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What kind of pandemic could keep nations on severe lock down for at least long enough to necessitate irreversible changes to culture and the economy (preferably a decade or longer)? Such as fast-tracking automation, implementing UBI, and moving everything to a digital and robotic format (Like what's happening now, but without a clear off ramp). It can be of any severity, so long as it's not an apocalypse scenario (though it can be in some places). It should be at least a little scarier than Covid-19, but the main thing is that it should be nearly impossible to create a vaccine for and hard to treat in a significant way. A superbug, or something that mutates too frequently to build immunity to or combat. I want it to help shape a world where people can't leave their homes and interact through the world online, while automation does the majority of the labor in the nation.

(The primary attribute I want is longevity, what could prove to be exceptionally challenging to rid the world of, while being just lethal enough to prevent leaving a lock down situation)

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    $\begingroup$ Multiple problems. (1) Does not seem to be related to World Building, but to the possible outcomes from the current situation. (2) It has strong influences of matter pertaining to opinions ("Chinese superpower", "global recession hitting America hardest", "stripping individuals of personal freedom", etc). (3) Unclear in a number of points (e.g. "tech company wields too much power" - what power??, "algorithmic religion like ideology" - what this even means?). $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 1:41
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    $\begingroup$ Short answer would be 'none'. At some point people will get imunization. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 1:43
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    $\begingroup$ The problem with rapid mutation is it eventually leads to a less harmful version of the agent unless you have some sort of intelligent deliberate mutation being applied repeatedly over time. $\endgroup$
    – barbecue
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ I think we might as well assume OP is asking in good faith, @AdrianColomitchi. I have seen lots of people writing fiction about pandemics right now. Nothing wrong with a story inspired by current events. $\endgroup$
    – Ejaz
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Rodolfo Penteado - not if its something like mad-cow (i.e. a prion) $\endgroup$
    – B.Kenobi
    Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 18:48

11 Answers 11

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Step 1: Use a Retrovirus

Retroviruses clone themselves from RNA instead of DNA. RNA is less stable than DNA; so, virus that use it for replication mutate MUCH faster than those that use DNA. This means that you will not have a single virus you can just vaccinate against, but an ever growing family of viruses such that you will already have new varieties of it by the time you come up with a vaccine for the ones that exist. This also negates herd immunity of those who have or have not had it since you could get it multiple times in your life as it mutates.

Step 2: Make it contagious before symptoms progress

This is actually the big detail that has make covid-19 worse than other more deadly ones like SARS. A disease that does not always present symptoms is much harder to selectively contain.

Step 3a: Make it resistant to environmental factors

A disease that can survive for long times in soil, on door handles, etc. will be more likely to keep coming back even after you think you've eliminated it.

Making it transferable by other organism can have similar effect since the disease can appear to be wiped out only to come back later. You don't want to use a super spreader like mosquitos though since they can make quarantine virtually useless. You'd want to use an animal that is prolific, but has little direct interactions with humans so it can be reintroduced now and then, but not a major mode of transmission. Rodents could be good for this, since they are hard to wipe out, but easy to keep away from humans most of the time.

Step 3b: Long dormancy period

Some viruses can live in your body for 10 years without symptoms, then boom, they flare up and kill you. This can serve as a substitute for or work along side resisting environmental factors since again, it would make it impossible to simply eradicate and move on from.

You do not want a 10 year dormancy of course because this would nullify the point of social isolation, but when you consider it took Covid-19 about 2-3 months to become widespread without spreading beyond controllability, something in this range might do.

Step 4: Make it deadly, but not too deadly

Covid-19 is again a good example of this. A disease that kills too many people will cause a general collapse in society rather than the social contraction you are looking for. Making the disease spread effectively but only typically killing people with preexisting conditions will encourage people to do things remotely as much as possible without making it impossible for logistics companies to continue to operate at all. If it kills normal healthy people then factories, food processing, and shipping facilities will close outright leading to widespread famine and civil disorder.

Granted, full automation of industry and logistics would make mankind more resistant to a deadlier pandemic, but you don't want to burn the system to the ground before you transition to this. You need an infrastructure that can still mostly function despite the disease in order to begin manufacturing the needed automation systems to take human interaction out of the mix entirely. Since it rapidly mutates, you could have it start off only kinda deadly and then get progressively worse over time.

Step 5: The existence of free societies

There is a marked difference when you compare how totalitarian governments and free societies address an epidemic. Totalitarian governments have little trouble eradicating highly virulent diseases because they have it in thier power to really force lockdown protocols. They can close all thier businesses for a few month even if it means people go without "essential services", they can seal people into thier homes without food or medical support if they suspect an outbreak, they can execute and burn the ill instead of risking them getting more people sick while they recover... in short, they can do whatever they deem fit in the name of the "greater good" that free societies simply would not stand for.

