The Pandemic Behind the Pandemic

The Pandemic Behind the Pandemic


By: Gabriel E. Levy B.

Scientific experts who study Covid19 have found that the spread of the current pandemic caused by coronavirus has been mediated by multiple factors inherent to the biological characteristics of the pathogen [1], such as its ability to spread when patients are asymptomatic, as well as a large number of other clinical factors [2].

However, although multiple factors have been identified and documented in the medical, biological and epidemiological disciplines [3], these elements are underpinned by phenomena that are characterized by other disciplines, which have not been sufficiently analyzed and may be invisible exponential promoters of the present pandemic plaguing humanity.

Why did Covid19 become a pandemic in such a short time?

The word pandemic comes from the Greek roots pan (all) and demos (people) [4], and its meaning refers to the effects of an infection on a group of people over an extensive geographical area.

The Covid2019 pandemic was caused by a type of coronavirus [5] that belongs to a family previously identified in 2003 and named SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) [6], which is why the official name of the current pandemic is SARS-CoV-2019[7]. SARS broke out again in a new mutated strain, this time in the Middle East in 2012, and was named the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome caused by a coronavirus: MERS-CoV [8].

In the cases of SARS and MERS, these outbreaks had more epidemic than pandemic characteristics (regardless of the statement made at the time), since they failed both to cause global damage and to have consequences as notable as those of COVID19.

This necessarily leads to the question of why only COVID19 caused a global high-impact pandemic when SARS, MERS and COVID19, are coronaviruses of the same family, of zoonotic origin (acquired by animal transmission) [10]?

The main explanation given by epidemiologists lies in the biological characteristics of the pathogen, which is less deadly than its predecessors and can apparently be transmitted asymptomatically [11]. With these characteristics, the virus found the perfect conditions for spread [12], because if a virus is very lethal, it is not able to spread because people would die massively, preventing the spread of the virus far from their communities (as in the case of Ebola), and if it is only transmitted when it is symptomatic, it is controlled by isolating the symptomatic people [13]. In the case of Covid19 the evidence seems to show that the virus does not present these two characteristics, which is probably facilitating its global spread [14].

Although this clinical explanation is plausible, there are other medical and biological factors that scientists have been investigating. At the same time, it is necessary to specify that a pandemic generally requires external factors, which is very evident in the case of Covid19 that in a very short period of time became a pandemic [15].

La economía neoliberal digital de bajo costo (Low-cost)

Perhaps a preponderant and not so visible factor for Covid19 to find the perfect breeding ground for its propagation, derives from the side effects of a new economic and social vision of the world.

During the first decades of the emergence of Internet, this network was inspired by co-creative and innovative principles, loaded with free content, of inspirational projects. In this environment, the Internet significantly transformed global dynamics, providing an optimistic view of a more collaborative rather than competitive world. However, this philosophy was transformed when economic neoliberalism found a new gold mine in the digital world, much more profitable, speculative and with less responsibility than the industrial and commercial paradox on which the 20th Century’s orthodox neoliberalism was based, and took advantage of the network neutrality principle to skip the regulatory balance and found what we could call a low-cost digital neoliberal economy, which we have honestly enjoyed and incorporated into our lives for convenience and savings, without thinking about the underlying damage it can produce, is the result of an irresponsible globalization that neither anticipated nor assumed the consequences of its actions.

For instance, AirBNB was born as a platform to allow people to share their homes and rooms, radically changing the way they stay and visit other cities and countries [16], promoting that millions of tourists have access to shared accommodation schemes in any corner of the world. But at the same time, it generated a parasitic low-cost tourism, which, without necessarily wanting it, potentially produced a perfect breeding ground for tourists to become direct vectors of contagion to the center of homes and families.

Considering that many elderly people have been hosting tourists in their homes as a way to receive additional income [17], as happened in Italy and Spain, it is possible to infer that this was an exponential propagation factor, since the elderly are the most vulnerable group and the least immunologically prepared to face the pandemic [18]. This situation could be controlled much better if tourists were accommodated in properly constituted hotels, where information is collected from travelers at the request of the authorities, allowing for the maintenance of statistics and some type of control. Many hotels also have trained staff, mandatory insurance for medical emergencies, available clinical staff “especially in large resorts” and disinfection protocols, among other aspects, could have opposed resistance to the propagation vector. By 2003 Airbnb (founded in 2008) did not exist and by 2012 it was just beginning to become popular.

