Pandemics on my mind (and everyone else’s)

With all the frightening news coverage about the 2019-nCoV coronavirus, one can’t help but worry about it spreading around the world, especially as our media is good at spreading fear as well as information (gotta sell papers or get viewers!). And scary pandemics definitely draw eyes.

In fact, in the past few months I’ve been bathing in pandemics—first playing an epic 18-game-series of Pandemic Legacy with my son over December. And then, just a few days before fears of coronavirus came to my town of Middletown (a sick Wesleyan student was briefly isolated after being in the same airport as someone who contracted the disease) we started watching Netflix’s Pandemic series. While it was well-made, it could’ve been better—the 1918 flu that killed at least 50 million people got a few minutes of coverage while some technologist who is trying to create a universal flu vaccine has been the star of the show (reinforcing the myth that technology will save us—from disease, from climate change, or from whatever other symptoms living in a globalized consumer culture brings).

But of course, that’s not the case. Sure, maybe this guy will succeed and flu will become rare. But other diseases, new or new variations, will come along. Or diseases that have mostly been contained will flare up again as our antibiotic army is slowly felled by overuse, particularly in factory farms. And because of our sheer numbers, the density of our cities, and our globalized transportation system, diseases can become pandemics quickly—more quickly than many governments can respond.

So what should we discuss? I’d argue it’s the question: “How can we, Gaians, prepare our communities for this?”*

The Pandemic series does include a great case study about a New York City disease outbreak specialist whose job it is to stay on top of any possible spread of high-risk diseases—from flu to coronavirus. That is reassuring—and I hope all metropolises, states, and countries have the equivalent. But are there things Gaians can do at the community level? Two stories are worth sharing:

Elizabeth Hancock of Eyam had to bury her husband and her six children, alone, as the village was under quarantine.
Elizabeth Hancock of Eyam had to bury her husband and her six children, alone, as the village was under quarantine. (Eyam Museum)

The Village of Eyam

Let’s start with the English village of Eyam, during the time of the Bubonic Plague. Unbeknownst to the villagers, hidden in a delivery of cloth, were fleas carrying Yersinia pestis bacteria. Soon after the tailor’s assistant opened the package, he had contracted the disease and died. In the next three months, 42 others followed him and panic (including the instinctual desire to flee) was growing. But the village rector—who felt it was his duty to stop the spread of the disease—realized it would be best if Eyam quarantined itself. He then convinced the village to isolate itself (and even found a patron to send food and supplies).** Over the next year, 30-70% of the village died—including the rector’s wife and one woman, Elizabeth Hancock, who had to bury her husband and six children by herself. But the quarantine held and Eyam, even today, is celebrated for stopping the plague from spreading to the rest of England.

Early Christians

Sociologist Rodney Stark, in his book The Rise of Christianity, describes the power in the Christian value of helping others—and how this contributed to the cult’s exponential growth in its early years. Specifically Stark points to how Christians, during early plagues in the Roman Empire, didn’t flee the cities but stayed and helped patients—at great peril to themselves. As they treated pagans and other non-Christians, many of the survivors became Christians themselves—pulled to Christianity by the compassion they received and the exemplars who saved their lives, and also pushed there because their own social networks (of pagans who either died or fled) had been decimated.

In other words, belief systems matter—even when you might not think they’re relevant.

So how should Gaians respond to pandemics?

Can we put the collective good over our individual good? Can we isolate ourselves willingly? Can we risk our wellbeing to help heal others? Can we vaccinate ourselves to increase human herd immunity? (I shouldn’t have to include that last one but measles too has been in the news of late. A disease that should have essentially no cases in the US is on the rise because parents aren’t vaccinating their children. I understand the concern about vaccines—and believe in better spacing them out to reduce the aggregate body burden of the additives (see here), but ultimately, it’s essential—even a duty—for us to vaccinate our children.)

The questions I ask are not immaterial. While writing this, I did some quick research on community disease preparedness. The easily findable results were underwhelming: a few MOOCs that offered either abstract information about pandemics or personal preparedness; a WHO hub on pandemics (geared toward government officials); a page and CDC page on Pandemics; and a CDC flu-preparedness page. I then found there is a CERT program where towns and cities across the US have Community Emergency Response Teams (for disasters, terrorism, and outbreaks).

However, finding useful information other than the local directory was difficult. There was a local coordinator for Middletown—however it turns out he retired from the city two years ago (the lack of update is actually more concerning than not having a program as it lulls us into a false sense of security). Though in fairness, when I emailed him, he responded within a few hours and we had a great chat about the program, which is active.

In 1918, there was a shortage of nurses and medical personnel. It would be wise to provide training to citizens in these skills. Upon much deeper digging I did find a Medical Reserves Corps. Again, Middletown has its own branch—with a count of 18 volunteers listed. But the website is so ancient that I worried that this too is far less current than it appears. Though when I reached out to the Middletown employee who manages this, she also responded within a few hours and told me of their monthly meeting time and invited me to join, which I will in March, as there’s a 2-day training scheduled for February (which is also a good sign).***

But ultimately, if no one knows about these resources, then no one volunteers, and they don’t actually become useful. Is this a marketing issue? Is it a time-stress issue? Is it the fact that no local churches are telling their members to get involved? I’m guessing all three. But along with personal preparedness, Gaians should get involved with preparing their communities in a variety of ways—to serve, to role-model, and yes, even to inspire some to understand that they, too, are Gaians, and to draw them into our community.

