On Sonia Shah's "Pandemic" and Antarctica's Looming Meltdown: Drowning in a Sea Full of Germs

So a few years back I often wrote about Climate Change and its slo-mo catastrophe, especially when it seemed that we had the chance to alter our Titanic-like course toward that (melting) iceberg, but of late I’ve been more reticent, only wanting to add something to the discussion if it seemed less obvious than the mainstream blather. Today there’s a new piece in the NY Times about a scarier-than-usual scenario of Climate Change, here, and that, coupled with my having just finished Sonia Shah’s terrific new book, Pandemic, deserves a mention.

First off, Shah’s book is now one of my favs in a long list of pandemic-related books, such as John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (2004), John Kelly’s The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (2005), and David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (2012). Note: Quammen gets credit for not using the word “great” in his title.
Compared to those three (there are many others), Pandemic’s approach is somewhat of a hybrid. She delves into the science of “spillover” or “crossover” zoonotic diseases that move from animal to human populations, as does Quammen, but also present something of A Brief History of Cholera, which is both fascinating and a bit disgusting. She describes SARS as well, touching on the wild animal food markets in China, and the role of bats as links between human and animal populations (pigs as well), and creates the same kind of queasiness in the reader as in watching Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion (2011), which features Gwyneth Paltrow as a kind of modern-day Typhoid Mary—not surprising, perhaps, as we should wonder about that Goop she hawks.
Shah is not one to shy away from descriptions of unpleasant bodily fluids spraying forth here and there, and makes you aware of just how germs can be transmitted in both the past and the present. In fact, that’s what makes her story so powerful: She describes the cholera and Ebola outbreaks of the last few years, and explains how they’re both symbolic of our changing times, and particular.
Shah is skilled at describing the “particular” conditions that lead to various pandemics. One of those that’s affecting us now and will no doubt continue in the future is Climate Change. We’re heating up the planet and causing animal populations to move into new areas (one of the central theses of Kelly’s book about the great plague outbreak of the 14th century). It’s a fast, brutal read, and will make you think twice about taking that antibiotic for a sinus infection: if you do, your body could become inured to its effects, and you may need it for something much greater in the future.
It’s enough to scare you from ever venturing out into that germ-crowded area known as “public space.” I should also add that the Climate Change scientists responsible for this new study are at Penn State, my home turf as well. And lastly, my novel The Bird Saviors touches on both Climate Change and pandemics, as shadows behind the people.

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