In other words, if the lodging tourism sector had not become so precarious because of the low-cost digital economy promoted by applications such as AirBNB, the outbreak might not have had such a potentially rapid spreading ecosystem as it did in Europe and the United States.

On the other hand, low-cost airlines changed the logic of the aeronautical industry, taking operational costs to their limit and looking for profit in the growth of the operations volume. This increased the number of passengers per plane, reduced the space between users and made jobs in this industry precarious, while at the same time, it aroused a potential increase of travelers around the world due to the low costs.

According to World Bank figures, 1.627 billion people traveled globally in 2003, the figure almost doubled to 2.9 billion in 2012, and it was almost doubled again to about 5 billion in 2019 [19]. Paradoxically, the same low-cost operating model promoted by the airlines, is the one that has them on the verge of bankruptcy, because in the absence of operational surpluses to constitute contingencies, they had no way of bearing the consequences of a crisis which they could eventually be partly responsible for.

Also, in the transportation sector, companies like Uber changed the individual public mobility schemes, reducing operational costs to a minimum and increasing the precarity of this work through the concept of driving partners. Meanwhile, their blatant disrespect for the rules in the different countries [20] where they operate, triggered an additional risk factor for the transmission of the virus.

In some cities where Uber operates illegally, they encourage passengers to sit next to the driver in order to evade the authorities, and this simple fact makes a notable difference in potential contagion compared to a traditional cab where the passenger travels in the backseat, since the driver and the passenger are in direct contact less than a meter away, which helps the probable spread.

Considering the number of daily passengers that each of these vehicles may transport and the fact that many drivers do not have social security in their precarious work on these platforms, this most likely postpones medical care for the potentially infected driver until his health is very much deteriorated, thus creating an extensive window of exposure with all of his passengers.

Uber Eats, which in Latin America has a large competitor called Rappi, are two other great exponents of the low-cost economy and the precarity of the working conditions of their servers. Their networks have thousands of deliverymen deployed without the minimum elements of biosecurity and without any type of health care assistance or support, which is why they may become a vector of expeditious propagation given the incalculable number of home deliveries per day, a exposure window that did not exist in 2003 and was only beginning in 2012.

Even e-commerce giants such as Amazon, Alibaba and Ebay may potentially be part of the problem by making all products derived from Chinese mass production available to millions of people around the world. Although there is no consensus among experts that a package can transmit the virus [21] (most evidence suggests that the risk is minimal), the truth is that these packages are manufactured, packaged, transported and delivered by people who might catch and spread the virus.

This is reinforced by the fact that most of the jobs in this supply chain have been precarious and do not have the minimum labor guarantees, much less biosecurity. All of them are exposed, without the minimum conditions, becoming latent vectors of contagion.

But undoubtedly, the most incredible, and at the same time embarrassing, consequence of the low-cost digital neoliberal economy is that, at a time in human history when we have made the most advances in artificial intelligence, and in a world where there are algorithms for practically everything from predicting what movie we will see, what advertising is offered to us, what route we should choose, what ticket is the most appropriate, what we should eat today, who we should vote for or what store we should buy from, there is no algorithm or artificial intelligence system to date that is capable of predicting this great pandemic and the potential underlying socioeconomic crisis.

The low-cost digital neoliberal economy privileges algorithms that can make viral the frivolities or farces preached by any influencer on YouTube, Tik Tok or Instagram, with their lucrative business of disguised native advertising, and forgets the algorithms that could predict the economic, social and cultural effect of a pandemic like Covid19.

For Jaime García Cantero, director of the magazine Retina of the newspaper El País, in Spain, who recently published a column called “Homo Deus has died”:

“Scientific research turns money into knowledge; technology turns that knowledge into money. Digital capitalism gave priority to the latter and neglected the former. If technology is the return trip, science is the one-way trip.

