You are not permitted to download, save or email this image. Visit image gallery to purchase the image.
Opportunities exist for a positive future after Covid-19, writes Gil Barbezat.
COVID-19 effects have varied dramatically among countries. The United States, Brazil and Russia are currently the three countries with highest rates of infection, and where death rates are still rising.
Fortunately, New Zealand (and some number of other countries such as South Korea and Taiwan) has a very low infection and death rate.
These latter countries have responded promptly, following science-led advice of spatial separation, tracing, testing and treating; infection rates have been controlled. Conversely, those who have denied the importance of the pandemic, and consequently delayed or mishandled their responses, have had their populations bear the consequences of their inaction. These countries’ populist leaders follow purely political and economic ideals and deny science, relegating consequent illness and death to collateral damage.
US President Donald Trump has repeatedly maintained that ‘‘nobody could see this thing coming’’.
This is plainly false, as virologists and epidemiologists have been warning about such possibilities for years. Protocols were developed to deal with the predicted effects.
Maybe it is not coincidental that the leaders of the three countries with the highest Covid-19 infection rates also call anthropogenic climate change a hoax. Climate scientists have been producing increasingly convincing data for 50 years to reveal its existential dangers. Indeed, events around the world are clearly visible, often confirming that scientific predictions were understated.
Similarly, there are many economists who have predicted the recurrence of international financial crises. Wealth redistribution is necessary and more equitable taxation systems are long overdue. Essential services, particularly health systems, must be funded adequately. It has taken a viral pandemic and mass unemployment to force the financial world to face reality. Whatever we do to resume global commerce and circulation, changes need to be made.
It is evident that the ongoing economic devastation produced by this pandemic is easily underestimated. However, successful restructuring of economies is dependent upon the participation of a healthy and productive workforce. This is unlikely while Covid-19 infections and death rates are still rising, and the workforce is uncertain about its safety and access to adequate healthcare.
While we wait, hopefully optimistically, for the appearance of an effective vaccine, measures have to be applied to minimise the spread of the virus. The eventual effects of prolonged unemployment are still to be determined, but inevitably will progressively increase the hardships of those most affected.
Besides unemployment, the consequences of strict isolation measures to control the spread of Covid-19 has had a number of interesting and educative side effects, for example:
■Environmental pollution has been reduced dramatically to levels previously thought impossible. Benefits have already accrued from this.
■Inequality has been confirmed to be a key factor in determining who (the aged, the poor and minorities) suffers the greatest morbidity, mortality and economic hardship.
■Innovative use of technology has been found to transform education, work places and productivity.
■The value of various occupations has been re-evaluated; many traditionally poorly paid occupations (e.g. food production workers, carers) are now realised to be essential. Many often very well-paid occupations have minimal benefit and are of low priority to maintain essential services.
■The value of freely accessible health services was highlighted and acclaimed in many good news stories of this pandemic; conversely inadequate, overwhelmed services have spelt disaster for those whom they are supposed to serve.
■Transport has been re-evaluated, old methods often becoming redundant or replaced with cheaper, more efficient and less polluting alternatives.
■Eating habits changed for many, with more consumption of vegetables and fruit, and less highly refined and expensive prepared foods; demands on foodbanks soared.
■Families spent more time together, and although this also had some adverse outcomes, many rediscovered the simple joys of spending time with those close to them. Crime rates actually declined.
So how do we rebuild our communities, workforces and economies to better fit future requirements? We can draw an analogy between the Covid-19 pandemic and a devastating fire destroying the world’s status quo. This now has to be restructured and rebuilt in a different environment; the world is no longer the same.
It would certainly be wise to rebuild in ways that prepare us for some predictable future challenges. We need to restore the confidence of younger generations in their future. Managing further pandemics and the effects of climate change must be based on already available sound scientific projections. The collaboration of youth in this can be assured.
Restructuring should also incorporate the lessons learnt from Covid-19, many, but not by any means all, of which are outlined in the bullet points above. We have the choice whether we give the science-denying political and financial bullies the opportunity to return us to the ‘‘same old, same old’’ of the past. Or we can develop a more equitable system which takes into account the needs of the majority. A universal basic income could be considered more seriously.
It has been said that dealing with the current pandemic should be regarded as a marathon, not a sprint. Maybe we should consider the bigger picture and extend that to be an ironman event, with swimming and cycling before the marathon.
■Gil Barbezat is an emeritus professor of medicine.