Learning from the Covid-19 crisis

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are profoundly affecting our world. Dr Stuart Parkinson, SGR, provides an initial assessment - and suggests six broad lessons global society should be learning.

Responsible Science blog, 25 March 2020

Global society has been blindsided by the Covid-19 pandemic. Its multiple effects will profoundly affect our world for years to come. If we’re lucky and the measures to control it are accelerated, we may perhaps keep deaths globally in the low hundreds of thousands, with economic impacts limited to a short global recession. If not, things will be considerably worse. There have been numerous warnings from history and – while society has learned some important lessons from past crises – clearly, these have not been sufficient. We urgently need to up our game.

A brief history of pandemics

Let’s start with some history. The worst pandemic in modern times was the 1918 flu pandemic. Its death toll was staggering. It is estimated to have killed around 50 million people over three years, and infected one-third of the world’s population. Let’s put this into some perspective. World War I is estimated to have caused ‘only’ 15 million deaths. Meanwhile, global population now is about five times higher – so a similar death rate today would lead to hundreds of millions of deaths. Furthermore, disease transmission rates can be much faster now because of modern travel options – especially air travel – by which infected individuals can rapidly cross the world passing the disease onto others. But, of course, we also have modern healthcare systems – well, at least, the wealthier parts of the world do – and the potential of a vaccine for the Covid-19 virus in, perhaps, a year. But this 1918 case gives you an idea of why rapid action to curb an outbreak is so vital.

Looking more recently, other respiratory disease pandemics have broken out – but have been largely forgotten. In 1957, about 2 million people died globally. In 1968, about 1 million died. In 2009, deaths numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Smaller still were SARS outbreak which began in 2002 and MERS in 2012 – with death tolls in the hundreds. Against a rapidly growing world population, this shows major progress in disease control and healthcare – but the Covid-19 outbreak shows that any complacency is deeply misplaced.

We also have the emergence of other types of infectious diseases, which can also lead to major outbreaks. HIV was first identified in the 1970s, and has – through AIDS – caused the deaths of about 32 million to date. It has taken many years to both stem transmission and improve treatment. On a smaller scale, there have been many other new human diseases in recent decades – including Zika, Ebola, and West Nile – and these also add to the burden from existing diseases, as well as creating the potential for further pandemics.

Learning lessons

Early warning systems for new diseases – or new strains of existing ones – are particularly important in these cases. These are already quite extensive. For example, the World Health Organisation oversees a programme in which 142 national influenza centres in 113 different countries collect data on the flu viruses impacting the world’s population. These are central to annual production of seasonal flu vaccines – as well as detecting new outbreaks of diseases like Covid-19.

But obviously, the current system has not been sufficient – which begs the question of why, and what should be done about it. The question will be debated over and over in the weeks and months to come. Here are six general suggestions at this point - and SGR will be examining those particularly related to science and technology in greater detail in future articles…

  1. Governments are not giving enough priority – in terms of funding, personnel and other resources – to the healthcare systems, social care systems, and medical research programmes that help to keep us safe. It is sobering to see just how quickly healthcare systems are being overwhelmed by Covid-19 in supposedly advanced nations. In particular, underlying health inequalities are being exposed – and this will become much worse if the disease is allowed to spread unchecked in developing countries.

  2. Modern travel options – especially international air travel – allowed numerous individuals unknowingly infected with the Covid-19 virus to travel across the world within days, infecting others. Major improvements in disease control on air travel are essential, but we should also be curbing air travel and replacing much of it with electronic communication. With air travel already being a major source of environmental pollution – for example, it’s one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions – such curbs will have a lot of additional benefits, and so should be a high priority.

  3. Pandemics – along with climate change and other global non-military threats – need to be given the priority of national security threats. Hence, resources to tackle them need to be commensurate with scientific evidence on the scale of the threat. National security assessments are increasingly recognising the risks from pandemics – including in the UK – but national security budgets and the associated research priorities in many major countries are still locked into high levels of military spending, leading to dangerous arms races, especially increased threats from nuclear weapons. We need a reprioritisation which properly recognises ‘human security’ problems like pandemics and climate change. Efforts to reduce international military rivalries and shift military budgets to addressing problems from a human security perspective need to be urgently pursued.

  4. There is strong evidence that new diseases and new strains of existing diseases are emerging from human-animal interactions, especially through wildlife markets, human encroachment on natural ecosystems, and intensive animal farming. We need much greater restrictions on these activities, including bans. Indeed, overuse of antibiotics in intensive animal farms is fuelling antibiotic resistance, creating another disturbing threat. Biosecurity risks from laboratories researching animal and human viruses also need to be tackled.

  5. Secrecy and complacency within national governments has been a key problem with tackling Covid-19. Secrecy in China led to initial delays in information about the virus being released by the medical authorities. Meanwhile, a lack of consistency in national policies on social distancing etc – including numerous unhelpful or inconsistent comments from political leaders such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson – has been slowing the attempts to control the spread of the virus.

  6. Finally, major shifts in society such as those recommended above will require major changes in industries and livelihoods. It is essential that economic support and retraining is provided by governments during the transition, so that mass unemployment does not result, and wages are fair. Hence, SGR is supporting the principle of a ‘Just Recovery’ proposed by a coalition of non-governmental organisations.

We’ll be exploring these and related issues in further articles in the weeks to come….

Dr Stuart Parkinson is Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR).

Many thanks to Dr Philip Webber, Chair of SGR, for helpful comments on an earlier draft.