We are living through the defining news story of our lives. The repercussions of this pandemic will resonate for a generation socially, politically and economically. People are asking when things will return to normal but in reality things will never be the same again after the impacts of this metamorphic disease. For those who lose friends or loved ones it is of course infinitely more awful and made especially cruel that funeral gatherings are understandably forbidden. Not being able to express and share grief in the usual collective way must be hard to bear. Most of us look at the rising numbers of deaths in a rather detached way but things feel very different when the statistics include someone you know. As a society we will better value the NHS and medical profession who are putting their lives at risk every day on the front line of this pandemic. It is also evident how we are trusting the advice of scientific experts to drive decisions which is absolutely the right thing to do.
As a civilization of around 2000 generations of people we have been here before many times. The last major pandemic was just over 100 years ago in 1918 when a flu pandemic killed 20-50 million people. Prior to that further back in history bubonic plague threatened to kick us back to the Stone Age. In 541 AD the plague of Justinian killed off around half the population of Europe. We really should have anticipated a novel pandemic as inevitable and been better prepared but what politician was going to promote the filling of warehouses with spare ventilators ‘just in case’ before the need for them was made evident. At least this time around we better understand the science of diseases, how they spread and how we can control them. Pandemics of the past were really a mystery; no one knew the differences between say a bacteria and a virus and treatments were next to useless. This time around we have the superpower of instant global communication and a full understanding of the agent responsible and how to beat it. No cause to point fingers at witches, demons, comets or monsters this time around. At least this takes away the fear of the unknown; we all understand the nature of the protagonist. The downside of modern times is that we have rammed the planet full of 7.8 billion people, often living in close proximity in urban environments. We’ve then loaded the risk by flying approximately 6 million people around the world daily thoroughly mixing diseases loading at about 575 miles per hour! No one should be surprised at the emergence of a new pandemic when considering our history and modern lifestyles!
For me the virus has already been quite personal. I somehow managed to become infected in early March about two weeks before the UK lockdown. Symptoms began for me with a moderate penetrating headache which lasted for about 2 days. This then progressed onto a mild fever at which time I realised something was wrong. Having had a flu jab in November I realised I was unlikely to be experiencing seasonal flu. I had two days tossing and turning in bed with the fever and also excruciating lower back pain. The fever then broke and I shifted to another set of unusual symptoms including throbbing eyeballs, diarrhoea, lack of appetite and the symptomatic loss of taste and smell. Eventually this shifted to cold-like symptoms including a mild productive cough. It was all unpleasant but my symptoms were moderate at worst and I never had any breathing difficulties. Very fortunately my immediate family only expressed very mild symptoms as we self-isolated. The biggest issue for me was just starting; my parents were showing early symptoms. Being in their 70ies and with my father being an asthmatic this was concerning. Looking back although we were starting to limit contact there was some overlap in the farm office (I had to sign cheques and things) just before I started experiencing the headache. I cannot be sure it was me that infected my parents but it seems likely as we now know you can be infectious at early stages of the disease before you show any symptoms. The summary to this story, to save the suspense, is that they both have fully recovered although my father was much more severely ill than I was. His fever lasted 12 days and he had significant weight loss but, like me, it never went to his chest although he had coughing fits. We all collectively as a family now feel very lucky having survived an unintentional game of Russian roulette. I do understand this is only our assumption we have had Covid-19 because we cannot get a test but it seems very likely. I still have zero sense of smell a month later on which was actually quite handy this week when I was emptying the slurry lagoon! Having talked to a neighbour medical expert the good news for me is that I have likely got immunity now to Covid-19. The bad news is that no one knows how long the immunity lasts. My medic friend says a study of similar virus diseases suggests natural immunity may only last around 140 days although there are ongoing studies to determine that. This doesn’t mean I can take unnecessary risks but it does save a little anxiety as there is some reassurance from thinking I have overcome the virus first time round without needing hospitalisation.
The Big Picture
Unfortunately the UK was a little slow off the mark in initiating the lock-down. This hesitation was in part a silly attempt to ‘seek our own independent path’ in our post-Brexit world before it was understood the virus doesn’t give a damn about our politics and will spread regardless. However, in my opinion, we are now still effectively adopting a protracted herd immunity policy stretched out as much as necessary to stop the NHS overloading. It’s quite simple; we won’t probably have a vaccine which can be rolled out for widespread use for 18 months. You cannot expect everyone to stay locked down at home for 18 months and so the only realistic alternative is to stretch infections over as long a time period as necessary so health services (and in particular ventilator resources) can cope. So when the lockdown is finally eased it will be done in gradual stages and potentially paused or rescinded as required to ‘flatten the peak’ in a manageable way. Gradually as more of the population recover herd immunity becomes inevitable. Of course the primary difficulty to this is that vulnerable groups will have to stay unexposed to the virus and in lockdown as long as it takes to get a workable vaccine. Another problem is that sometimes vaccines can be rather ‘hot’ and cause their own side effects, complications and allergic reactions so clearly roll out cannot be rushed whatever the urgency level. There is also the uncertainty around how long natural immunity lasts.
Our civilization is only as strong as its weakest link.
