by Richard B. Gibson, MA
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended daily life and forced many people on the planet to alter their behaviour to combat the spread of the virus. For many, this has come at personal cost, be it their freedom of movement, their finances, and even their health and lives. This has led governments also to feel the pressure to act, resulting in enforced restrictions on individual movements which, in turn, have impacted global economies and ground productivity in numerous sectors to a halt.
There are growing questions regarding when our lives will return to normal? This was illustrated in the UK in the past few days with multiple news publications, including ITV News, The Guardian, and The Telegraph, questioning what exactly the government’s exit strategy is. A topic that’s undoubtedly being put to governments worldwide as everyone seeks reassurance that our lives will indeed return to normality.
However, is normality a desirable outcome? Is it wise to seek out the restoration of the status quo and return to the societal structures we had pre-pandemic? In short, is a return to normality a good thing?
It was our normal way of living, one which was woefully unprepared for the emergence of such a virus, that allowed for COVID-19 to emerge from China’s Hubei province and rapidly spread across the globe. Not only that, but according to the UN’s environmental chief Inger Anderson, the very fact that COVID-19 came into contact with a substantial human populace is almost certainly a direct result of human behaviour. A claim that was later reinforced on the UN Environmental Programme website. According to both, the destruction of biodiversity and the erosion of natural barriers are essential factors in the rise of COVID-19.
The global normality which we have become accustomed to is one that is born of the destruction of the natural world and the increase in global travel. These two factors meant that the likelihood of COVID-19 encountering a susceptible human populace, and then being able to spread until it reached pandemic levels, was inevitable. Indeed, Anderson states that our current civilisation is “playing with fire” when it comes to our cavalier attitude regarding zoonotic diseases.
This might not be as doom-and-gloom if it were the case that COVID-19 is anomalous: a rare and tragic event that once past can be considered over and done. If this were the case, then I would understand the desire to develop an exit strategy that sought, as its end goal, a return to our pre-pandemic normality.
However, COVID-19 is not the only infectious disease out there. According to the 2016 UNEP Frontier report, “on average, one new infectious disease emerges in humans every four months.” This is further compounded by the finding that, of these new diseases, one in four is the result of interaction with wildlife. This increase is resultant from the fact that there have never been as many opportunities for such infections to pass between multiple species of wild and domestic animals, and subsequentially into people. A prime example being the wet markets where COVID-19 has been suspected of initially infecting humans. Consequentially, the winning of this so-called COVID-19 ‘battle’ is far from the end of the story. The novel coronavirus is not the first zoonotic pathogen to cause a global pandemic, nor will it be the last.
Without a dynamic change in the way our global society operates, specifically regarding the utilisation of, and our impact on, the natural world, the chances of another pandemic, like the one we’re currently living through, are substantial. Such measures would include a ban on wildlife markets and trade, a cessation of the destruction of natural habitats, and an overall more concerted effort to reduce global warming. Without such measures, the likelihood of pandemics similar to COVID-19 grows as wildlife is increasingly driven into contact with people.
In clinical practice, prevention is preferable over a cure; it is the same with pandemics. The current measures of social distancing and testing are the equivalent of trying to put a malevolent genie back into a bottle. What’s preferable is to eliminate the factors that have allowed COVID-19 to emerge as a pandemic in the first place, thereby reducing the chances of a repeat. This requires reconceptualising our relationship with the natural world. We are currently living through the failure to learn from past pandemics, and if we are not careful and proactive, we may not get another chance to learn the lesson.