We were told that technology would enable us to master nature, to eliminate disease, to be immortal. Covid-19 has shown that this was a lie. Where are now the transhumanists and their eternal life, those who promised that artificial intelligence would anticipate the future?

The algorithms know which film you are going to buy, but they have been unable to anticipate the greatest global crisis of the last century. It is not a technology matter; the problem is what it has been put to use for. And the problem is not being unable to see: it is looking elsewhere [22].

Jaime García Cantero

Why, if Facebook and Google were able to design an advertising algorithm capable of predicting the purchasing behavior of users, making the financing of traditional media in the world more precarious, have they not used this technology to improve the response of the health system to a global crisis?

And while the communications and telecommunications industry continues to bear the burden of all the traffic generated by parasitic applications such as Netflix, HBO Go, or Amazon Prime Video and supporting the exponential increase in traffic during confinement, OTT video platforms use their algorithms only to enrich themselves, dumping rates by under-billing their services ( the costs of using network infrastructure are not included) [23].

Online Video platforms bill millions of dollars in Latin America alone, parasitically leveraged on the precarious infrastructure of small local telecommunications industries (ISPs), protected by an abusive use of the Net Neutrality principle, congesting limited home networks in their path, many of them wireless in rural areas, without contributing a single penny to their sustainability or expansion, at a time when these modest networks are indispensable for the survival of regional economies in times of confinement, another absurd consequence of the low-cost Digital Neoliberal Economy.

In conclusion, although probably at some point we have enjoyed traveling on low-cost airlines and staying in houses rented through Airbnb, moving through the cities with Uber, ordering out through Rappi, buying directly from China through Alibaba, connecting with our friends through social media like Facebook and having fun with Netflix movies, the truth is that all these companies based their business models on a fictitious and speculative scheme, which takes advantage of the need for employment and abuses the principle of network neutrality, this is why today, much earlier than expected, we are paying the consequences, because we did not only allow the proliferation of a monster that ended the possibilities of a sustainable and responsible economy, but also, we allowed the precarization of jobs and services in the world with complicit silence, while that same model, most likely served as an adjuvant for the Covid19 to be a pandemic of unexpected global proportions and not a controllable epidemic, as SARS was in 2003 and MERS in 2012.

If there is something to be learned from this pandemic, it is the need to at least discuss in a broad and pluralistic manner, the relevance and the risks of the low-cost digital neo-liberal economy in the future.

 Photo by Portuguese Gravity on


[1] Official WHO reference about Sars-Covid19

[2] BBC article about evidence found regarding covid19 infection

[3] WHO summary of evidence on Covid19’s infectious behavior

[4] Encyclopedic definition of Pandemic

[5] Vanguard article about Coronavirus

[6] Article by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC

[7] Official WHO reference about Sars-Covid19

[8] WHO article about MERS

[9] Article about the differences of the different types of Coronavirus

[10] WHO article about MERS

[11] UN article about Covid19 Outbreak

[12] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention article

[13] Book: Clinical Immunology: Principles & Practice, Robert R. Rich, Thomas A. Fleisher, William T Shearer, MD PhD, Harry Schroeder, Anthony J Frew, MD Frcp, Cornelia M Weyand, MD PhD, Elsevier Health Sciences, 2019, ISBN 8491135928, 97884911359

[14] DW information about the ways in which viruses spread

[15] BBC article about Covid19

[16] Encyclopedic article about Airbnb

[17] Article by europapress about the growth of older adults registered on Airbnb

[18] Semana Magazine article: Older adults, the highest risk population group

[19] Official World Bank figures

[20] Article from La República about the countries where Uber is prohibited

[21] CNN information about the risk of contagion through packages

[22] Retina Magazine El País, Spain

[23] Andinalink article: Netflix’s irreparable damage to Latin American economies

Disclaimer: The published articles correspond to contextual reviews or analyses on digital transformation in the information society, duly supported by reliable and verified academic and/or journalistic sources.  The publications are NOT opinion articles and therefore the information they contain does not necessarily represent Andinalink’s position, nor that of their authors or the entities with which they are formally linked, regarding the topics, persons, entities or organizations mentioned in the text.