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Has the First Plane Already Hit Again? COVID-19, the Westerdam, existential threats, and history.

It is midway through February 2020 and a novel coronavirus (2019nCoV) is threatening to break out of containment in China. Whether this particular virus will be something that goes pandemic or not is presently unclear, but it has already resulted in something like 10% of the world population being subjected to quarantine measures.

As I am writing, I am struck with a peculiar feeling, one I have only had once before, and then for only about 15 minutes. Between about 8:48 and 9:03 AM on the morning of the September 11th attacks, I just happened to be watching television before going to work and heard something like: “we’re getting reports that a small plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.” This immediately struck me as odd, as the initial narrative was one of possible or probable accident, yet when they showed a live shot of New York City there was clear weather and perfect visibility. It would have been almost impossible to just hit that one building by chance. I immediately surmised that it was some sort of terrorist event. For a few minutes, I listened as people talked nonsense about a different scenario than the one that was clearly playing out in real-time right before our eyes. When the second plane hit, the alternative narrative stopped cold, but for the few minutes in-between the first plane and the second plane, I felt the most peculiar feeling. I have it again.

Experts agree that it is only a matter of when, not if, a global pandemic will reemerge. Such a pandemic, might even pose an existential risk to humanity and our current level of civilization. Netflix, of all places, actually has a reasonably good primer on this topic in the form of a docuseries titled: Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak. Released less than a month ago, the picture it paints is grim. We have myriad places, from which an outbreak could emerge, and only a thin and strained system with which to buffer against the worst of it.

While the news out of China is patchy and of questionable reliability, it undoubtedly indicates a society stretched to the point of breaking in order to try and fight the novel coronavirus that is wreaking havoc among the population there. China, given its political history and systems of control, has been able to exert a kind of lockdown likely unparalleled in human history. Still, the virus continues to spread both within and beyond the Chinese borders.

Enter the Westerdam. The Westerdam is a cruise ship that was meandering the seas searching for a port to receive it after numerous rejections from various governments due to concerns about it harboring the novel coronavirus. Finally, the Government of Cambodia agreed to receive the ship (likely at the behest of the US). Rather than keep the passengers in quarantine, a crowd of people met them at the boat. It was a jubilant affair, but one sorely lacking in even the trappings of viral protection. Flowers rather than masks festooned the occasion. Many of the passengers disembarked for tours and further travel. Within about 2 days, they were all over the world. At first, it seemed like a touching human interest story. Then a passenger was confirmed to have COVID-19.

Over the last 36 hours, I have followed this story. Due to the prevalence of social media, it was somewhat easy to locate quite a number of the passengers of the Westerdam. They are now all over the world: Asia, Europe, and North America at least. Many of them would have come in contact with thousands of others around the world as their varied travel routes took them home. As late as yesterday, people in Cambodia were still wandering around the ship without protection, even knowing that it must have some coronavirus still there.

Whether the Westerdam or a similar, but presently-unknown, situation proves to the be the catalyst for a coronavirus pandemic or not, we need to collectively acknowledge that a global pandemic is clearly a serious and possibly existential threat. We already spend literally trillions of dollars on defense against other humans, and yet are eager to cut a few million from virus monitoring to further feed that beast. The US axed a project in 2019 that was specifically engaged in surveillance of novel coronaviruses and other similar emergent viral threats. I wonder if we are currently paying a high price for this negligence. We may never know. Still, I have that feeling again.

What might that pesky feeling be telling me? It whispers something inchoate, but vaguely gesturing in the direction of: “The world has already changed, but almost no one has updated to this new reality yet. Six months from now everything will probably be different in ways that no one can presently fathom.” I hope this feeling is wrong. I have so few prior experiences with it that it is impossible to form any statistical estimate whatsoever, and yet it haunts me.

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