About Sara K.

Sara K. is an aromantic asexual from California who previously lived in Taiwan. She blogs at the notes which do not fit, has previously been a contributor at Manga Bookshelf, and has written guest posts for Hacking Chinese. She enjoys reading, travel, live theatre, learning languages, and gardening.

What a Short History of Pandemics Taught Me About Covid-19 (Part 3)

The Rise of Strong States

The previous post discussed how New Deal Democrats / Soviet Communists / Italian Fascists eradicated malaria from the regions under their control by coercing people to change farming practices and alter the landscape. This is one example of a common pandemic phenomenon: increases in state control. This began with the Black Death, when some governments in Europe started sanitary control boards and imposed quarantines—an unprecedented government intrusion on commerce. Meanwhile, Muslim countries, India, and China refused to quarantine or impede commerce during plague outbreaks.

During all major pandemics, some governments try strong measures which interfere with everyday life in order to stop the disease, and it often makes the governments more powerful in the long run. When I lived in Taiwan, I was legally required to take two HIV tests, and if I’d tested positive I would’ve been required to leave Taiwan (that law is no longer in effect).

In early 2020, the speed with which the government banned gatherings above a certain size took me aback. Was it justified for containing a relatively unknown new virus? Maybe. In retrospect, it was a mistake for covid-19 specifically. Ramping up production of N95s (through wartime manufacturing measures if necessary to make them faster) then mandating the use of N95s would’ve been far more effective, and not curtailed the freedom of assembly.

Then, in 2021, came the vaccine mandates, which forced many people to either take the vaccine or lose their jobs.

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What a Short History of Pandemics Taught Me About Covid-19 (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

Since the 19th century, when many pathogens were first identified, people in power have often (but not always) preferred biotechnical solutions to pandemics over solutions which entail changing the political economy, i.e. changing the balance of power between different groups.

Multiple pandemics (malaria, tuberculosis, cholera, plague) followed this trajectory: for decades/centuries, people have competing theories on what causes these illnesses. Bad morality? Bad diets? Bad air coming off rotting material? Contact with sick people? Then, in the 19th century, scientists discovered the pathogens which caused each of these illnesses. This settled the debate on what caused these diseases (though some people, including some governments, disbelieved these discoveries for decades) and generated great optimism that humans could conquer these diseases. But cures were harder to find than scientists expected. So were interventions to stop transmission (except for cholera). Grand schemes to use biomedical technology to ‘fix’ the pandemics failed.

Eventually, transmission went down in the global north mainly due to behavioral and/or engineering changes, so the global north stopped caring, but the diseases became more widespread in the global south (except plague). Scientists finally discovered treatments/cures in the 20th century, yet these diseases (except plague) kill more and more people. These diseases affect the poor far more than the rich (both poor people within a given society and poor nations more than rich nations), and increasing wealth equity and building out effective public health infrastructure would diminish the harms of all these diseases greatly (except plague because we’re not in a plague pandemic, but plague pandemics hit the poor harder than the rich when they happen). However, doing that would reduce the relative power of the people who have the most power now, so they’d rather fund biotechnical fixes. Bill Gates is a great example.

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What a Short History of Pandemics Taught Me About Covid-19 (Part 1)

I recently read Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction by Christian W. McMillen. In about 120 pages, it gives a history of seven pandemics: Plague, Smallpox, Malaria, Cholera, Tuberculosis, Influenza (specifically the 1918 influenza pandemic), and HIV/AIDS. I noticed some patterns in these pandemics which also apply to the Covid-19 pandemic. Let me share my insights:

People Underestimate the Slower Killer Pandemics

Cholera, when it kills, kills fast; tuberculosis kills people slowly. In the 19th century, the British freaked out way more about cholera, even though tuberculosis caused far more deaths. This isn’t some quirk of British culture—it’s human nature. We react more strongly to dramatic infections which kill within days than infections which take years to kill.

Is this impulse rational? Maybe, in the sense that you need to survive in the short term before you can survive in the long term. Taken too far, it causes people to be too careless about the slow killers. Did you know that, as of when this book was published (2016), tuberculosis kills more people per year than ever before in history? Me neither.

The way we regarded covid in early 2020 is like how the 19th century British people regarded cholera: it was a scary new disease which swept in from the East. Yes, cholera was closely tied with India, and fear of cholera mixed with xenophobic attitudes. Recent biological evidence casts in doubt whether cholera originated in India, but it doesn’t matter where it came from. What matters is that people in the 19th century believed it was from India.

Now, we treat covid like the 19th and 20th century British (and many other Europeans) regarded tuberculosis: it’s a ‘disease of modernity,’ a mark of progress. TB spread as urban working classes coalesced in crowded living conditions to fuel the industrial revolution. When TB rates grew in India in the early 20th century, the British celebrated it as evidence of their good governance. More TB meant India was becoming less ‘backwards.’

Let that sink in: British colonial administrators considered rising TB cases and deaths in India to be a good thing.

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I Suck at Plant Identification

Because of my health issues, I can’t hike like I used to. I hope I’ll recover and hike again the way I used to, but I don’t know when or if that will happen. So, to connect to the outdoors a different way, I picked up a book on tree/shrub identification and go to a botanical garden for practice.

