Postcards from the Post-Pandemic Planet
As a football fan, I dutifully tune in to BBC’s Match of the Day most Saturdays or Sundays. The Sunday edition features a segment called ‘Too Good Too Bad’, in which the presenters showcase both the sublime and the ridiculous moments from the weekend’s matches. In its humorous way, this item holds up a mirror to life which conjures up its fair share of wonder goals, super saves, and goal line clearances; as well as own-goals, red cards, and shirt pulling. In the current crisis, it would be easy to focus on the dark side, but it's been very clear that many people have also discovered some treasures buried in the unwanted gift that is the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve identified the good and bad possibilities in the following eight categories: respect for nature; our environmental footprint; the power of microbes; health consciousness; the Internet; data; solidarity; and global citizenship.
In this blog, I examine the potential for both positive and negative outcomes for what has been dubbed the Post-Pandemic Planet.
Respect for Nature
😊 Animal exploitation comes under the spotlight
Unless you have been living under a rock, it's pretty clear that most of our infectious diseases are of animal origin. Most sensible commentators would agree that our patterns of animal exploitation is a major contributor to the rise of emerging infectious diseases.
Most of the attention has being focused on bushmeat, the trade in wild animal species, and (to a lesser extent) the loss of biodiversity. However, there has also been a degree of focus on the barbaric animal factories that provide billions of opportunities for pathogen mutation, multiplication and species hopping. There is a great deal of momentum for the closure of the notorious Chinese wet markets, but if animal factories escape scrutiny much of the potential for further pandemics will remain.
☹ People become ‘nature-phobic’
Several animal species have been implicated in the genesis of the novel coronavirus, with the role of bats in particular being highlighted. Bats already have a reputation for being sinister creatures among some communities, and the issue of disease transmission may be used as a proverbial bat with which to bat the bats. THIS EPIDEMIC HAS NOT BEEN CAUSED BY BATS.
Another risk is that people may become scared to venture out of nature, seeing it as a repository of disease and other threats to life and limb. This is rarely the case, and a life spent cooped up in the ‘great indoors’ is a much greater threat to our mental and physical health.
Our Environmental Footprint
😊 We reduce humanity’s environmental footprint
The shutdowns and slowdowns enforced by the COVID-19 epidemic have acted as a planetary detox with pollution levels radically falling, wildlife reclaiming lost habitats and bird songs being heard above the constant cacophony created by man and his machines. Perhaps taking things a little too far, wild goats have famously taken to the streets of Llandudno in Wales! Of course, all of this is only a temporary reprieve, but it may provide the impetus for a concerted move towards a world in which we live with more respect for our Mother - Nature.
☹ We rapidly return to business as usual and act as if nothing happened
Business as usual has been responsible for the current crisis, as well as a panoply of interlinked existential threats, notably climate change, mass extinction, land, sea and air pollution, and the chronic disease epidemic. Many people who have been feeling deprived under lockdown may blindly rush into a post-lockdown hedonistic rebound binge in the desire to make up for what they perceive to be lost time. That is understandable, all but the most monastic among us need a little hedonism from time to time. However, the danger is that we will be happy to return to our comfort zone even though, deep down, we all know that the habits that got us into this mess cannot be sustained.
The Power of Microbes
😊 The world wakes up to the power of microbes
The bulk of the attention on microbes in recent times has been focused on their power to destroy. But the truth is that the vast majority of microbes are beneficial at best and neutral at worst. They are the little things that run our world - they fertilise our soil, power the earth's weather, and facilitate the breakdown of waste material among many other functions. They are the precursors to mitochondria (cellular ‘battery packs’) which are essential to multicellular life. In fact, in terms of numbers of genes, we are more microbial than mammalian. The trillions of microbes that live in or on our body are essential to our biochemistry and physiology. The rapid evolution of a new virus to which we have minimal acquired immunity has highlighted the importance of looking after the beneficial bacteria microbes that provide us with general protection against perturbations, at both the personal and planetary levels.
☹ We escalate the unwinnable war on microbes
In the words of late and great Edwin Starr “(War) h'uh Yeah! (What is it good for?) Absolutely (nothin’) uh-huh”. Wars, particularly those waged against hidden enemies with a huge potential for replication, tend to fuel the very thing that they are fighting against. The so-called War on Terror is a notable example.
