‘All changed, changed utterly:
A terribly beauty is born.’ WB Yeats
In mid-February we felt a comfortable indifference to the impending crisis posed by COVID-19.
This ‘Chinese’ virus, as President Trump inappropriately labels it, seemed to be a problem limited mainly to Wuhan. Similar to previous epidemics like SARs (2003) and MERs (2012) the coronavirus epidemic seemed to be a foreign affliction only of academic interest. Swine flu (influenza H1N1) back in 2009 was a more urgent menace right on our doorstep but proved less virulent than imagined and, with vaccines available, only required orchestrated inoculation by obliging GPs.
We have been waiting for a pandemic since the devastating ‘Spanish flu’ of 1918. Between 50-100 million died as a result of this new strain of influenza spreading rapidly through a non-immune population. The origin of this disease has been traced back to an avian source, possibly poultry 1. We need to remember that this illness came in repeated waves over the following twelve months.
History informs us of recurrent plagues. The Justinian plague killed many in 541AD and returned as the infamous ‘Black Death’ which decimated Europe reducing the population by 60% over several years. This plague was caused by Yersina Pestis carried by fleas on rats and spread to sailors who landed in Sicily in 1347. As a control measure the Venetians banned sailors from entering their cities for a period of 40 days (quaranta giorni) thus giving rise to the familiar term of isolation – to quarantine. Interestingly the population of that time may have been more vulnerable to severe infection. A simultaneous change in the climate in the fourteenth century with a one degree drop in temperatures across Europe, and later known as the little ice age, resulted in poorer harvests leading to food shortages and a weaker populace.
The climate is something we take for granted and don’t really notice a subtle change like the 1.1’C temperature rise in the last 100 years. The 2017 IPCC report on climate change estimates that we have only 10 years to half carbon emissions and 30 years to become carbon neutral or the global warming effects could have disastrous consequences for the planet2. We cannot fathom the fact that we now have a rate of species extinction rate 1000 times greater than the background rate3. The erosion of biodiversity and destruction of habitats has led to an unnatural co-existence of animals in more limited environments. It has also led to a proliferation of certain more adaptable species eg. bats and rodents, that are the most likely to promote the transmissions of pathogens. The Ebola epidemic has been traced to the consumption of a chimpanzee in a Liberian jungle. Swine flu originated among intensively raised pigs. This novel coronavirus probably originated in bats and then used the pangolin as the intermediary host we have heard about in in the wet markets of Wuhan before jumping to humans. It is estimated that 60% of emerging infectious diseases are of animal origin4. Maybe we need to question our animal husbandry methods where profit is the main motivator.
A new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections between the wellbeing of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems. It has been interesting from an ecological perspective to see the positive indirect effects that these ‘lock downs’ have had on other areas of society. NASA satellite imagery has shown marked reductions in air pollution over China between January and February this year. Aviation has decreased seven-fold over this period. Air pollution kills 1.1 million people in China every year (many times more than deaths than Covid-19 has caused). In northern Italy, since the country went into lockdown on 9th March, NO2 levels have fallen by about 40%. The now silent and quiet canals of Venice are now thronged with visible shoals of fish.
Is this a glimpse of what we might see in the future if we can move to a low-carbon economy?
Public health and politicians have shown good leadership at this time of pandemic crisis. Uncomfortable but timely decisions have been taken for the greater good. There is still a long way to go in terms of coping with the continuous rise in acute cases. Also, we are likely to have to pick up the pieces of the resultant adverse physical and mental health consequences of this economic downturn. However, another positive observation is the social aspect of this crisis. We are simultaneously rediscovering qualities that have been shown to enhance well-being and health. Community spirit, social connection, common purpose have all been rekindled. Our concern for the elderly, vulnerable and isolated in our society has been met with extraordinary acts of generosity. This age of self-obsession with constant striving for personal gain and gratification is confronting its nemesis.
Hopefully the lessons from this pandemic will later inform our leaders to show equally strong resolve in reconstructing a more just society where inequalities and the global planetary effect of all our actions are brought to the fore. Understandably our only concern at this time is the immediate threat to ourselves and our loved ones in a pandemic which stretches all healthcare systems in the ‘surge’. When the dust settles hopefully we will all have the maturity to take stock and learn to appreciate the bigger picture- what really matters to us – the safety and security of those we love and the place where we live – our planet earth.
One hundred years after the publication of Yeat’s Easter poem may we not forget how this terribly beautiful world has been utterly changed.
- 1918 Influenza: the Mother of All Pandemics. J. Emerg Infect Dis. 2006 Jan; 12(1): 15–22.
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2017. IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) Observed Climate Change Impacts https://doi.org/10.7927/H4FT8J0X
- Estimating the normal background rate of species extinction; J Conservation Biology, 2014; https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.12380
- Global trends in emerging infectious diseases. Nature4 51, 990–993 (2008).
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are that of the blogger and may not represent the views of the College.