The world is still trying to contain the spread of COVID-19. But world leaders must already come up with ways to prevent another pandemic. The novel coronavirus’s adverse impacts prove this need, having infected over 97 million people and resulting in over 2 million deaths. It has also forced countries to enforce lockdowns and travel restrictions that have sent economies crashing. This economic burden that is, in fact, borne disproportionately by workers in lower prestige-ranked jobs, with lower pay and lower skill required, a fact brought to light by a New York’s Icahn School of Medicine analysis. These workers were faced with a higher risk of workload reduction, income decreases, and job loss. As a result, COVID-19 has become more than just a health crisis and a humanitarian crisis that’s making life especially more difficult for the marginalised population, as discussed in issues raised in the post Regarding the Infection of Others: Pandemics and Colonial Indifference.
If history is any indication, pandemics will continue to happen. After all, the past is riddled with pandemics, with the last one occurring in 2009 — just ten years prior to the first reported case of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China. The A(H1N1) pandemic of 2009 was the first worldwide flu pandemic in 40 years, and it killed over 500,000 around the world from March 2009 to August 2010, although its severity was not that far off from seasonal flu’s hospitalisation and mortality rates. If two pandemics can occur within a single decade, then there’s reason to believe that the next one isn’t far behind — that is unless steps are taken to keep that from happening again:
Leave the forests alone
COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, which means that it’s caused by a virus passed on from animals to humans. And according to a study by Dobson published in Science, an average of two such transmissions occur yearly. Crucially, many of these animal-to-human spillovers transpire in locations near the edges of forests, where over 25% of the original forest has been either denuded or lost entirely as revealed in study mentioned earlier. At this rate of deforestation, humans and domesticated animals and livestock are more prone to contact with wildlife, increasing the likelihood of pathogen transmission.
That said, governments around the world must strive to prevent deforestation, and the study by Dobson reports a collective investment of $22 billion (£16) in forest monitoring ought to help significantly. This helps safeguard the perimeter around forests to reduce the contact between society and possible pathogens carried by wildlife inhabiting these natural habitats. It’s a big investment — but nothing close to the economic costs of COVID-19, which economists forecast at around $10−20 trillion (£7−14 trillion).
Stop wildlife trading
Among the earliest theories on the origins of SARS-CoV-2 is that it came from wildlife trade. Scientists haven’t confirmed this, but the theory is plausible because it has happened before. The 2002−2003 SARS pandemic was traced back to a live-animal market in Guangdong, China.
As such, national and international trade of high-risk animals such as bats, civets, and primates ought to be banned right away. This ban will prevent potential animal-to-human virus spillovers, keeping zoonotic diseases away. For this ban to work, there should also be programs educating consumers and hunters about wildlife handling and trade risks. Consequently, these programs should also include training these wildlife poachers in other industries to generate income streams, as most have resorted to this trade out of necessity. Poaching is found to have a direct correlation with local poverty, according to a study led by Severin Hauenstein. The rest of society will have to do its part, too, and stop patronising the wildlife market.
There’s a global inadequacy of WASH services — water, sanitation and hygiene. This inequity puts marginalised communities at a greater risk of enhanced transmission, as they have no access to a basic line of defense against viruses. COVID-19 has magnified this decades-old problem, and it needs to be solved to keep another pandemic from happening.
One solution is to invest in WASH, a UN-led initiative to promote universal access to water sanitation and hygiene. The organisation has been lobbying for this access to become a basic human right for about a decade, but the pandemic has only illustrated how a significant part of the global population — especially those who reside in the least developed countries, remote areas, refugee camps, and overcrowded slums — still have little to no access to WASH services. Providing these communities with a reliable water supply, permanent hygiene infrastructure, clean toilets, and adequate space for social distancing could at least help them enact standard COVID-19 prevention advice. For WASH to progress, a staggering $114 billion (£83 billion) is needed, according to the World Bank. But countries need to make this necessary investment to correct this social inequity and protect poorer communities from being pandemic hotbeds. Besides, the return on investment is $4 (£2.92) for every $1 (£0.73) invested in WASH, potentially improving the world’s GDP by at least 1.5%.
Enhance healthcare systems
According to Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, COVID-19 exposed the hard truth that the world isn’t prepared for this magnitude pandemic. The proof is the many challenges healthcare systems had to deal with: bed, room, and equipment shortages and overworked healthcare professionals. Dr Ghebreyesus suggests a solution: investing politically and financially in advancing healthcare around the world. He has called on governments to “build, maintain and strengthen sustainable public health capacities for emergency preparedness”. In this way, future pandemics will be mitigated early on, if not prevented entirely. In closing a pandemic-centric video conference, Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director of WHO Health Emergencies gave a chilling reminder of why the world needs to be proactive in preventing pandemics:
“We cannot, cannot, cannot let the world forget because the next one may not be anything but the worst one”
Dr. Ryan pointed out. “This (COVID-19) may just be a harbinger of what may come, we are living with too much risk”. The best time to mitigate that risk is now; today’s society simply can’t afford to be ravaged by another health crisis of the same magnitude – armed with modern science, technological advancements, and a more holistic worldview, we can move towards a healthier global community.
About the author: Jada Berry is a social worker focusing on community development and healthcare awareness. She also freelances as a writer, focusing on sociology and social issues.