That is not to say that there have been no positive developments in the management of microbes. Hygiene, antibiotics and vaccines in particular have been provided notable breakthroughs. But in the words of Abraham Maslow “when the only tool you have is a hammer you tend to see everything as a nail”. A mentality that the “Only good microbe is a dead microbe” is ultimately counter-productive. This has been vividly illustrated by the rise of antibiotic resistance due to their overuse and misuse. A move towards excessive hygiene and the carpet bombing of microbes will likely usher in an accelerated rise in superbugs in an evolutionary arms race that humanity cannot possibly win. There are trillions more microbes than men and they replicate thousands of times faster than us.
😊 Health consciousness is on the rise
As most people know, the coronavirus is not even-handed in its impacts, with those with pre-existing conditions being at greatest risk. The major emphasis has been on the vulnerability of the elderly, a vulnerability that is compounded by the fact that most elderly people in most countries suffer from a range of chronic diseases - obesity, asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and others. The best defence against a specific infectious disease is not getting it the first place. The second best defence, and the best defence against all diseases, is having a strong immune system, which comes from leading a healthy lifestyle. This observation will come as little consolation to those who already suffer chronic ill health. However, a healthy diet and other positive lifestyle interventions such as good sleep hygiene, frequent movement and a psychosocial stress management can bolster the immune system. Studies have shown that changes can be rapid. So, there's a lot that people can do to resist the current and future coronavirus waves, as well as any other existing and emerging diseases that come our way.
☹ People place their faith in magic bullets
We all know that prevention is better than cure but, as a species we seem to invest more of our collective resources and ingenuity in cure rather than prevention – the firefighter is a hero while the building inspector is a petty bureaucrat. There are no Hollywood movies lionising building inspectors, nor best-selling calendars featuring a phalanx of half-naked building inspectors flexing their bulging building inspector biceps... you get the point!
I have worked for much of my professional life in ecosystem restoration and I know first-hand how time-consuming and expensive it is to restore a habitat compared with protecting it from destruction in the first place. The truth is you need to start from where you are standing and a coordinated response to disease management requires a hierarchical approach that embraces prevention, early detection and rapid response, eradication and disease management. But the thrust of the debate around the long term management of COVID-19 has emphasised finding the cure in the shape of the vaccine and not in managing the ecosystem to minimise the chances of future pandemics. It must be borne in mind that the development of a safe and effective vaccine is not a given. Despite great efforts there are no vaccines for AIDS and malaria, nor are there vaccines for SARS and MERS, which are both corona viruses.
😊 We increasingly tap into the power of the Internet
Coronavirus may be the event that accelerates the already growing trend of virtual meetings, online learning and working from home, all of which are great for society’s carbon footprint. And the potential of the Internet goes beyond the world of work with virtual parties, meetups, and quizzes connecting loved ones across different parts of the globe; with virtual workouts, telemedicine, and even virtual dating springing up as the world locks down. When a door closes, a window opens. The work-arounds in the face the crisis have helped to usher many people into the digital age, with the less tech savvy learning to host teleconferences, share screens and take online courses. The crisis is bringing social and economic dislocations in its wake, but the Internet has been a balm to ease the pain.
☹ Face to face contact continues to erode
Humans are social creatures and there is no substitute for meeting people in the flesh. I have some work colleagues that I have never met face to face, and the relationships are never as close as they are with those whom I've actually met. Virtual tourism is all very well, but it is not a substitute for that total immersion experience that is the real thing. A danger is that institutions will restrict personal interactions as a means of cutting costs, in the same way as many organisations no longer accept payment through old fashioned means. This lack of alternatives may further disenfranchise the old, the mentally and physically vulnerable and the poor who do not have untrammelled access to the digital world. Working from home may further extend the reach of the gig economy with further nefarious consequences for the lowest paid.
😊 Big data helps solve global problems
Some of the countries and territories that are dealing most effectively with the crisis have been those who have harnessed the power of technology to acquire, analyse and act upon data gathered on spatial and temporal patterns of disease transmission. The use of the GPS capabilities of mobile phones has facilitated contact tracing and a targeted approach to self-isolation in the early phase of epidemic, allowing for efficient management. These types of approaches have great potential to usher in an expansion of “citizen science”, in which people log events such as the presence of protected wildlife, pests and diseases, or pollution incidences. This information is sent to a hub and the data can be then be used to inform management decisions. And grass roots initiatives of this kind go beyond science. Mobile phones are allowing poor people in Africa to exchange information to assist them in all areas of their life from banking to agriculture to healthcare.