Instead, free societies give suggestions and guidelines that most people will abide by but some will ignore. These people who ignore the guidelines would make the total eradication of the illness impossible.

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    $\begingroup$ I wondered about this, but the issue with the very long dormancy period is that it would have spread everywhere before anyone realised, and it would be too late for a lockdown to achieve anything. The other issue, is that diseases that come back from other places (such as animals, or objects) directly mean that lockdown is not very effective. If it happens infrequently you become practiced at reacting to each event with a local lockdown. If it happens frequently lockdowns have effectively no effect. There may be some balance in the middle, but I don't think it would result in 24/7 lockdown. $\endgroup$
    – Isaac
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 14:39
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    $\begingroup$ Aren't step 1 and step 4 mutually incompatible: if the virus mutates so fast, its lethality and transmissibility are also bound to change fast. After a while, the virus may no longer have the ability to penetrate the human tissues. $\endgroup$
    – 5th decile
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 23:30
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    $\begingroup$ @ThibautDemaerel HTLV1, HTLV2, and HIV were discovered about 40 years ago and still have lethal variants today. Certainly many strains may evolve to become less lethal, but others can also drift towards higher chances of lethality, particularly in cases where the mechanism that affects lethality positively correlates in some way with its R0. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 1:34
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    $\begingroup$ If I understand dormancy correct it could have the following effect: Only a very small percentage of infected become dormant-hosts (<1%) they are asymptomatic and don't spread the virus, until the virus reemerges after dormancy and starts spreading from this person. - If the dormancy time is e.g. 6 months and you have serveral unidientified dormant hosts from different infection start-points, the virus will always reemerge in small numbers at various times and is never eradicated. $\endgroup$
    – Falco
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 10:35
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    $\begingroup$ I think step 2 is by far the most critical point and should be emphasized more. It needs an asymptomatic infection period long enough to spread potentially worldwide by the time the first case is identified, but short enough to still have low saturation. Having cases everywhere means local lockdowns aren't enough. Having only 1% of the population infected in each country means that lockdown is effective for saving the other 99%. A source of frequent random new outbreaks could then turn that into permanent lockdown. $\endgroup$
    – Douglas
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 20:31
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I can think of several, but here is my favorite.

  • Fever.

  • Headache.

  • Nausea.

  • Vomiting.

  • Agitation.

  • Anxiety.

  • Confusion.

  • Hyperactivity.

  • Fear of water.

An airborne version of rabies would be especially horrifying. It would result in extremely (almost 100%) lethality once you had symptoms and it would have a fairly large number of reservoirs amongst animals. Infected people would behave erratically as the virus invaded their nervous system. Give it a longer incubation period and high mutation rate to make vaccines ineffective. I heard something like this suggested on a documentary as a possible zombie apocalypse substitution because of the behavioral changes. Nasty.

  • If this is too awful, there are huge stockpiles of engineered Anthrax in the former Soviet Union that as far as I know haven't been destroyed. Make a more aerosolized version and add multi-drug resistant plasmids. If it was a research facility that was raided, numerous antigenically different strains available in the inventory means a terrorist organization (for example) just has to release a new one every time someone develops a new vaccine or antibiotic.Inhalation anthrax is very lethal but slightly less encompassing.Inhalation (pulmonary) anthrax Inhalation anthrax develops when you breathe in anthrax spores. It's the most deadly way to contract the disease, and even with treatment, it is often fatal. Incubation period for inhalation anthrax can be weeks. This is from the Mayo clinic

    -https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anthrax/symptoms-causes/syc-20356203 Initial signs and symptoms of inhalation anthrax include:

Flu-like symptoms, such as sore throat, mild fever, fatigue and muscle aches, which may last a few hours or days Mild chest discomfort Shortness of breath Nausea Coughing up blood Painful swallowing As the disease progresses, you may experience:

High fever Trouble breathing Shock Meningitis — a potentially life-threatening inflammation of the brain and spinal cord

