the history that politicians, seeking popularity through division, would have us forget.
Australia. 1788. Sydney Cove. An Aboriginal guide takes Judge Advocate David Collins to visit his tribe, his family. They find no footprints in the sand. They searched the nearby caverns. Piles of unburied bodies. The guide cries in anguish: “All dead, all dead!”
The living had already fled across the country carrying smallpox with them. Influenza, measles, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases would follow. With no immunity, about 70% of the Indigenous population would die. War and dispossession rode behind the diseases, reinforced by a wave of settlers.
The Aboriginal world had changed irrevocably. There would be no return to normal, it seemed like the end of times. Yet they survive.
Since ancient times, the Horsemen have appeared, bringing suffering and sorrow, fear, terror, disorder. Changing societies beyond recognition.
North America. 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Diseases from across the seas cut swathes through the Indigenous populations as explorers, traders and conquerors descended upon them. Around 90% of the Indigenous populations fell to European diseases in the first 100 years of settlement. Yet they survived.
South America. 1527, Peru. The Inca Huayna Capac rules over his people, his empire rich, secure and peaceful. The Inca ruler never sees the strangers from the sea. Disease strikes his court regardless. He dies, his heir dies, generals die alongside powerful bureaucrats, civil war ensues.
Spanish conquistadors rode stirrup-to-stirrup with pestilence ushering in the collapse of the 300-year-old Inca Empire. Diseases like smallpox, malaria, influenza, cholera, typhus, diphtheria, chicken pox and measles killed 50-90 per cent of the population within ten years.
Europe. 1347-1351. The Black Death (Bubonic Plague) swept across the continent taking over two hundred million lives. The 17th and 18th Centuries saw wave after wave of plague, cholera, smallpox and yellow fever flowing from east to west. 1918, The Spanish flu claims 40-50 million. HIV/AIDS, 25-35 million. SARS, MERS, ebola, malaria, swine flu.
So many deaths. All worth remembering. All forgotten.
Can we learn from the past in our globalised, inter-connected, urbanised world? Vaccines and preventative measures have reduced many diseases, particularly in the first world. Yet, it’s worth remembering that vaccines have eradicated only one disease — smallpox, a disease that killed over three hundred million people worldwide.
Today, large numbers have retreated into isolation, masked, standing apart, trying to figure out what the new reality will be. Others, driven by confusion and fear, reject vaccination, fear change and the loss of freedom, insisting on a return to “normal”.
In response, some media and politicians are turning their backs on this evolving pandemic, seeking political advantage in promising freedom from government controls. Their promises are hollow and their shirking of responsibility negligent and disgraceful.
Deniers and trivialisers in government ranks distract us from the seriousness of the problems we face. The world has already changed and there is more at stake than victory in the next election.
With 5.5 million people already dead (from COVID-19), let’s confront the riders. We need to adapt, not riot in disbelief. The fifth rider, Climate Change, preceded by storms, droughts, wildfires and rising seas is already upon us.
We have the science but do our leaders have the will to act?
The cost of inaction is high.
In Bob Dylan’s song ‘All Along the Watchtower’, there is no doubt that the two riders approaching, as the wind begins to howl, are foreshadowing the arrival of the Apocalypse, the end of times:
“So let us stop talking falsely now. The hour's getting late.”
Geoffrey Dyer is a retired teacher with 41 years of experience in the classroom. Subjects taught include English, Modern and Ancient History, Society and Culture, Aboriginal Studies.
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