For decades scientists have warned that urban encroachment on pristine habitats would trigger dangerous new viruses.
Covid-19 shouldn’t have been a surprise – and, because viruses always mutateOmicron shouldn’t have been either.
Just as Omicron replaced Delta, something else will replace Omicron. It could be a new variant of Covid; it may be something completely new.
“[A]another pandemic is coming, âsays Debora MacKenzie in his book Covid-19: the pandemic that should never have happened, “and no one can predict which pathogen will cause the next”.
It doesn’t mean we can’t prepare.
Even when dealing with Omicron, we need a long-term strategy, so that we don’t get caught off guard with every new outbreak.
Here are four slogans necessary (but perhaps not sufficient) to arm us.
1. Make vaccines free, everywhere and for all
In the 1950s, when a reporter asked virologist Jonas Salk who had the polio vaccine, he has answered, “Well, people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?
Humanity has eradicated smallpox treating vaccines as a public good, created (for the most part) by public bodies and distributed as needed.
But that was before big pharma, in which reporter Alexander Zaitchik calls “a deeply undemocratic expression of concentrated corporate power,” argued the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Travel) of 1994, an agreement that turned vaccines into private intellectual property.
Thanks to Trips, the horror of Covid-19 provided huge salaries for pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Moderna, even as they refused to allow the technology to manufacturers in developing countries, arguing, controversially, that the lack of expertise, resources and manufacturing capacity in these regions makes this unnecessary.
To date, the world’s poorest nations have has received only a dismal 0.6% of the available Covid vaccines, an obscene disparity and which creates a pool of permanent diseases in which viral mutations can develop.
Like the People’s Vaccine Alliance (an organization supported by Amnesty International and a a stellar array of past and current world leaders) says, no one is safe until we are all safe.
A pandemic in which more than two million people have died shouldn’t be a drain of money.
Patents must be abolished. If companies cannot provide vaccines to everyone, they should be nationalized and replaced by institutions that will.
2. Rebuild health and science
Governments must invest heavily in medical resources, reversing the austerity of recent decades and creating the specialized facilities – from specially designed quarantine centers to emergency departments and stockpiles of protective equipment – that will be needed. .
This means more front-line staff in all settings, from hospitals to retirement homes; it also means more researchers and scientists.
Medical expertise and research capacity cannot be created overnight. We have to start rebuilding now.
3. Create health-focused and community-focused responses
Pandemics disproportionately affect the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. The people most exposed to viruses tend, in other words, to be those who fear or distrust authorities.
That is why the response to a medical emergency should not focus on the police and soldiers.
Many governments have responded to the emergence of Covid-19 with punitive measures such as curfews, military patrols and new criminal laws. But a health crisis is neither a war nor a police operation.
There is a much better model to follow. The remarkably successful campaign against HIV / AIDS was led by activists communities directly affected by the pandemic. They are the ones who disseminate information, offer services and induce changes in behavior, while combating prejudice and discrimination.
With a frightening disease spreading, the agency and the outcome cannot be separated. A population that takes care of itself, that translates health messages into its own idiom, that collectively decides what to do and how, will give much better results than the toughest policeman.
Because a pandemic exposes social inequalities, the best answers will necessarily involve a fight for social justice – and, as such, they will be led by the oppressed themselves.
4. End the war on nature
We can and should plan to mitigate the effects of new viruses. But we will only reduce their frequency if we reduce the ecological destruction that contributes to the passage of pathogens through human populations.
As cities expand into previously uninhabited wilderness areas, habitat loss brings animals and birds into unnatural proximity to humans, allowing viruses to find human hosts. The impoverished fringes of sprawling metropolises, and the industrial agriculture associated with them, provide an ideal backdrop for mutations – and in a globalized world, infection one place becomes infection everywhere.
This is why scientists are so worried.
As MacKenzie warns, there is a lot more coronavirus out there – and a lot of new horrors that we haven’t yet encountered.
We cannot continue to play mole with each new crisis.
We know what’s coming.
If we don’t plan to counter it, tomorrow will be like today, except for much, much worse.
Indeed, Covid-19 should not be understood as yet another disaster piled on top of a calamitous pile of fires, floods, heatwaves and tornadoes, but as a specific manifestation of a larger environmental emergency. In a way, that might even be good news (or, at least, as close as we get now), since tackling the pandemic is not a distraction from tackling climate change.
Rather, the two represent two sides of the same campaign, an increasingly desperate struggle to save the future.