Zika Virus: What Are the Potential Long-Term Economic Ramifications?

Patrick Cox  |

If you’ve been reading my work for any length of time, you’re aware of the fact that the world is headed into depopulation. From this point forward, barring the arrival of totally unexpected forces, the number of births worldwide will continue to fall.

For a brief period by historical standards, the total human population will continue to grow due to increasing life spans. In other words, people are taking longer and longer to die. We have reached peak babies, however, and the human population is on the road to decline even if the numbers don’t show it yet.

It feels strangely auspicious to be alive during this unparalleled transformation of the human experience, though most people haven’t even grasped yet that it is happening. So it’s unsurprising that they are also oblivious to the problems posed by societies with more older than younger people.

I spoke to a group about his recently, and as usual, some people seemed angry and offended by the very notion that the overpopulation apocalypse we were promised ain’t gonna happen. I don’t think these folks were really looking forward to Soylent Green, so this hostility probably reflects intellectual inertia. A lot of people invested decades in overpopulation activism, so they’re probably irritated that a “denier” like me tells them they were, in fact, wrong.

I apologize.

This doesn’t mean that quite a few people haven’t caught on. The Economist has been particularly good in its coverage of demographic issues. There are other examples, including this 2012 piece in U.S. News & World Report titled, “Why a Falling Birth Rate Is a Big Problem.”

This article deals with topics I’ve covered here in depth, especially the positive impact that higher birth rates have on economic growth and employment. However, I’m more concerned about the fact that, for the first time in history, a smaller next generation is being sent the bill, in the form of national debts, racked up by a larger generation.

Beyond business concerns, the dangers inherent in depopulation have begun making their way into popular culture, especially science fiction. B-movies are replacing overpopulated dystopian themes with stories about disappearing humans. Not surprisingly, this is more evident in Japanese movies and anime, which I admittedly follow.

There haven’t been that many American depopulation movies, but until quite recently, the United States has been the exception to sub-replacement birth rates in the developed world. We’ve long known, however, that birth rates go down and death rates go up when the economy suffers as badly as it is suffering now. So US births are now apparently below replacement rate. This may change when we finally sort out the current mess, but we obviously don’t know yet. I have a lot more confidence that life expectancies will continue their inexorable upward turn, as they are in most of the world.

If you haven’t been following the story about stalled American life expectancies, it’s fascinating. Most segments of the American public continue to make progress on the life expectancy front, despite the Great Recession. A few months ago, though, demographers published data showing stalled increases in American life expectancy are due primarily to higher death rates among middle-class white people. But since then, additional analysis by two Columbia University scholars has revealed that the subgroup most responsible for lowering aggregate life expectancies is Southern white women. Here’s their paper and here’s a very simplified blog version.

We think that tobacco and alcohol consumption are involved in this increased mortality, possibly in response to deteriorating financial status, but nobody can definitively prove why this group is suffering so badly, which has led to a lot of academic consternation. Personally, I’ve been focusing more on emerging research breakthroughs into drugs that could radically improve our ability to treat both depression and addiction.

But allow me to return to the subject of science fiction and depopulation. I do so because of the well-publicized Zika virus outbreaks. In fact, four counties in Florida, where I live, are now under declared states of emergency in response to Zika infections. So far, all of the infections appear to have taken place outside of Florida.

The early response from the Obama administration has been to downplay the threat, saying Zika is not comparable to Ebola. The Centers for Disease Control similarly issued calm, soothing assurances. The World Health Organization, however, took a different tack, declaring a “global emergency” and putting Zika in the same threat category as Ebola. Some American scientists pushed for the emergency status, pointing out that the failure to respond quickly to the emergence of Ebola contributed to its spread.

While Zika is not directly comparable to Ebola, which is far more lethal and requires direct contact to spread, it may be a bigger problem in the long run because it is spread by the Aedes genus of mosquitos, which exists in every continent but Antarctica. Outbreaks have occurred in South America, Mexico, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Current active outbreaks are reported by the CDC here.

There is little doubt, however, that Aedes mosquitos will eventually bring Zika to US shores. Texas and Florida are good candidates for first infestation. It could happen slowly, spreading naturally through mosquito populations, or one good storm could carry the virus northward into America. Right now, the focus of concern is the infection in Brazil where the Olympics will take place in a few months.

For most adults, an infection is like a mild flu, though there may have been a few cases of Zika-related Guillain-Barre, which causes paralysis in adults. Most of the attention and fear generated is due to evidence that the virus poses particular risks to unborn children. There appears to be a connection between infection in the womb and various neurological and autoimmune disorders, but the number one concern is clearly the crippling and tragic birth defect microcephaly (Greek for “small head”). Anecdotal evidence is compelling, including 4,000 Brazilian microcephaly births since 2014 when Zika showed up. That’s a 25-fold increase in microcephaly correlated with the Zika outbreak.

Not surprisingly, female athletes training in Brazil are being extremely careful, going outside only when necessary and then fully clothed with bounteous applications of mosquito repellent. Brazilian authorities are even telling pregnant women not to come to the Olympic games. To complicate things and add to the fear, the CDC has confirmed that Zika can be sexually transmitted, and has been in Dallas. That means men whose wives may become pregnant would have to take the same precautions.

The government of Salvador has recommended that women not become pregnant until 2018, and I’m sure that we’ll see reductions in birthrates. Fertility rates in Salvador are only slightly below replacement rate at the present time, but the effects of this directive could be seen for decades. Even if birthrates recover after a vaccine is developed, it would produce a mini-baby boom, which causes its own problems.

Imagine the impact of widespread infestation by Zika-carrying mosquitos in countries already struggling with depopulation, such as Japan and South Korea. Microcephaly is a terrifying disease. Not only does it bring tragedy to entire families, you can’t see it coming as you can Ebola. You might not even know you were infected.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see birthrates fall well below one child per family in some countries. Japan’s struggle to support an increasingly expensive older population and pay its enormous national debt would be even more difficult if not impossible. Within a few years, we could see cinematic apocalypse scenarios.

On the other hand, I’m closely following scientists working on biotechnologies almost totally outside of public awareness. They’re already making progress toward developing vaccines and cures. Governments, which are typically obstructionist when it comes to novel therapeutics, will have no choice but to ease regulatory burdens and accelerate the development of these new approaches to viruses. In the meantime, Hollywood could make at least a few good science-fiction movies about this bizarre situation.

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Patrick Cox
Transformational Technology Alert

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