Has the next pandemic already begun?
Welcome to this week’s Not in Dispatches, where we will be lifting up the mattress, pulling out a flashlight and closely examining the geopolitics of bed bugs.
Down and out in Paris and London.
A strange topic? Maybe. But sitting in our apartment in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, trying to get rid of the things, it seemed appropriate enough to us.
Indeed, both Paris and London are presently experiencing serious outbreaks of bed bugs. In Paris, they have been found at a major airport, on the metro and in cinemas. Exterminators are inundated with requests, and politicians are calling on the government to take more action. Some may want to keep calm and carry on, but fear is spreading as quickly as the bugs themselves.
In both countries, the resurgence of bed bugs – effectively eliminated in the 1940s in the UK and 1950s in France – has been linked to the return of international travel post-Covid, a rise in people buying second-hand clothes and furniture during tough economic times, the pests having developed resistance to insecticides, and climate change. The causes are features of (re-)globalisation and its discontents.
Given the pests’ notorious exponential spread (females lay one to five eggs a day) and major outbreaks taking off in two of the most visited cities in the world – not to mention Paris hosting the Olympic Games in June – the prospects of global spread are real.
While bed bugs pose little threat to human health for now, other than itchy mosquito-like bites that for some cause an allergic reaction, epidemiologists warn they could become a vector for disease. Lab tests at the University of Pennsylvania have proved they can carry at least two diseases – trench fever and Chagas disease – but the real risk is that they could carry some new disease.
And, if that happens, unlike for airborne diseases (like Covid) or those spread by mosquitoes (like Dengue fever), there would be nowhere to hide. Applying DEET and staying at home wouldn’t cut it. Nor would hiding under the mattress.
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This hypothetical scenario – a global proliferation of insidious insects becoming vectors of disease – could have major geopolitical ramifications. And as we wrote about last week, scenario planning can be a useful tool for businesses in preparing for such eventualities.
We could see, as we did with Covid, tightening of health measures at borders and travel restrictions to “flatten the curve”. An equally exponential growth in nativist sentiment might be expected: already, loud voices have blamed African migrants for bringing bed bugs to France. And politicians could come under pressure from fearful citizens to take public health measures with inevitable economic, psychological and social costs.
Whether borne by bed bugs, fleas, pangolins, or just fresh air, there will come another pandemic. By their nature, pandemics are unpredictable. Like equally unpopular deaths and taxes, they are inevitable.
And, with rapid global population growth and densification, greater international connectedness and rapid biodiversity loss, they will only become more frequent – as they steadily have since 1700 despite enormous improvements in medical technology, housing, hygiene, and living standards.
Notes from Underground.
This makes ongoing diplomatic efforts all the more important.
At the United Nations General Assembly two weeks ago, governments agreed on a declaration aimed at “mobilising political will at the national, regional and international levels for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response”. Hailed by the WHO Director-General as a “historic day for public health”, the declaration is mostly a high-level political statement without any legal force.
The real work is being done by the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body at the WHO in Geneva, where diplomats could by 2024 finalise a binding treaty on how governments should prepare for and cooperate during pandemics.
Governments are tackling many of the challenges posed by Covid: how to achieve equity in the global supply chain for pandemic-related products, how to ensure access to relevant technologies, how to strengthen the resilience of health systems, how states and the WHO should coordinate and cooperate during a pandemic, and how to finance pandemic responses.
With the brevity of a media digest, but the depth of an intelligence assessment, Daily Assessment goes beyond the news to outline the implications.
But it remains an open question whether governments will create a treaty and implement domestic reforms that would allow for better management of the next pandemic – and whether, when it does inevitably come, they will follow any new rules or let politics trump. In a post-Covid world where geopolitics has only become more charged, scepticism may be warranted.
If the UN political declaration fails to spur action at the WHO, maybe the resurgence of bed bugs will.
And it wouldn’t be the first time bed bugs have played an outsized role in the creation of global governance frameworks.
Churchill and Roosevelt complained of infested beds in the palaces Stalin put them up in for the Yalta conference towards the end of WW2 where the “Big Three” agreed on the reorganisation of Germany and Europe and the creation of the United Nations (including, at Stalin’s insistence, the veto system for the Security Council).
Historians agree the Soviets certainly planted vodka and listening bugs in the leaders’ rooms to gain a negotiating advantage. But the jury is still out on whether the appearance of bed bugs was deliberate and how much sleeplessness and itching undermined the American and British negotiation performance.
Either way, bed bugs have certainly had a brush with history and it may not be their last.
We hope you are enjoying Geopolitical Dispatch. Please do pass it on to a friend or colleague. And, remember: don’t let the bed bugs bite!
Michael, Cameron, Damien, Yuen Yi, Andrea, and Kim.
PS: Thank you to those who replied to last week’s call out for suggestions on geopolitical scenarios to cover in a future edition. We’ve received some great suggestions, which we are now working through.
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