Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Trond Undheim, author of Pandemic Aftermath: How Coronavirus Changes Global Society
FQ: Thank you for your time today. My first question is focused on your dedication: ‘For my children...I wanted to leave you a better world than this...’ I found this interesting and you piqued my curiosity to ask: If you could cite one scenario toward what is ‘bad’ about the world now, what would that be and how would you make it better?
UNDHEIM: It was a complicated statement. I'm concerned about many global issues in our contemporary society: climate, biodiversity, famines, social inequality, terrorism, and infectious diseases, to mention just a few. I have been struck by how quickly (in 100 days) we, collectively, have managed to screw up the world I've put them into by not containing a fairly moderate pandemic (not even the worst one that will come our way). I don't blame one single leader but I think we have a collective guilt as parents and "elders" who elected our leaders and also generally go about our life without much concern for the long term common good. I want them to fully understand how to become enlightened beings that would be more effective than I have been at creating a world where problems are addressed swiftly and efficiently. As many ambitious parents, I of course wish for my kids to become leaders, scientists and decision makers. But more than that, over the past 100 days, I realize I just want them to be emotionally literate and happy. Part of being happy, I think is being informed so that you can appreciate why you are fortunate to exist at all. Another part is being happy by having access to an inner strength that stems from years of training and quite a lot of adversity. Thirdly, having the courage to practice and always strive to have a strong, bold imagination, in order to make sense of everything that happens around you and know how to put the world back together again. I found out long ago that quality of life is not money, power or nutrition, but it is born in the mind and practiced by our bodies in tandem.
FQ: I was impressed with the amount of research you must have done to lay out the timeline in Chapter I. I’m assuming it took a fair amount of time and study to do so. How long?
UNDHEIM: I obsessed with anything written or said about the pandemic. I quickly realized that the first three months would be crucial and everything would follow from that. You could say, I gambled on a worst case scenario. Unfortunately, I was right. I wrote the book in two months. I barely slept. My family have now prohibited any and all pandemic topics during meals or indeed in conversation. An obsession at that level is not shared my many.
FQ: In line with my previous question, did you find setting the steppingstones in place with a pandemic timeline (past and present), help your pen to flow as you got into the mechanics of writing the book?
UNDHEIM: The various timelines are useful as precursors to my scenario building. Most pandemic scenario exercises only cover a brief decision point a few weeks into a pandemic. I wanted to show that the relevant timeline here is a decade into the future and seven hundred years into the past. Having said that, I woke up one day and saw five options potentially playing out. I wrote it on my Ideapaint dry erase wall in my attic studio and realized I had to write a book about it, assuming not everyone would be prepared to think the world has changed. That was at the end of January and the first week of February.
FQ: Since the outbreak of Covid-19 and where we are today, I’ve encountered many portrayals where it is equated to the Spanish Flu pandemic. While the loss of even one life is a travesty, do you, in your opinion, believe this is a fair assessment to cite the two as related?
UNDHEIM: Immediate death toll is not the only measure of impact. Also, we are only in the beginning of this pandemic, and what I'm imagining in the book, to a large extent, is a situation where the emerging vaccine candidates don't work as well as we wish for them to do, so it becomes cyclical. In addition, in a few of the scenarios, I'm imagining that the virus mutates. Also, as I'm very clear about in Pandemic Aftermath, it is a grave misunderstanding to equate a flu virus to a coronavirus. I'm not trying to do that, I'm saying that this is no "mini-pandemic." I think that as the months and years go by, we will come to realize that COVID-19 will seed quite significant changes, but they won't all happen overnight. Lots of things people assume will change is likely going to go back to where we started, as well. Change is not linear and seldom has one single cause.
FQ: How, in your opinion, will the Covid-19 pandemic treat the way diseases will be reported in the future, i.e., flu season each year? Do you think there will be a heightened focus on these types of outbreaks as well?
UNDHEIM: Unfortunately, history has shown that we always prepare for the last pandemic. The biggest mistake we made this time, was to prepare for a flu scenario. We had stockpiles of flu vaccine, but no plans for quickly producing other vaccines. Next time, I fear we will prepare for a carbon copy of coronavirus, even though society will have changed, we might be faced with a different virus and different politicians and social movements. The only constant will be the antivaxxers, they have been around for centuries. Very few societies are able to keep a constant focus on risk. Rather, humans tend to practice wishful thinking. The only exception to that is the prospect of war, which seems to be something humans have a clear fear of, which motivates the build-up of military strength. I hope we can build a similar focus on pandemics and other environmental risks. But to answer your question, I fear COVID-19 will become cyclical and just one more community disease to watch out for, which brings me back to a world I didn't want to create for my kids. We were on a path to progress, with increasing quality of life and life span. That might have been a myth, at least for the great majority of humanity. As I depict in the scenarios, the elite will always find a way to come out on top.