So let me end with a question to you: what resources are available in your town or city? CERT, MRC? Other organizations? Are you involved in any? If so, what are they like? Or if not, would you (why or why not)? Please share any thoughts you have with our community.

Note: the villagers of Eyam held services outdoors to prevent spread of Plague. That’s another good reason to have services in nature rather than churches!
Note: the villagers of Eyam held services outdoors to prevent spread of Plague. That’s another good reason to have services in nature rather than churches! (Eyam Museum)

* Not ourselves as individuals—that’s been covered in the news. And especially valuable is this story, which can be summarized thusly: wash your hands A LOT. Isolate yourself if you are sick. And don’t wear a mask if you’re not sick (unless you’re a health worker or in a place where there are a lot of infected people). And don’t hoard masks, which just prevents them from getting to the people that need them.

** This took the help of the former rector, as the current rector wasn’t trusted, which also shows the importance of coalition building.

*** Once I attend a few meetings, I’ll report back what I learn.

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6 Responses

  1. Toni Massari

    This is a most thoughtful article, and it brings something into focus that we, as humans, seldom consider but that, as an increasingly scientifically guided, enlightened generations, should.

    The Earth is an organism. Anyone observing the interactions of various organisms with the ecosphere from the persepective of a biologist minght conclude so.

    When an organism is infected with a pathogen, the first reaction is to isolate the pathogen, either by the effects of iflammation – that effectively raise a number of barriers, like white blood cells and anitibodies – and/or by the formation of fluids that encapsulate the pathogens, segregating them from healthy cells.

    So, in fact, not only is the need for participatory input to the process of managing epidemics and pandemics, but our own place in the ecosystem, as intelligent beings, might well be to prevent pandemics, not only for our own species, but for others too. problem is: capitalism and materialism conspire to separate us fromt he very organism on which our survival depends, turning us into parasites, instead of symbionts.

    Therefore for me the qustion then becomes: how do we re-integrate Homo sapiens into its contextual organism, Gaia?

    I think I may have two separate answers, allied, to a point… and most likely part of a much larger set:

    • we elevate women to full parity, globally, and invite female-brained answers to pressing questions
    • we return indigenous people to full membership of the human commonwealth, inviting their ancient wisdom back into the conversation



    • Erik Assadourian

      Great comments Toni and both answers you offer are absolutely critical. Melissa Nelson wrote a wonderful article touching on the second (specifically how to reintegrate Native ways of learning into education), which I’d encourage everyone to read.

  2. Alison

    Thanks so much for this post, Erik! I appreciate your point that it’s helpful to think beyond the current coronavirus outbreak—both past and future—as we consider the fears facing our families/communities and how to tackle them.

  3. Kayhla

    I have served on a Community Emergency Response Team in the Towson area of Maryland. There are definite flaws in the system and training– as I’m sure we all have come to know and expect re: FEMA projects (of which CERT is one), but it is a good start.

    Infectious disease & climate change and disaster preparedness/response are my greatest passions in this field. It’s unfortunate that we invest so much in technology to prevent disease rather than provide the cheapest, simplest, and most effective infectious disease prevention materials: clean water and soap. The reason we do so is big business, of course. We have technology and response, but we’re missing a crucial element.

    In order to come close to even a semblance of preparedness, we need to direct our attention to how funds are directed that aren’t in the public interest, but in the interest of big business Ex: states like Iowa giving large companies (Apple)over $200 million in tax abatements and credits for (drumroll, please) 50 full-time jobs instead of investing their money in education and the environment…( )

    If the government was upholding its fiduciary duty to uphold The Public Trust, we would have more funding and programming for effective public health interventions, education, public safety etc etc. (

    Because our government is explicitly not doing that, communities are forced to prepare themselves. It’s great to have community-based preparedness, but it’s also forcing people to turn inwards on individual responsibility instead of what our collective rights are. This is the same tactic used to castrate public health in the U.S.– shifting focus from changing the environment of a community to meet healthy living standards, providing nutritional assistance, decreasing pollution, regulating carcinogens and exposures to toxic chemicals in our environments. It’s more palatable, politically, to have everyone focused on individual responsibilities rather than the responsibility fall where it is supposed to — the government, were it not completely captured by big business.

    Preparedness works best when it is interconnected. Yes, you have your own individual preparations. Yes, your family has a plan in place. Yes, your place of work has a building plan. Yes, your community has a community-wide plan for multiple disasters that coordinates between fire, police, EMS, hospitals, community health centers, etc. Yes, your state should have measures in place that are aligned with the aforementioned. But yes, your federal government should also be acting in the best interest of public health and safety, too. Instead, there are fragmented groups and chains of command and plans in place that do not intersect with anyone else– which is the most dangerous thing in any kind of emergency.

    For more on community and individual response:


    • Erik Assadourian

      Thanks Kayhla for the great comment–the nesting of preparedness makes a lot of sense. Each level has its own strengths and responsibilities (even if not being fulfilled). And thanks too for the links–the final resource (Tips for Activists: Planning and Disaster Preparedness) is very useful!

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