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    $\begingroup$ That will cause the extinction of humanity - 'airborne version of rabies' is worse than 'zombie apocalypse' - at least with zombies you just need to avoid being bitten. I'm curious if you can imagine a solution in which the so long as it's not an apocalypse scenario condition is met. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 2:34
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    $\begingroup$ You have to be afraid of it, but you could control it through especially brutal restrictions. Test everyone traveling. Spray nerve agents to kill rats. I envision US fighter planes dropping napalm on refugee camps. Locally, it could be apocalyptic, but it would tend to burn itself out quickly wherever you had draconian control measures. It's tailor-made for people embracing authoritarianism. Just adjust the virulence to meet your needs! $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 2:41
  • $\begingroup$ 100% lethality is a bit more than I was expecting, it's also an unlikely mutation without being genetically engineered, but it certainly meets the terrifying criteria. If you assumed it could spread moderately quickly, but not fast enough to entirely decimate the world it could work. Very draconian measures could be implemented to control the spread of such a virus, so that's good at least. $\endgroup$
    – Ferris7060
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 2:45
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    $\begingroup$ Mmmm... but you could control it through especially brutal restrictions. I doubt it. Airborne with large number of reservoirs amongst animals means that, short of destroying the entire ecosystem under the pressure of time (so everybody dies), there's no counter-strategy for it. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 2:49
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    $\begingroup$ rabies is scary, but there is a vaccine (of sorts): en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabies_vaccine $\endgroup$
    – doc
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 10:29
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I don't think anything could. The thing is you can eliminate any human-only disease with a sufficient lockdown. Look at what China has done--at this point the threat is imports. It's easier to do that than remain locked down for many years. As some areas eliminate it the ones that don't will become more and more isolated and will in time also eliminate it.

If it has an animal host a lockdown won't stop it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Animal host is a good suggestion to circumvent that, I was also considering that it remains in circulation throughout the areas of the world that can't enact a fool proof isolation due to lack of policing or economic impossibility. Which is why it's somewhat important that it's not apocalyptic, I still want people to be left to contract it indefinitely with moderate lethality. That way life can't return to normal without potentially reintroducing the virus. $\endgroup$
    – Ferris7060
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 2:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Ferris7060 The thing is if it has an animal host locking down doesn't give protection, thus why do it? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 4:22
  • $\begingroup$ We don't have much difficulty making animals extinct even when we aren't trying. $\endgroup$
    – DrMcCleod
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 12:50
  • $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel an airborne disease that also has an animal host will spread MUCH faster person to person than through animals; so, a quarantine could still be an effective way to drop the R0 below 1.0 even if fails to force the disease to go extinct. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ "We don't have much difficulty making animals extinct even when we aren't trying." it depends on the animal. Megafauna are easy to spot and breed slowly, so are easy to wipe out but small animals that are well-suited to their environment can be very difficult to wipe out. There are many invasive species that humanity as tried and failed tried and failed to control or eliminate. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 4:18
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Capitalism

While not generally considered a pandemic, it creates the results you are looking for. Read "The Last Capitalist" by Liu Cixin (I think it's in "The Wandering Earth" collection). It describes exactly such a situation - everyone is confined to their small homes because the space outside is owned by someone else and they don't have permission to use it.

In the story that situation is impossible to resolve, because under such confinement it is impossible to accumulate wealth to buy land.

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  • $\begingroup$ Sounds like capitalism hijacked by communists. $\endgroup$
    – Dagelf
    Commented May 12, 2020 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Dagelf which part is communist about that scenario? $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Commented May 13, 2020 at 9:39
  • $\begingroup$ No system is bullet proof against take-over by authoritarianism, but history has proven communism especially vulnerable to such takeover to the point of censorship-loving authoritarians being referred to as communists. The volatile combination of a gullible public anaesthetised by a story of "fairness" aka. good intentions, and the ease with which they are then taken advantage of by their superiors, who so far has always turned to censorship to enforce their will, is responsible. In capitalist society the scenario contemplated is resisted through democratic processes and freedom of speech. $\endgroup$
    – Dagelf
    Commented May 19, 2020 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Dagelf that is an interesting theory, but again: What in the scenario I described is communist? It is quite the opposite, it is capitalism taken to its extreme conclusion, so I still wonder what drove your comment. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Commented May 19, 2020 at 17:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Dagelf I don't think the purpose of the story is to avoid capitalism, but to avoid an EXTREME of it. Like you say: A proper balance between competition, cooperation, private and communal, etc. is most likely the best answer to most questions. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Commented May 20, 2020 at 13:22
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I don't think there can be an infection that would be able to hold people indefinetely locked. Some kind of vaccine/cure would be found against it sooner or later.

Instead I would rely on some kind of bad actor who would regularly bio-engineer and release viruses/bacterias/fungi that would cause pandemics if left unchecked. Such bad actor would need to have its secret agents all over the world (or alternatively, to be able to make its agents appear in targeted country despite all efforts of national security agencies of said country), so no country would feel safe and new infection would be able appear in many different places at the same time. And this bad actor should be able to manufacture new potentially pandemic viruses/bacteries/fungi so quickly that the poor humanity wouldn't be able to have a break.

