Despite the doom and gloom, there is much to be positive about. Having said that, I wish to qualify my comments with the recognition that, despite those positives, this pandemic has at last count infected more than 2.6m people and killed more than 180,000 people globally. That is without beginning to count the economic toll and the effect upon the livelihoods, health, hopes and futures of hundreds of millions of people.
Whilst I will focus in some respects on a ‘glass half full ‘ view of the world – I in no way dismiss the very real human costs of COVID which will be felt for decades, if not generations, to come.
The fourth horseman of the Apocalypse – plague!
It is no coincidence that plague rode as the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse. Since the dawn of civilisation, humankind has lived with disease and pandemics. This graphic highlights some of the better known pandemics through the ages:
Throughout history, pandemics have often displayed three characteristics:
- They are initially transmitted by animals to people (think Swine flu from pigs, Avian flu from birds and COVID from bats)
- They are carried between communities along trade and travel routes (the bubonic plague originated in China, spread along the Silk Road to Turkey and the Balkans and from there by trading ships to Western Europe)
- They spread most effectively through concentrated populations (the Plague of Justinian was reported to have killed almost half of the population of Constantinople – one of the world’s most populous cities at the time).
The half full glass
Until recently, a disease needed to kill at least 1m people (in a smaller world population) to qualify as a pandemic. The most fatal pandemic in the last 100 years was the Spanish Flu killing ~50 million of the world’s population of ~1.8 billion people – or almost 3% of the world’s population.
Like Spanish Flu, COVID is a flu virus – but it has killed 180,000 people or 0.0023% of the world’s population.
So why are death rates so low when the scene for a truly fatal pandemic could not be more firmly set?
- People now occupy every corner of the globe – and thus, someone, somewhere, has contact with almost every land-based species on the planet.
- The world is far more densely populated and infinitely more urbanised than ever before (more than 55% of our 8 billion people live in urban areas).
- We are more connected and integrated than ever before – there were more than 4.5 BILLION passenger airline flights in 2019!
Simply – we are very adaptive creatures. As a race (if not individually) we tend to learn from our mistakes (sometimes more slowly than is best – but we do tend to learn). In this case, through great cost and pain over millennia, we have come to understand what allows a pandemic to grow and spread. It is no coincidence that some of the countries which have most effectively dealt with COVID (like Hong Kong and Taiwan) have learnt from recent direct experience in dealing with SARS and other pandemics.
And this should give us some cause for optimism in dealing with future pandemics.
What will come from COVID?
The world’s experience with COVID will drive much change. Some, we will experience at a micro level in our daily lives. But what about at a macro level? My crystal ball (blurred as it is!) suggests there will be three very important macro developments to fall from COVID:
- First, we will continue to learn. We will learn whether the totalitarian approach to managing the outbreak (such as by China) is better than the various democratic approaches (from Sweden’s laissez-faire approach to New Zealand’s strict lockdown). With this knowledge, our responses to the next inevitable pandemic will be more effective.
- Secondly, we can expect to see a more effective global health governance regime to coordinate preventative measures and responses to pandemics. Whether that is through the existing WHO, a reconfigured WHO or a new organisation, time will tell.
- Finally, those who care to look will see severe devastation in the developing world.
Developing countries are not blessed with our urban planning, sanitation (even down to hand sanitising) or access to health systems. We will never know precisely what impact COVID will have on those populations. But we do know that 55% of the world’s population effectively has no social security support and will be largely left to rely on the generosity of the rest of the world or to fend for themselves as their loved ones cough their way to death.
Tragically, in the medium term, we will likely see the reversal of many of the great advances made over the last generation in life expectancy and nutrition standards in much of the developing world – and a deeper economic impact than that experienced in a better resourced developed world. This, in turn, will widen the equality gap between the developed and the developing world.
There is a real risk that this economic vulnerability will leave developing countries exposed to a greater risk of economic exploitation by opportunistic or predatory foreign companies and governments. This could sow the seeds for much deeper, longer-term, economic pain in parts of the developing world.
So let’s keep some perspective. This latest pandemic is very, very serious – but it is not fatal to humankind. We will continue to learn from it and in doing so be better equipped to face and defeat (hopefully at a lower human and economic cost) the next pandemic which inevitably we will face. In the meantime, as we all work to rebuild our lifestyles, our businesses and our economies, let us hope that the global community can find a way to ensure that those who may be worst affected by COVID do not become the forgotten innocent victims.