The world cannot remain the same following this outbreak
The outbreak of Covid-19 has forced a change in dynamics not seen before. At best we are likely to see the loss of several hundred thousand colleagues, friends, and loved ones, whilst the global economy slows down, wiping trillions from reserves as governments seek to adequately respond to an event unfolding before them. At an international level, many countries will undoubtedly pursue reforms, whilst others will be forced to change their modus operandi to prevent a catastrophe on this level from ever happening again. But how will the different levels of our life be changed?
Questions must be asked about how the virus was not only able to spread so quickly but how it developed in the first place. The two most deadly outbreaks in living memory (HIV and Covid-19) can be traced to the wild animal trade. Covid-19 allegedly began in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, likely from bats, civets or pangolins. Zoonotic transmission (animal to humans) is responsible for a plethora of deadly diseases, from both domesticated and wild animal contact. Bird flu, swine flu and anthrax can be transmitted through our livestock, whilst Ebola, Zika, coronaviruses and HIV spread through wild animals, especially primates and bats. Some of the deadliest outbreaks in history, namely the 1918 flu pandemic and the Bubonic plague, can also be traced to animal transmission.
With such present dangers from animal contact, what can be done? Preventing any contact whatsoever is difficult for livestock when economies rely so heavily on it. However, wild animal trading can and must be ended. The economic impact of such a move will be significant but justifiable when compared to the unimaginably large cost of a global pandemic. Many poorer countries have large wildlife markets and so the onus is on more developed nations to pay for alternative food sources. China had already clamped down on wild-life trading after previous outbreaks; Covid-19 has shown these regulations to be flimsy and barely enforced.
Labelling the disease as the “Chinese virus” is unhelpful and inflammatory, but it’s easy to point to indifference in the CCP’s response to an elite demand for exotic wildlife, with lax regulations causing justified outrage as death and havoc spread around the world. This is particularly poignant when framed against China’s need to crack down on transmission sources in the wake of the 2003 SARS outbreak; an epidemic it apologised for internationally. Following the observed outbreak late last year, the Chinese government enforced a universal ban on wildlife sales, though it came months if not years too late. Blame isn’t a productive diplomatic tool, with international cooperation to mitigate future risks a much-needed priority.
The unsafe wildlife trade should be restricted if not stamped out, with the implementation of tougher global regulations on livestock both necessary. A strict code should be established by the WHO (World Health Organization) and involve open cooperation between nation states. This should involve improvements in hygiene, and an emphasis on animal welfare – with the view to stop intensive/crowded farming practices which result in both animal neglect and the use of antibiotic/antiviral substances which enter the food chain. The price of animal products are likely to rise and this may have to be mitigated in the short term via government subsidies.
Globalisation has played a huge part in the spread of the virus. With a pathogen as contagious as Covid-19, one infected passenger can infect dozens with a multiplier effect, resulting in the rapid spread of the disease as demonstrated here. There really is no such thing as a localised or national epidemic anymore. Diseases with even mildly contagious properties rarely stay inside national borders.
Is containment possible? The 2013 Ebola outbreak did spread throughout western Africa, but three factors prevented it spreading locally: immediate WHO response, low economic and rural origination, and a less contagious pathogen. In contrast, Covid-19 is raging across the globe as a more contagious virus (usually non-hospitalising symptoms) that spreads to prosperous, internationally connected parts of China quickly, with a slow government response to quarantine worsening the affair. Both WHO and national governments will need to improve early-warning systems when contagions are detected. This will mean overreacting to many threats but the cost both financially and in human life caused by Covid-19 shows this is not up for debate.
Governments in general need to react as strongly with all future pathogen threats as they did to the Ebola outbreak, putting aside “business as usual” mentalities. Travel bans, aggressive testing and lockdowns work. Banning travel from infected regions is of course rarely able to guarantee the pathogen won’t take hold, but can certainly delay the outbreak giving healthcare systems time to prepare.
To perform aggressive testing and lockdowns, governments need to put better contingency plans together for pandemics. Larger stockpiles of testing equipment (including personal protection equipment), as well as treatment equipment (ventilators, oxygen and other basic medicines) need to be maintained globally. This is alongside effective testing and treatment plans for worst-case scenarios, including a much larger, dedicated pool of trained workers and volunteers in each country as well as for the WHO.
The economic impact of lockdowns and market shutdowns have never been clearer than during this crisis. Robust measures need to be in place well before a pandemic to respond to mass unemployment, business closures and a general drop in economic activity. In the UK, hundreds of billions in loan payments and benefits have been authorised; in the US, the government’s measures stand to cost US $2 trillion. Even if these stimulus expenditures are enough to keep major economies afloat, the chaos, confusion and time-delays incurred due to their last-minute nature show the necessity of economic action plans in advance of pandemics. Recession is inevitable, but avoiding a depression is a duty of the government, second only to its duty to protect its citizens from the worst horrors of a global outbreak.
It’s hard to say what our life will look like when Covid-19 has passed through us. But in order to prevent something similar happening again, changes must be made.