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None, at least not in a modern/current setting:

For permanent indefinite lockdown to occur, we would need several things to happen:

  1. The lockdown is effective - this means it has to be spread by human contact
  2. Yet the virus isn't killed by the lockdown
  3. The consequences and cost of dealing with the lockdown is better than the alternatives

Points 1 and 2 are pretty tricky to combine. The virus needs to be permanently a risk factor, yet only spread via human to human contact. This probably means people don't recover or ever become immune or resistant and can remain contagious. It also means that the virus isn't always fatal, but is still nasty enough that lockdown is better than the alternative (including loss of life due to economic costs).

Yet if this was the case, the cheaper long-term solution would eventually be to test everyone - then segregate society; perhaps via 'virus passports'. The virus would sometimes escape the segregation, and each such event would need to be dealt with. But each segregated group would be effectively free from lockdown. Getting to that point would involve an initial much longer-term lockdown than we are currently envisioning, but not decade long.

I cannot currently see an easy/not-highly-contrived way in which a single virus/disease could be both untestable, like Dementia currently is, and also contagious. For a disease to be contagious something needs to be transmitted, which means there is something relatively obvious to look for.

I also wondered if something like this might be possible if it wasn't just one virus, but rather repeated waves of different viruses. However closing international borders should be sufficient to prevent future waves spreading beyond their immediate locale.


I could however envision something like this happening in a much more distant future, if people had sealed homes. That way the lockdown could be effective against viruses transmitted in other ways, such as by air or via animals, and we wouldn't be stuck with the consequences of human to human transmission.

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  • $\begingroup$ So, the story does take place somewhat in the future and I intend for the virus to essentially be eradicated locally, but not everywhere in the world can stop it. I'm certainly considering adding an animal host such as birds to assist in spreading past closed borders. I said indefinitely, but even a decade plus should be sufficient for my goal of completely changing the economy. $\endgroup$
    – Ferris7060
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 22:13
  • $\begingroup$ If eradicated locally, why then the lockdown? - you can just close your borders instead.Unless the story is set post lockdown? $\endgroup$
    – Isaac
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 8:26
  • $\begingroup$ Well the hope is to find a situation where even if you can eradicate it temporarily, it can come back despite closed borders. Some ideas I liked were zoonatic shifts that could pass borders, or month long incubation periods. Also border lock downs aren't 100% effective and some infected might attempt to flee to safer regions without knowing they were sick. I don't know, maybe I'll change that aspect, but with the level of social isolation I'm consider it's hard to imagine it not being an effective deterrent locally. The idea is that not everywhere can afford total isolation. $\endgroup$
    – Ferris7060
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 9:28
  • $\begingroup$ The problem is, if you can detect it, then with more organisation you can enforce more 'permissible' lockdowns, i.e. segregation. To get people locked down in homes over the very long term, you need the being locked down in homes to be effective, but segregation - which is extremely similar, to not be effective. Segregation does involve more organisation, and does (justly) have a very bad reputation. But technically we have what I am calling segregation now; though with key workers vs non-key workers, rather than infected vs not infected. $\endgroup$
    – Isaac
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 9:53
  • $\begingroup$ I.e. if we had access to comprehensive testing now, and governments were expecting this to last a full year, they would already be moving towards segregation along 'very-likely-not-infected' vs 'possibly-infected' lines. $\endgroup$
    – Isaac
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 9:57
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You can engineer diseases already so just think of what you want to give people that incentives no or low contact. Families can't avoid one another in the same house neither can apartment neighbors there was a disease found in Africa that had no name but it slowly rotted its victims but they felt no pain until it came to inner organs some time later they were alive while their body parts fell off.

The explorers who found the site met the village chief whose head promptly fell off and rolled to the floor mid speaking and the body moved for a time more before collapsing the end result the explorers took one look at the town and as soon as one got infected they said, "We can't let this be." They set up a rock message post then proceeded to kill off everyone via fire including themselves they stopped a pandemic situation. Their notes is what told anyone about what they had done and as far as they could tell no one survived to pass the disease on.

People died of he common cold once. And there was that dancing plague briefly in the middle ages that was an odd ball you should look that one up.