FQ: In Chapter 3, you make a few references to Bill Gates and "...arguably, the mere fact that a global pandemic could spread havoc even in Western societies was a ‘catastrophe foretold,’ for instance, by Bill Gates," and followed-up later in the chapter, again with: "Bill Gates’ pandemic warning (2015)..." Why, in your opinion, do you suppose Bill Gates is suddenly categorized as an ‘authority’ associated with ‘the remedy’?
UNDHEIM: Bill Gates was an authority long before this pandemic. He has successfully transitioned from millionaire tech geek to innovating philanthropist. What I was saying, though, is that he said little new in his speech. He is among the few public persons from outside the more traditional public health community (epidemiologists) who has deeply studied (and financed) public health studies and programs around the world. He is a pioneer in measuring and achieving public health impact. He also speaks from a position of being an outsider, which makes him more believable. His agenda is clearly much more than money and legacy, he actually cares, and loves to tinker with things to improve them. I identify very much with that, and I think others do as well. Having said that, as I write in my book, a pandemic is about much more than funding, vaccines and public health. We now need to decide whether and how we want to live differently. We need to build a new way to live together (and apart).
FQ: I would thoroughly enjoy your opinion/take on the controversy that has been delivered by the media toward Tedros Adhanom of WHO; both positive and negative and why you take the stance you do.
UNDHEIM: My take on him specifically is really not detailed very much in the book beyond pointing out that his predecessor, Gro Harlem Bruntland, was a much stronger leader and less of a diplomat. Tedros seems to be an outstanding African born diplomat, but what that means is that he is an appeaser of dictators, among other things. I studied appeasement in the 1930s, where well-meaning people, among them British PM Neville Chamberlain, constantly argued that it was better to appease Hitler than risk a conflict, which only created a much bigger conflict. Fast forward to 2020, and we have a few great powers with questionable motives as well, and he chooses to play both sides. Not a bad hand if you succeed, but very bad if you lose. But the WHO is an organization that has been in decline in an environment where pandemic risks have increased and globalization has accelerated without a corresponding increase in the power, authority and effectiveness of international multilateral institutions. Even a great leader would not have been able to stem the tide on this pandemic enough to avoid a catastrophe.
FQ: You paint a hopeful scenario in Chapter 4: "The year 2030—peace in our time—again. We are in the year 2030. After a decade of widespread agreement on the goals for planet Earth, world leaders and civil society have just concluded a Global Summit for a World Without Borders. A new world government has been approved..." I detect a strong sense from you that a world without borders is a time of peace and tranquility for all humankind. What, in your opinion, is broken with the current status of a world "with borders" and why?
UNDHEIM: Borders are artificially created, usually by the winner of wars. Those wars typically split cultures and resources edgewise. Borders also tend to enlarge and grow over time. What I'm pointing out is that there is a maximum size beyond which borders don't make up for heterogeneity. If the main problems cannot be solved within borders, why continue to use that as a unit of organization in the first place? What makes sense to people is what's local (within walking and driving distance within a day). But I think I was pretty clear that a world without borders might have to be fought and won in a way that also means the loss of innocence. A globalized world is a much more complex world where bigger, smarter, more powerful elites will tend to concentrate and we risk that they are more dominating than ever before. That would be a risk we would have to be willing to take. A return to some sort of nationally focused tribalism is much more probable short term but has big costs in terms of lack of ability to coordinate the real issues facing humanity and the earth in the next 20-50 years. By the way, in the US, these debates are somehow still framed as binary--left/right, rich/poor, Republican/Democrat, when in reality they are far, far more complex.
FQ: As a world (and generally speaking), we only began to learn about Covid-19 a brief few months ago. When did you begin your research and commit to writing this book?
UNDHEIM: I started at the end of January as I realized that the WHO was not calling this a pandemic not because it wasn't one, but for political reasons. That's when I realized that this would not end well, and the journalist and historian in me saw an opportunity to start documenting the future as it started to unfold much more rapidly than previously expected.
FQ: It’s been a pleasure speaking with you today. I cannot even fathom what your next project may be. Are you working on something and if so, could you share some insights?
UNDHEIM: I'm currently hard at work on a book on the future of technology which will come out in 2021. I'm also writing a children's book series based on stories I've told my kids throughout the years. There is also a super-exciting historically complex magical realism project which my wife and I have been working on for years. Maybe this will be the year we finish the first book in that series, too? A pandemic has to be good for something!