I cannot stress this enough. This disease exposes how bad practice anywhere in the world can put everyone else at risk. We live in a globalised society of nations sharing resources, people and information. Nationally we can have as high as standards as we like for things like animal welfare, wildlife protection and antibiotic use but if other countries ‘let the side down’ with bad practices which lead to disease outbreaks we are all exposed to the consequences. We cannot lock ourselves in behind ‘Trump walls’ in the 21st Century and so globally we must all act responsibly with common values and behaviours. If, as believed, Covid-19 started in a wet market selling bats for food (bats are well understood to be carriers of human-compatible diseases) then such bad practices must be called out and banned globally. We all have to collectively behave in a responsible way or we all take the hit when things go South.
One of the unpleasant outcomes of Covid-19 is a realisation of how destructive a communicable disease can be to your enemies. Why spend billions on a nuclear deterrent which can never be practically used when for a modest sum you can collect nasties from a bat cave, weaponize them with some relatively simple biotechnology and release to order with very little chance of being traced as the source. I am not suggesting Covid-19 is such a disease but unfortunately it does expose how destructive bioengineered (or even totally natural) diseases could be if deployed as a weapon. Such diseases need not have a particularly high mortality rate to still cause economic mayhem to your competitor countries. I can only hope that a global ban on such research can be agreed by treaty and signed off.
Before things kicked off over the virus the big issues of the day were of course climate change and biodiversity loss. These havn’t gone away and will be back to the fore when the virus finally fizzles out. What the virus has revealed is an unfortunate truth as to the pathways to a lower carbon future. The reality is that, as individuals, we of course aspire to having rich, fulfilling lives but this comes with a carbon price tag. If you buy lots of stuff, have two homes, fly around the world and have four kids you are going to have a big carbon footprint. The lockdown of the virus has exposed how carbon emissions can be dramatically reduced but clearly we can’t solve things by confining people to their homes. I think we can have more of a debate around whether we actually need to fly around the world several times a year for a holiday when the previous 1999 generations of humans managed perfectly adequately without such luxury. Clearly we need to continue decarbonising our industry and livestyles but with the global economy seriously wounded the temptation will be to get back to how we were as quickly as possible. There is talk about the virus presenting an opportunity for a ‘reset’ on how we live our lives and whether this can be made more sustainable. Will we waste this opportunity for some reflection on the way we live our lives or rush headlong back to the way things were before?
Clearly globalisation has brought many benefits including year round supplies of seasonal food, affordable technology and complicated trade relationships but Covid-19 is now inevitably going to bring some realisation about the drawbacks. The UK and many developed economies have evolved to become service-based and outsourced manufacturing of many things. Why would UK workers want to work long shifts in factories doing inane tasks? This is all well and good until something like a global pandemic comes along and demonstrates why outsourcing things like PPE, testing chemical precursors, medical equipment and even fruit and vegetables to save a few quid is not a great idea. When the chips are down superpowers like China and the US are going to understandably look after their own. If we don’t have a manufacturing base for essential items we will not be able to import these items no matter how much money we throw at orders. Going forwards all countries will have to redress what things they need to have capacity to make themselves or at least have some pretty strong agreements with nations who can make provision if things get dicey. We have seen a recognition of the differences between skilled workers and key workers and the same analogy should be applied to key supplies and non-essential goods. Clearly food and medical supplies are paramount when the chips are down but we can manage without a new Google Alexa!
Western world arrogance.
Is is just me that thinks the West has been caught on the hop? We have seen past epidemics wax and wane in Asia such as the SARS virus but the sluggish reaction to the Covid-19 threat smacks of a certain amount of complacency that in some way we wouldn’t succumb to such problems in the naïve belief we are in some way naturally more resistant. A virus doesn’t care about status, geography or nationalistic hubris. It is oblivious to political systems or liberal attitudes. The US in particular seemed to think that a simplistic nationalistic belief in being ‘great’ would be enough to subdue the virus. Unfortunately we can now tragically see the consequences of poor leadership at the top and an inability to adapt to changing collective circumstances. This virus is a reminder that we are all the same species with the same genetic heritage and economic superiority counts for nothing when you’re a novel coronavirus. Biologically we really are all very much the same with similar strengths and weaknesses regardless of our country of origin or wealth status. We must continue to look out for each other with common goals rather than being adversarial if we are to overcome the wider problems of the 21 Century world in which we live.
A new global pandemic was inevitable. The only surprise is that it has taken 100 years or so to happen. Countries will have to reassess key resource production capabilities and the need for contingency planning will be better understood. Our lives will have to adjust to ensure this doesn’t happen again; we cannot simply return to how we were before. Despite all the horror and loss this virus will cause it isn’t going to be the end of our civilization and in this sense it is a warning shot. The next time this happens the emergent disease could have a much higher mortality say in the 10-20% mark. We need to be much better prepared with stockpiled resources, faster reaction times to lock down transport networks as required, better share knowledge between countries and ideally have a global oversight organisation in place to make the big difficult decisions. At least there is now a broad acceptance that experts should be listened to and that adopting sound science is the best pathway to resolution. We will dodge this bullet just as we have done many times in the past but should still start to prepare for the next one heading our way and be better prepared.