In retrospect, the COVID-19 pandemic may mark a paradigm shift in global society if governments and their citizens worldwide today embrace its lessons, including many still emerging. One of these lessons concerns the dangers of ignoring knowledge we already had about interconnections between global public health, economic and national security, and ecological degradation. As Dr. M. Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation international, observed, “2020 has shown our complete interdependence with nature.” Resistance to change is natural, even if sometimes illogical, and has been manifest throughout the crisis in opposition, particularly in the United States, to following (belated) public health guidelines to wear masks, avoid crowds, and limit time in enclosed poorly ventilated spaces. But what would differentiate an “anti-masker’s” stance from those who, on a national or global scale, call for a return to “normal” in the face of evidence that it was business-as-usual that contributed to the pandemic disaster? Anti-maskers promoted disinformation about the public health dangers of COVID-19; moving on from this disaster without acknowledging and acting on new knowledge we have now gained about pandemics would be a similarly deadly form of reality avoidance.
Disregarding knowledge we already had about pandemic preparedness has proven to be costly in terms of many thousands of lives lost to COVID-19, lost economic opportunity for billions of people, and trillions of dollars in economic damage. Newly acquired knowledge about the coronavirus’s origins and dangers imply new responsibilities on individual, local, state, national, and global levels. Since the novel coronavirus itself emerged from a natural environment known to host many more pathogens potentially at least as dangerous to humankind, science-based policymaking with an eye on averting, or at least mitigating, future calamities needs to drive global changes. This will entail an integration of science, including public health and environmental sciences, with public policy, diplomacy, international economics, and national and international security arenas, including in professional training settings and curricula. In addition, enhanced emphasis in policymaking and education on the systemic interconnections between disciplines will be necessary. Fundamental changes in how we see how world will naturally spill over into other areas, including legal regimes, criminal justice reform, combatting disinformation, immigration policies, childcare and education, food security, managing of wildlife habitats, architecture, and agricultural practices, to name a few.
Embracing a return to “normal” is equivalent to averting our eyes from the societal and economic pathologies, including politicization of the virus, that have made the pandemic so deadly. In this new global context, even assuming successful vaccination of the entire global population, it is becoming clear that returning to business-as-usual will be as dangerous on a global scale as anti-mask attitudes have been in this crisis. As COVID-19 is a harbinger of still greater threats to humankind in a rapidly changing and climate-disrupted environment, it is incumbent upon policymakers, influencers, and informed citizens to emphasize the needed changes, and to be open to new ideas.
Fortunately there is much work already focused on what a new normal might look like, including for building ventilation, work spaces, and urban design, and architecture generally. Similarly, a new “architecture” that emphasizes biodiversity is necessary for modern life in the 21st century, one that seeks not only to prevent pandemics but build for resilience and long-term public and global health, as the leaders of an architectural initiative to build healthy hospital environments in Africa have advocated since beginning their work more than a decade ago. Heeding the recommendations of experts on how to avoid the next pandemic, including their calls for enhanced multilateral cooperation, is a needed first step, as will be inclusive approaches to economic and public health. Concerted global cooperation and investment in ensuring conditions conducive to innovation and breakthrough thinking also will be necessarily. In addition, we can look for inspiration to those countries whose pandemic response has been more successful to date than others.
Although the culprit of the calamity is thought to be an infected bat, science tells us that manmade environmental conditions, including the destruction of wildlife habitats and a growing reliance on factory farming, are mainly to blame. As if to emphasize the point, coronavirus outbreaks detected since early November among mink farm populations in Denmark and, more recently in Poland, have been traced to humans and then, in a reverse phenomenon known as “spillback,” from humans to minks. Scientists suspected that the coronavirus mink-associated variant could undermine the effectiveness of human vaccines, leading the Danish government to order a controversial nationwide culling of all minks. The many unintended consequences emerging from this government policy aiming to protect people provide a useful case study in the increasing complexity that public health challenges will present for policymakers in the coming years.
As the Danish experience shows, it is difficult to overstate the immensity of the challenges now facing policymakers. Leaders across the spectrum of expertise and professional responsibility independently warn that a return to normal would be unwise even if possible. World-renowned naturalist and primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall warns, for instance, that “humanity is finished” if it should fail to drastically change its food systems in response to the pandemic and the climate crisis, which both originate in mankind’s destruction of the natural environment. The Lancet COVID-19 Commission has similarly highlighted the need for new precautions, such as ending deforestation and protecting conservation areas and endangered species, as means to curb the transmission of pathogens from animals to humans. In November 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched an investigation to improve understanding of the coronavirus’s transmission pathway to humans. Such understanding is necessary to forestall future viral outbreaks. Similarly, earlier this month, a bipartisan group of US lawmakers met with conservation experts, including Dr. Goodall, at a “Conservation and National Security” event sponsored by The Hill; speakers and participants emphasized that the relationship between national security, economic interests and environmental protection needs to be “rethought and reformed”.
A coming shift in perspective is poised to emphasize the pathologies of the modern human condition. Mankind’s priorities are exposed as upside down by leading global institutions, such as the World Health Organization. “It would take 500 years to spend as much on investing in preparedness as the world is losing due to COVID-19,” according to the latest report, “A World in Disorder,” of its Global Preparedness Monitoring Board. “It is hard to stare directly at the biggest problems of our age,” writes Ed Yong in The Atlantic on “How the Pandemic Defeated America.” He explains, “Pandemics, climate change, the sixth extinction of wildlife, food and water shortages — their scope is planetary, and their stakes are overwhelming. We have no choice, though, but to grapple with them. It is now abundantly clear what happens when global disasters collide with historical negligence.”
The facts are difficult to conceal or distort. Since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, over eight million additional people have been pushed into poverty in the United States—the richest country in the world—and worldwide over one million people have died due to COVID-19. The havoc of the pandemic has caused the world economy to contract by 4.4 percent in 2020 and is estimated, by the International Monetary Fund, to strip $11 trillion of output by next year. Given the human and economic costs already incurred, how well positioned are the United States and the world for future challenges?
“How will the U.S. fare when ‘we can’t even deal with a starter pandemic,’” asked Zeynep Tufekei, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina in an interview with Yong. What will a “just society” look like in the coming era of inevitably greater internal and international migration pressures due to more frequent and intense wildfires, floods and droughts as well as recurrent public health emergencies including pandemics?
Implications for human, national, and global security
National and international crisis preparedness policymaking will need to take a systemically integrated and forward-looking view of global challenges such as pandemics and climate change. When it’s unmistakably clear, as it is now, that the health of societies determines the health of the world economy, can the realization be far behind that the health of the natural environment similarly impacts everything? Recognition of this interdependence has sweeping implications for educational curricula and conventional measures of growth and productivity, as well as for nation-centric Cold War era practices of requiring nearly all security-related issues to be handled secretly.
In the world as it is becoming, with tens of millions of people compelled to migrate to escape hunger and poverty exacerbated by climate change, conflict, and disease, what will concepts of peace and a “just society” entail? Will public engagement in open and transparent knowledge-sharing networks be a feature of the needed new security arrangements? Can we simply proceed with the metrics and institutional norms established in the pre-pandemic era despite our new, greater awareness?