A hundred years ago, the Virus Community got together to face the fact that Homo sapiens sapiens was an out-of-control invasive species. Something had to be done. An invasive species is defined as “an organism that causes ecological or economic harm in a new environment where it is not native.” There’s no doubt that H. s. sapiens has caused ecological and economic harm in whatever new environment it moved into over the tens of hundreds or maybe thousands of years since the species wandered out of Africa. Should it have avoided wandering out of Africa? Why did the species members wander? We have no solid data, but we can imagine. And H. s. sapiens took along with it, its favorite viruses and other pathogens. The Viruses were thrilled and the planet’s population was still relatively small. There was some concern among Viruses that H. s. sapiens might become a raging wildfire with an invasion ferocity that could topple ecosystems along with governments. They were right, although it took a long time for that reality to sink in.
For millennia prior to the turn of the century from 19th to 20th, the Virus Community had tossed out a series of half-hearted pandemics which cut back on the Invasion to an impressive extent, but invasives don’t take no for any answer. They keep coming back.
H. sapiens had already stomped to extinction most other “advanced” hominids and was thus the final hominid standing, taking on the label of H. s. sapiens, in case you wanted a bit more confusion. Yes, the gorillas and chimps still existed, but they had wandered way off the evolutionary road and stayed out of the way of H. sapiens.
The planet’s population in the early years of the 20th century ballooned to 1.8 billion, so according to calculations, the 1918 influenza pandemic killed almost 1% (0.94%) of the entire population, although data is sketchy. The estimators have written that back then, the world population was growing by around 13 million per year so the 1918 pandemic “was likely the last time in history when the world population was declining.”
H. s. sapiens made up for all those lost souls.
Various flu attacks from the Virus Community continued over the past hundred years since the 1918 one, but we had vaccines and people stopped noticing.
So, the Virus Community decided to launch HIV when it was obvious that herpes was just a hiccup. It figured they’d get us where we were most vulnerable – sex and drugs. Did the viral onslaught result in significant population impacts? No. Apparently. We are now at nearly 7.8 billion – doubled in just my own lifetime of just shy of 70 years. I haven’t seen blips in the population graphs relating to HIV. When I worked in that industry in the 1990s, the best estimates claimed that HIV would not reduce the world’s population but that it might slow the speed of growth. Not sure if that actually happened. The bottom line is, we’re at 7.8 billion.
Niger, where I lived and worked for four years, is the poorest country according to the statistics despite decades of international assistance. When I lived there in the early 1980s, the population was about 5.8 million; now it’s about 22 million, balancing precariously on the edge of the Sahara Desert. HIV didn’t cut it.
Lots of other Viruses kicked in before and after HIV: rabies, smallpox, hantavirus, ebola, marburg, various forms of influenza, dengue, rotavirus, SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, and now our friend SARS-CoV-2 or covid for short. The millennials like to call it “the ‘rona.”
“You got the ‘rona yet?”
The Viruses got together again and in a perhaps last-ditch effort to secure the planet for other living entities, they allowed Covid to erupt. In its first year, planet-wide, approximately 1.4 million people have died. A mere drop in the bucket but the Viruses are not done, and they are very insistent. They want their lives back. They want H. s. sapiens to back off. We are an invasive species, but the Virus Community is very determined, and combined with crazy cultural characteristics (like refusing to mask or get a vaccine), the Viruses may win. Not all of us are willing to hermit. And likely the Virus Community will pop up with something else in the decades to come as H. s. sapiens invades every remaining corner and cupboard of earth’s pantry.
Now, think about this: one percent of 7.8 billion is (clickety-clack) 78 million. And we’re now only at 1.4 million dead. So, we’re a long way from losing this particular Viral War to the percentage displayed by influenza in 1918-ish. And even if lots more humans succumb, perhaps it’s likely that the Viruses will ultimately be vanquished. Or we will vanquish ourselves for some other complex set of reasons and the Viruses will win, having not even done the job Themselves.