Why the botanical garden? Because many plants have labels, so I can check if my identification is correct.

I am better at identifying plants than 99% of people I encounter. I’m used to being the one who can identify some plant on the street and dazzle others with my knowledge.

So, it was a rude awakening that, after so many attempts, I still haven’t correctly identified any plant based on the book.

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I Don’t Know What to Make of R.F. Kuang’s Babel (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1.

The Magic System

The quick explanation of the magic system in R.F. Kuang’s Babel is: people engrave two or more words onto silver bars from different languages and the gap in meaning between the words create the magic. If the words are too close in meaning, nothing happens, and if they are too far apart in meaning, nothing happens, so there’s an art to choose words which are close in meaning yet have a difference in nuance. They must be words which are in current common usage, which excludes entirely extinct languages, but Latin and Ancient Greek words are still useful because Oxford compels enough people to stay fluent in those languages. An attempt was made to revive Old English so it’d be useful for magic, but that failed, thus Old English words are (mostly) useless for silver magic. The people who recite the words on the silver bars must be so fluent in all languages used they can dream in those languages, otherwise the magic won’t work. This limits the number of people who control this magic. In the case of spells which rely on English-Mandarin translation pairs, less than five people in the entire world can use those spells. Finally, as English, German, and the Romance languages are converging in usage, the spells based only on those languages are losing their efficacy, so the translators need to branch into more languages, such as Mandarin and Sanskrit, to make new, more powerful spells.

There’s more to the magic system than that, but that’s the overview.

As soon as one particular detail of the magic system was introduced (which I have NOT described), I rolled my eyes and thought, ‘of course the protagonist is going to exploit this in the climax, otherwise there’d be no point in explaining this.’ I was right, that was the exact feature of the magic system Robin exploits in the climax. Maybe I’m too genre savvy.

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I Don’t Know What to Make of R.F. Kuang’s Babel (Part 1)

I binged all the Amazon reviews of Babel by R.F. Kuang some months ago. Finally, this month, I cracked it open myself. Based on the reviews, I expected it would be a long essay on intersectional social justice politics and colonialism lightly dressed as fiction with shallow characters. I doubted I’d want to read it word-for-word, but I was curious enough to skim it. But first, I wanted to get as far as I could reading-word-for word and only skim when I lost patience.

I read the novel cover-to-cover.

For that alone, I must respect this novel, and give it 4 stars out of 5.

One section of the novel got me close to skimming, but I read one more scene, and the next scene convinced me to read in full, not to skim.

What made me turn the pages?

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Now I See the Carbon Dioxide in the Air

For over a year I’ve wished for an Aranet4 to measure carbon dioxide levels like all the cool covid-cautious kids, but I could never justify the expense. I ran across Violet Blue’s comparison of the Aranet and the Vitalight CO2 monitors, and the Vitalight is so much cheaper. Recently, I bought one.

I’ve had the Vitalight for so short a time I’m still figuring out how to get the most out of it. A bigger change is finally knowing how high the carbon dioxide levels are in the spaces I enter.

First, I tried out the Vitalight in my home. The room with by far the highest co2 levels was the kitchen. Yes, we have a gas stove. I hadn’t even considered that until I saw the reading.

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Why I Blog So Much about Covid When So Many People Are ‘Tired’ of the Topic

Early in the pandemic, I had the rule that I wouldn’t discuss covid in the regularly scheduled posts, only in extra posts. About a year into the pandemic, I let that rule slip, and by now I often (though not always) discuss covid in the weekly blog posts.

Why the change?

At the time I put in the rule, the covid crisis was absorbing so much of so many people’s attention I wanted to balance that by writing about other things. Now, the see-saw is on the other side. So many people are avoiding talking about covid that keeping the conversation going improves the balance.

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Review of Outlaw Mage by K.S. Villoso

I backed the Kickstarter for Outlaw Mage: A Magical School Dropout’s Adventure, and recently read the eBook. So, here’s my review.

My history with Villoso’s books

I read about half of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. I DNF’d because I lost track of the plot and it didn’t seem worth it to figure out what was going on. However, something about the way Villoso writes her characters impressed me, and I remained interested in her future work.

I’m happy to say that I never got as lost in Outlaw Mage as I did in The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. Once I passed a certain tipping point, the story hooked me and I was flipping (eBook) pages to find out what happens next. So, even if you didn’t enjoy The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, you might enjoy this novel.

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This Isn’t a ‘Positive Scenario,’ It’s a Disaster

This essay from The Covid Underground offers three plausible positive endgames for the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the three ‘positive’ scenarios includes this:

In the next three years, the majority of the world population will be infected 6 or more times.

That leaves billions of survivors biologically aged, brain-fogged, bedbound, and betrayed by weakened immune systems. As in past pandemics, the millions of dead and disabled will create a labor shortage that empowers surviving workers.

Those who manage to minimize our Covid exposure will have the advantage in pushing for these changes.

We will start to see our numbers grow as more see the wisdom of avoiding reinfection.

I agree that this is a plausible scenario. Highly unlikely, but plausible. But to me it’s not a ‘positive’ endgame, it’s a nightmare.

I just don’t see how a future in which ‘billions’ of survivors are brain-fogged and bedbound is positive. Sorry.

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