As the world struggles through the COVID-19 pandemic, we should also be asking which systems-level measures will be needed to prevent this or even worse disasters from happening in the future. We argue that the pandemic is merely one of potentially myriad and pleiomorphic future global disasters generated by the same underlying dynamical system. 

We explain that there are 4 broad but easily identifiable systemic, pathologically networked conditions that are hurtling civilization towards potential self-destruction. As long as these conditions are not resolved, we should consider catastrophe as an inevitable emergent endpoint from the dynamics. All 4 conditions can be reversed with collective action to begin creating an enduring and thriving post- COVID-19 world. This will require maximal application of the Precautionary Principle.

Even as global civilization is swept into the maelstrom of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not too soon - in fact, we think gravely urgent - to understand the systemic conditions that made such a pandemic inevitable, and to understand why those conditions must be changed in order to prevent even worse, more complex, and possibly annihilatory events in the future. Our article is based on empirical observations, and the actions we recommend are based on maximal application of the Precautionary Principle.

COVID-19 is predicated on globalization. The pandemic has rapidly exposed a colossal lack of global preparation. The view is already widespread that the world will be drastically and permanently changed by this calamity, but no one is sure in what manner. Here we identify the "4 Horsemen" of this 21st century "Coronapocalypse". Unlike the "traditional" 4 Horsemen (disease, war, pestilence and death) the new Horsemen are not types of destruction or endpoints but rather dynamically coupled, intensifying and chronic preconditions that make such destructive endpoints inevitable. The new Horsemen are:

1.    Overpopulation
2.   Globalization
3.   Hyperconnectivity
4.   Extreme centralization and reduced numbers of fragile supply chains

We believe each one is capable of great harm individually, but together they create a recipe for human extinction if they are not defused rapidly in the aftermath of COVID-19. 

How did humanity arrive at this critical juncture?

The onset is difficult to pinpoint, but for at least several decades prior to COVID-19 the push for globalization began "preparing the battlefield" in which humanity now finds itself. There were close calls with SARS, MERS, and H1N1, not to mention potential threats from Ebola and other zoonotic viruses including the ongoing, slow calamity of HIV. In addition, the rise of antibiotic resistant bacterial pathogens, such as tuberculosis and E. coli, poses a nonviral threat.

The collapse of global health systems caused by COVID-19 could unleash synergistic public health crises (e.g., cholera) caused by both known and unknown opportunistic pathogens. But there is much more besides germs to be gravely concerned about and which must be confronted after the COVID-19 disaster passes over.

We have assessed that COVID-19 is an acute symptom of a convergence of systemic existential threats – the new 4 Horsemen – that have been growing like a global cancer for at least several decades. More importantly, we believe that the Horsemen will still be riding high after the pandemic and will bring even greater anguish in the future if they are not severely mitigated.

We consider COVID-19 to be a tragic gift, a lens through which we can see the underlying fragility and intolerable volatility of our current pathological relationship with the natural world. However, this window of clarity may not last long; the most terrifying threat from COVID-19 is not COVID-19; it is the second, third and higher-order nonlinear and multiplicative effects (outbreaks of other diseases, such as cholera, Ebola and drug resistant TB; police and firemen unable to respond to massive fires; riots and looting; endless martial law; mass hysteria; famine; decapitation of national leaderships; flash wars and even nuclear war; colossal "financial stimulus packages" that will cause inflation, national debt and insolvency to skyrocket). Such effects could synergize into a chaotic snowball of global pandemonium with consequences that are limited only by the imagination. Or, in a scenario almost as bad as annihilation, an insufferable totalitarian system could arise as a desperate measure to hold the unsustainable global system together a little longer.

Introducing the 21st century's new four horsemen of the coronapocalypse
Kang Hao Cheong, Michael C. Jones
Bioessays. 2020 Mar 30:e2000063. doi: 10.1002/bies.202000063. [Epub ahead of print]


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