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An Overpopulation Failsafe?

14 November, 2022

The UN is marking 15 November 2022 as the day human population surpassed 8 billion people worldwide. Conspiracy theorists have falsely conjectured that a population control vaccine will be used to curb human numbers. The best-selling author, Dan Brown, created a character called Bertrand Zobrist who designed a preventive vector virus which randomly sterilised one-third of the world population. Hollywood’s answer was Thanos’ gauntlet allowing the evil supervillain to snap his fingers and make half the population disappear. An overpopulation fail-safe does exist, but it is nowhere near as fanciful as any of these ideas. 

The overpopulation fail-safe is hidden in plain sight, lurking, dormant within the bodies of a quarter of the world’s population. The name of this failsafe is tuberculosis infection, or TBI, an inactive contamination carried in two billion people worldwide, 95% of whom are found in low- and middle-income countries.  

People with TBI carry tuberculosis disease but are asymptomatic. Most people with TBI do not become sick and thus infectious. The switch turning a tuberculosis infection into active tuberculosis disease, in most cases, is malnutrition. Famine in North Korea between 1994 and 1998, for example, led to a 7-fold increase in tuberculosis. Overcrowded housing, air pollution and lack of health care help spread the disease. But, for the moment, people with TBI are walking around disease-free unaware of the sleeping microbe inside them. 

The Malthusian argument about overpopulation is that resources will become scarce as populations outgrow the carrying capacity of their territories. If healthy food, safe water and living standards decrease, then low- and middle-income countries will be hit first and hardest. The lack of food security and the high number of people living with TBI make these countries particularly vulnerable. Famine will trigger tuberculosis infections to become active tuberculosis cases. Deaths from tuberculosis and associated illnesses will be set to skyrocket and global population could potentially drop by up to a quarter within a very short space of time. 

Up until COVID-19 claimed the unflattering title of biggest global infectious killer, tuberculosis was the leading cause of mortality from an infectious disease worldwide outranking incurable conditions such as HIV / AIDS. In 2020, for example, 15% of the 10 million people worldwide who became sick with tuberculosis died from the disease. Sadly, the 2022 Global TB report showed TB incidence is on the rise. Tuberculosis is treatable, however, and should be nowhere near the top of these charts. Have elites been leaving tuberculosis untreated in low-income countries as an overpopulation failsafe?  

Keeping tuberculosis as a failsafe to curb population size is positively eugenic. Frontline healthcare staff caring for tuberculosis patients are not to blame. Rich governments provide tuberculosis healthcare programs with enough money to appear charitable but not enough to help them eradicate tuberculosis in their communities. This funding environment maintains the circulation of tuberculosis within communities thus ensuring high numbers of people with TBI.  

While community-wide screening in high income countries helped to reduce tuberculosis in high-income countries like Australia and The Netherlands, similar strategies have not been rolled out in low- and middle-income countries, with a province of Vietnam being one of the few exceptions. As a result, tuberculosis is uncommon in high-income countries but relatively common elsewhere. If global famine hits, high-income countries are largely protected but the other countries go down the gurgler. 

Using tuberculosis as an overpopulation failsafe is morally unpalatable. Is there some kind of evil genius at work here? It’s hard to point the finger at world leaders for something they have not done. By feigning ignorance, turning a blind eye or misdirecting attention, world leaders can attempt to abrogate responsibility. They will not even need to lift a finger to use tuberculosis to execute the overpopulation failsafe. Increasing prevalence of tuberculosis will appear like a natural, biological tragedy. Unless we hold them accountable now, world leaders will be able to throw their arms up and say, “Look, no hands!”  

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