Pandemics and the Need for Resilience

Posted by on Sep 11, 2014

Reverend Miguel Pajares, who contracted Ebola in West Africa, being evacuated. Photo: Emilo Naranjo, European Pressphoto Agency

Reverend Miguel Pajares, who contracted Ebola in West Africa, being evacuated. Photo: Emilo Naranjo, European Pressphoto Agency

Perhaps I’m so fascinated by the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa because I had read Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, a bestseller, when it came out over 20 years ago. I just re-read the first few chapters of the book and was, again, immediately sucked in. Back when I first read it, the book made me curious enough about pandemics that I read several others on the topic, including C.J. Peters’ Virus Hunter and Ebola, a novel by William T. Close, M.D.

The subject matter of these books is terrifying: the risk that a deadly virus, such as Ebola, could turn into a broad, even worldwide, pandemic. For that to happen, the virus would likely have to mutate into an air-borne pathogen, but viruses are mutating all the time, and infectious disease experts generally agree that this is a very real concern. I suppose there is also risk that a terrorist organization out to get us could figure out a way to weaponize the germ somehow.

Of course, I’ve been reminded of all this as I read the daily news about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. To date, this worst known outbreak of the hemorrhagic virus has infected more than 3,000 people and killed over 1,500. Borders have been closed in several countries, and riots have occurred in a number of situations.

Extent of the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa. New York Times graphic from USAID and UN World Food Programme data

Extent of the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa. New York Times graphic from USAID and UN World Food Programme data

What does this have to do with resilience?

Should a major pandemic occur here—whether a mutated, airborne Ebola or a SARS virus or something like the deadly 1919 flue—suddenly many services will likely break down. Trucking fleets may be idled as truck drivers opt not to venture out into a contaminated world, and that would mean that food supplies would quickly run out. Gas stations may close down. Utility crews may not be there to respond to a fallen tree that takes out a power line.

Were something like this to occur, Americans would likely be forced to stay put, whether they want to or not. Those who have supplies (food, medicines, and other critical needs), those who can become largely self-sufficient will be safer than those who crowd the supermarkets and city streets in a panic buying spree.

If a pandemic were to occur in the U.S., I’ll be glad that I grow a significant portion of our food with season-extending storage. I’ll be glad that we buy in bulk and stockpile some long-shelf-life staple food items like dried beans, rice, flour, and oats. I’ll be relieved to know that we have access to water even if the grid goes down for an extended period—with no one venturing out to fix it.

And while our solar-electric system does not include batteries (I wish it did), at least we have a specialized inverter that can produce AC electricity for us during the daytime when the grid is down.


Ebola known cases and deaths from the New York Times, September 7, 2014.

Planning for the unknown

Whether a pandemic, earthquake, drought, or storm, providing some level of resilience in our homes provides an important level of security. Yes, it’s hard to justify spending money for something we will rarely, if ever, need—like a hand pump for water from a deep well or a wood-fired cook stove that generates enough electricity to charge a cell phone or tablet (watch for that in a future blog)—but it’s also hard in a small town to find the money to replace an aging fire truck, yet we somehow do that. I’d venture to guess that there are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of fire trucks at airports that have never been used.

Garden_3039_MedResFortunately, many—if not most—resilience measures offer other benefits during normal times. The high levels of insulation in our home that will keep us safe if there were to be a prolonged power outage or an interruption in heating fuel in the middle of winter keeps our energy costs down and makes us more comfortable day-in and day-out. Our vegetable gardens are beautiful to look at. And there is something to be said for the psychological well-being in knowing that we could probably do all right in whatever the next disaster might be.

Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.


  1. It’s an interesting point to consider the cost of all the unused equipment and precautionary efforts that we find an acceptable expense. I was chatting today with an Air Force pilot who trains other pilots. He pointed out that his whole job is “putting holes in the sky with jet fuel” and that many of those who receive training will never fly a fighter plane or bomber. I told him I hoped they didn’t! But we find that sort of expense: on fuel, equipment, and training, to be an expected expense for national security. We pay with not just money but resources and person-hours, to have well=trained pilots at the ready.

    It’s so much harder to loosen our communal purse-strings for preventative things like batteries for solar power, or alternative transit and food production and distribution. These are the precautions that would get us through a medical or other emergency that military force can’t scare away.

  2. I just came across this fascinating article from researchers at the University of Calgary about the risk that melting permafrost could resurrect ancient viruses. -Alex

    October 31, 2014
    Ancient virus found preserved in frozen caribou dung
    With global warming viruses could be released into the environment, warn scientists

    CALGARY, ALBERTA–(Marketwired – Oct. 31, 2014) – Discovering that a plant virus cryogenically preserved for 700 years in frozen caribou feces could be resurrected was a revelation both exciting and troubling for University of Calgary geography professor Brian Moorman.

    On one hand it was a groundbreaking find. Scientific knowledge of ancient viruses is limited due to their poor preservation in ancient specimens. Therefore the discovery of viral genomes found in the 700-year-old caribou feces – extracted from layers of ice in the Selwyn Mountains of the Northwest Territories – was invaluable. It showed that cryogenically preserved materials can act as repositories of viral nucleic acids, allowing scientists to regenerate ancient viruses for study.

    But the discovery has darker implications too, because as global warming continues to melt away the world’s ice, there’s no telling what sort of unknown viruses could be released into the environment.

    The project in the Selwyn Mountains began as an archaeological expedition with the goal of finding artifacts preserved in subarctic ice. Moorman was brought in as part of a team of 16 researchers because of his expertise in permafrost and glaciology. Using ground penetrating radar, Moorman imaged the interior structure of the ice patches, determining how they developed and how they were preserved. Coring through the ice patches he was also able to determine the age of each layer.

    The subarctic ice patch containing the caribou feces was found to be 4,000 years old. Remarkably, in the three-year period of the study, between 2008 and 2011, that patch melted away. “Think about that,” says Moorman, who is also an associate dean in the Faculty of Arts. “This ice had been there continuously for 4,000 years, but in a period of only three years it disappeared completely.”

    He adds: “If you consider Canada, half of it is underlain by permafrost, ice in the ground. And we now know that ancient viruses can be preserved in that ice. If all that permafrost thaws, what viruses could be released into the environment?”

    But despite the concerns posed by the findings, the ability to study cryogenically preserved ancient viruses could have a great benefit in the present, providing insights into how viruses evolve and change over time.

    “When we’re dealing with viruses, for example, the flu, we’re concerned with how they evolve,” says Moorman. “Because if they’re evolving faster than we can keep up with them, we’re in trouble. These new findings could help us understand how viruses evolve over long time periods.”

    The research in this study was published in the October 28 issue of the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

    About the University of Calgary

    The University of Calgary is a leading Canadian university located in the nation’s most enterprising city. The university has a clear strategic direction to become one of Canada’s top five research universities by 2016, where research and innovative teaching go hand in hand, and where we fully engage the communities we both serve and lead. This strategy is called Eyes High, inspired by the university’s Gaelic motto, which translates as ‘I will lift up my eyes.’

    Media Contact
    Heath McCoy
    Communications Advisor, Faculty of Arts
    University of Calgary
    403-220-5089 or Cell: 403-607-8461


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