☹ Big Brother is watching you
It is easy to see how big data, information sharing, and connectivity can be abused. People are generally amenable to accepting limits on their privacy and other freedoms in times of crisis. But the danger is that we will be thrust into an Orwellian world in which authorities justify surveillance on the pretext of a perpetual crisis. It is easy to imagine a situation in which authoritarian leaders justify a raft of measures imposed until further notice that curtail civil liberties, freedom of assembly, and sovereignty over our bodies. Lest we think this is overly an overly paranoid prognosis, we are already in a situation where global players such as Google, Facebook and Amazon hold vast amounts of information on our purchases, preferences and aspirations. This information is not always used for altruistic reasons.
😊 Solidarity in the face of a common foe
A crisis can bring out the best in people because of the solidarity that comes to the fore in times of warfare. During lockdown neighbours have started to look out for the more vulnerable in the community with tangible gestures such as cooking, cleaning, shopping, and keeping up a semblance of social contact by regularly chatting on the phone. Events to bolster the community spirit include (socially distanced) sing songs, virtual parties and, in UK, the weekly clap for NHS workers. And most people have shown fortitude in terms of high levels of adherence to restrictions laid down for the common good. There has been a lot of publicity over those who have broken the rules, but most people have been compliant once the denial phase had passed. It helps greatly when leaders make personal gestures of solidarity, such as the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who, along with her ministers and public service chief executives, has taken a 20% pay cut.
☹ The blame game takes centre stage
It is an instinctual and common response to find somebody or something to blame when things go wrong. For many millennia bad things were attributed to the wrath of the gods. The modern equivalents are more diverse and include the aforementioned bats, the Chinese, the WHO, the patriarchy, the young, the old, the middle aged. This scapegoating has culminated in a variety of conspiracy theories claiming that the epidemic has been deliberately engineered for a variety of fiendish purposes. My own personal conspiracy theory is it was “The Sun Wot Did It” in an effort to deny Liverpool FC their first English League title in thirty years!
It is true that every effect must have a cause and it is important to understand the causes of this pandemic if one is to prevent or manage the effects of this and future comparable events. So a sober process of reflection is required but demonising “the other” will not help the process of healing.
For those who don’t know, the Sun is a trashy British tabloid newspaper which falsely criticised Liverpool fans in the wake of the 96 deaths in the Hillsborough Stadium disaster in 1989. The Sun is part of Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire. I am not pointing any fingers, but if there was a conspiracy, Murdoch would surely be a prime candidate for conspirator in chief!
😊 We think globally and act locally
The COVID-19 pandemic vividly illustrates that we live in an intimately connected world, for better and for worse. What goes on in Wuhan does not necessarily stay in Wuhan. Disease epidemics are a global problem and management needs to take place at all scales from the local to the global. There has been a lot of leadership at the global level and unprecedented scientific collaboration in terms of data sharing, the formation of multinational, and multidisciplinary teams, and the free dissemination of scientific publications. This level of international collaboration has the potential to resolve global social, economic, political and environmental problems through a collaborative and evidence-based approach. At the same time, the pandemic has highlighted our global dependencies such as the West‘s reliance on ‘just in time’ supplies of generic drugs and other medical equipment from China and India. These levels of dependency need to be examined if local and national responses are to be more robust.
☹ We think locally and act xenophobically
As outlined above, people like to play the blame game and while there are many people who are happy to collaborate internationally there are others who are rushing to pull up the metaphorical drawbridge. The USA, which was the world leader during the 2014 Ebola crisis, has adopted an insular approach that appears have to placed sabre rattling above science. The UK also initially appeared to ignore the scientific consensus in its plan to promote the development of herd immunity. Fortunately, though a little late in the day, the UK fell in line with the best scientific evidence and ditched its plan to let nature take its course. However, a “me first” approach has been in evidence throughout the crisis, as reflected by the hoarding of food and other household goods. I hope that global solidarity in the face of a common threat will symbolise the post-coronavirus world, but I fear that the enduring symbol may be an empty supermarket shelf where the toilet rolls used to be.
Epilogue: The legend of the two wolves
The future, like the past and present, will be a mixture of the good and the bad. The real world is messy after all, and human nature will always encompass good and bad impulses. This Native American story eloquently encapsulates this reality:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life:
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”