Infectious diseases are the only types of illnesses that affect us collectively. As such they tend to bring into focus the fragility of the resources we share. This particular outbreak has reminded developed countries that safe air and stable food supplies are privileges, not guarantees. It’s also underscored that we are more interdependent and connected than contemporary politics would have us believe. So while it’s easy to get lost in the panic, it’s perhaps worth reflecting that the most virulent sickness plaguing mankind is not COVID-19, but the myopic way in which we respond to such events.
Coronavirus doesn’t exist in isolation. Instead, it is the result of several problematic practices, for which we have all received ample warning. Whether it’s the wet-markets in China or the 5,000,000,000,000 animals being reared in close confinement, our current agricultural system is creating billions of hosts for dangerous pathogens.
Couple this with the fact that Big Pharma hasn’t produced a new antibiotic in the last 35 years (apparently, it’s just not that financially interesting) and we are fabricating the conditions for our own demise.
But just as stress creates the conditions for evolution in the microbial world, so it can in our societies.
If we are brave enough, governments will use this calamity as an opportunity to reframe public health infrastructure across the modern world.
Needless to say, it will require a lot more creativity than billions of pounds worth of low-interest business loans, as announced by the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer this week.
The first step in such a microbial war would be an ambitious vaccination programme that seeks to treat the HA stem of all influenza viruses. Just as we invested $23 billion dollars into the Manhattan Project, we would need to invest $7 billion1 to fund such a scheme, the results of which could save rather than kill more lives than ever believed possible.
As the AIDS vaccination programme has revealed, we are more powerful when we pool our resources — be those intelligence, money or time. Open source technology could play a key role in opening up such an investigation to scientists across the globe.
The second might be more challenging. We will need to be rigorous in our opposition to all practices which exacerbate our contact with harmful pathogens. This includes factory-farming and deforestation (the latter of which provoked the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa).
This will require loosening the chokehold that agricultural lobbyists hold over elected officials. Alternatively, it will require consumers to vote with their forks, opting for ethically sourced animal products as opposed to mass-produced ones.
Organic food sales (while the fast-growing sector of the UK food-market) only account for 1.3% of total market share.”Soil Association, Organic Market Report 2020
The third is to realise that such audacious action is possible. After all, we’ve done it before. Individual welfare states and the World Health Organization were all created in the post-War period, the vestiges of which are the only institutions offering any protection against the current Coronavirus.
Our world is capable of healing, and fast. We’ve seen it in the clearing of Venice’s canal water and the improvement in air pollution across China in recent months. But is our politics?
If we go back to business as usual, the 2020s will be the decade of collective crises. From climate change to mass immigration to antibiotic resistance, our current model is short-changing the human race. And piecemeal policies will no longer be able to save us.
1 Estimated figure provided by Michael Osterholm, American public-health scientist and biosecurity and infectious-disease expert, in his book Deadliest Enemy: The War Against Germs billion1
Header Image illustration by the incredibly talented Aykut Aydoğdu (https://www.aykworks.com/)