Smash The Sparrows, it was called.
Back in 1958 Mao Zedong decreed Chinese citizens must wage war upon the humble sparrow because the birds were eating much-needed grain in a country where hunger was then a constant companion.
Dutifully, people took up the challenge; shooting the birds, breaking up nests, smashing eggs and beating drums to scare the animals and prevent them landing to rest. After two years, hundreds of millions of birds were dead as the poor sparrow approached extinction across China.
But we mess with nature at our peril.
Smashing the sparrows resulted in one of the most devastating famines in recent history, killing between 15 and 40 million Chinese citizens (exact numbers remain subject to ferocious debate.)
It turned out sparrows didn’t just eat grain. They also gobbled down lots of insects, including locusts, a critter with a vastly more voracious appetite for crops. With its major predator effectively sidelined, the locust roamed rampant across China.
This is a rather colorful way of suggesting we don’t have any clue what the future ramifications might be from this unprecedented social experiment we’re undertaking to fight COVID-19.
Hopefully the result is not mass hunger, though already there are dire warnings about the current disruption of supply chains, drops in international aid and suspension of immunization programs that might force 130million people across Africa to again be threatened by famine.
Of course, predictions of mass starvation are quite likely to be as incorrect as early guesses regarding this pandemic’s expected death toll.
Still, we are facing some serious unintended consequences by effectively putting our entire civilization into one form of lockdown or another.
There is no precedent. If someone had told you over Christmas Day’s turkey dinner that, in three months, every playground in Alberta would be closed and draped in crime scene tape you’d have checked what was in the stuffing. But look on the bright side: you’re living through history. Enjoy the test-tube.
It was advance-notice this pandemic was headed our way that fired up the fear factor.
Those chilling drone images of empty Wuhan streets alarmed the planet into concluding closing everything down was the only choice.
But now, after three months, the death and infection tolls are dropping in countries that were first affected, and we ponder how to emerge from this dreary new world.
Yet we’ve few clues to the extent of the damage we’ve inflicted on ourselves. Is the sudden expression of worldwide anger over racial injustice in any way exacerbated by the on-going frustrations due to those pandemic isolation edicts? Perhaps the timing is simply coincidence.
Meanwhile worried, yet curiously strident, governments are shoveling borrowed billions our way in a firestorm of temporary relief. Therefore the full financial effects are nowhere near being experienced. Soon they will be.
And what about the missed screenings for cancers and heart problems – killers that take 80,000 and 53,000 Canadians each year? Or the increase in suicides, domestic violence, alcoholism and drug abuse that being stuck at home in isolation will inevitably bring on?
We can’t ignore such unintended consequences. If so, we’ll repeat the same social medicine fearfully swallowed three months ago, by steadfastly refusing to consider being wrong.
If that happens, another full-scale lock down could tear our country apart.
Such an assertion is unpopular today. So let’s return to 1958 and imagine some fellow screwing up courage to approach Chairman Mao.
“Excuse me, oh glorious leader, but these sparrows – well, they do eat a lot of locusts, you know.”
He’d be shot, of course. Leaders don’t like being questioned. Not then. Not now.