It seems things that rewrite the genetic code or function of cells is the hard things to combat with the body so its a matter of research if you really want to google stuff just look at incurable diseases and take notes on what commonalities they have then look at horrendous diseases and see if you want to graph that on you don't have to use real world diseases you could just have it come from a meteorite as it could come from an unfrozen necro plant from the dinosaur age as we have that occurring right now plants and flowers found in perma frost are springing back to life which is bad because we don't know if they'll also bring things we can't defend against.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ah, a variant of "zombie/undead disease" - how's this transmitted then? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 2:36
  • $\begingroup$ Kind of but it' not the first by a long shot history wise. These explorers wouldn't have known how disease transmitted but sharing food could've been one way as asymptomatic seems to be what occurred first. $\endgroup$
    – Mio
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 3:10
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I think the bacillus anthracis, commonly known as anthrax, might play the role. Apparantly, the bacterium in question has the ability to stay dormant in the soil for many years and even decades, just lingering as a 'spore' in a metabolically inactive state. The ideology behind this disease's sustained lethality is quite different than the one of other answers here: the species evolves very slowly, if at all. But that property guarantees the continued lethality of the disease the OP is looking for (and the lethality of airborne anthrax is so great that a dynamics of humans acquiring immunity by having survivors have an advantage in the natural selection process must occur on a very slow time-scale)

In a fictional universe, a large-scale conflict may have provoked a major power in detonating large anthrax bombs over enemy territory. The wind (jet stream) unexpectedly spreads the disease to other parts of the world which becomes widely contaminated. Anthrax becomes especially a more viable candidate for such a story if you suppose that the society after the conflict has lost major chunks of biological knowledge and fails to properly identify the culprit.

To summarize, it seems that anthrax is useful in story/world building as an element to justify geographical no-go zones. To argue against anthrax, after consulting the documentation of historical outbreaks it seems that anthrax has a poor spreading-dynamics after infecting subjects: human social behaviour does not as greatly enable this disease as it does other diseases. If the fictional society becomes aware of the anthrax-contamination of the soil, they will likely start to expand the uncontaminated safe-zones by ploughing away the top-soil of contaminated regions (and apparently using desinfectants like formaldehyde also works).

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A more virulent (lower recovery rate) form of poliomyelitis with physical contact in addition to fecal-oral or oral-oral transmission. The fecal route will sorta guarantee long term persistence in environment - how about having an entire species of ubiquitous birds (sparrow?) going extinct and littering large geo areals with infection spots?

E.g. of occurrence - enterovirus linked to flaccid paralysis (was not polio and wasn't studied before because the existing strains weren't debilitating beyond the infection period)

E.g. of persistence in/transmission by soil: Contaminated Soil and Transmission of Influenza Virus (H5N1)

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  • $\begingroup$ A version of anthrax would be good for contaminated soil. The spores are incredibly difficult to get rid of. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 12:44
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Prions

Prions (like mad-cow disease) are not something your body can develop immunity to or that a vaccine can be developed for. They're almost impossible (maybe impossible) to sterilize because they don't have DNA or RNA - they are just a miss-folded protein. They have long incubation period so many people could potentially be infected and asymptomatic for a long time - even if you know you are infected you may have years left in your life. If prions ever became transmissible through means other than cannibalism, blood transfer, or surgical contamination it could be very bad news for humans. Imagine a whole segment of the population who have this easily transmissible prion, with a long incubation period, who now have to stay isolated until they die - or hang out with other infected people I guess.

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Having recently watched the HBO Chernobyl miniseries, I keep drawing parallels between the current COVID-19 situation and a major worldwide radioactive disaster (like what could have happened at Chernobyl).

Similarities:

  • Invisible, airborne particles that cause sickness and death
  • Transmittable by touch / close quarters / contaminated goods
  • Cleanliness can limit the spread
  • Requires seeking shelter and avoiding risky situations
  • Strains medical services and requires special PPE for staff

Differences:

  • Viruses propagate from host-to-host, leading to the "curve" everyone's talking about as more people are exposed; radiation decays (slowly), so an area is exposed all at once and will not become more irradiated unless new radioactive contaminants are introduced
  • Viruses can be destroyed (e.g. soap) and nullified (e.g. vaccines); radiation is much harder to address once introduced
  • Determining whether a person is infected can be very difficult; detecting radiation is relatively straightforward
  • Any exposure to a virus could be life-threatening; "safe" radiation exposure can be measured and quantified
  • Radiation can take many thousands of years to dissipate

All this is to say that you might find the circumstances you describe in a post-nuclear-disaster world (I know you said "not an apocalypse scenario", but we can imagine a survivable-but-dangerous level of worldwide outdoor radiation). You effectively shorten your lifespan every time you go outside, it's risky to interact with others in person or accept goods from the outside, and it will potentially take thousands of years for the outdoors to become generally habitable again. There might be cleanup efforts and work to shorten that timespan, and you don't have to strictly isolate, but for the foreseeable future it's not safe to be outside and would likely want to minimize interactions with others who may be more (or less) irradiated than you.

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