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Don’t Let This Crisis Go to Waste: The Danger of Treating Covid-19 as Endemic

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Is the pandemic becoming the new normal? There is a growing societal shift, intentional or otherwise, to classify the ongoing global public-health emergency as endemic. This threatens to relegate Covid-19 together with all other global challenges – from pollution to antimicrobial resistance to climate change – into the black hole of an endemic mindset, in a rush to return to social and economic normalcy. Instead, Christopher Lim and Diane Lim argue, the Covid-19 crisis should be regarded as a rare opportunity for a global reset that should not be allowed to go to waste.

Don’t Let This Crisis Go to Waste: The Danger of Treating Covid-19 as Endemic

Back in business: In the rush to return to social and economic normalcy, could the sense of urgency in dealing with Covid-19 and future pandemics diminish? (Credit: Cat Box / Shutterstock.com)

The Covid-19 pandemic has killed over 4 million people, disrupted businesses and impoverished wage workers on an unprecedented scale. Efforts to snuff out the virus are not giving governments cause for optimism as new, more aggressive and virulent variants are popping up in different parts of the world.

All the major vaccine producers have confirmed that none of the existing vaccines are able to prevent 100 percent of infections. Additionally, fully vaccinated individuals are not immune to asymptomatic infection and could potentially transmit Covid-19 to others who remain vulnerable.

It appears that the Covid-19 yoke is still weighing on the world despite 2.97 billion doses of vaccines administered globally thus far. Having been vaccinated should prevent individuals from getting seriously sick if they become infected. The duration of protection post immunization and when a booster may be required are yet unknown.

With the pandemic continuing to ravage communities around the world, in the US, the federal and state governments have sought to reboot the American economy and get back to business as usual – as soon as possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on May 28 released guidelines for fully vaccinated people to resume all activities without wearing masks or physically distancing in non-healthcare settings, despite acknowledging that Covid-19 is airborne and fine droplets and aerosol particles can remain in the air for hours.

The political and economic elites of the West have advocated the opening up of their economies in conjunction with the rollout of vaccines. At the same time, some of the powerful and influential elites have begun to accept – and have sought to prod people to understand – that Covid-19 will circulate in parts of the world for years to come. On May 31, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he believed the coronavirus would not disappear, but would instead “remain with humankind and become endemic”. He is far from being the only national leader to share this view.

New normal: Covid-19 "will remain with humankind and become endemic", says Singapore PM Lee

The danger of regarding Covid-19 as endemic is that it will legitimize the reduced responsibilities on the part of ruling elites – by reducing the pandemic from being a public-health crisis to a matter of personal-health liability.

To understand the implications of this mindset shift, we examine below how global leaders have been handling issues arising from goods and services introduced over the past few decades. This might enable the global community to make an informed decision on the repercussions of labelling Covid-19 as endemic, a new normal.

Miracle chemical gone deadly

Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, known as DDT was synthesized in the 1940s and in the following decade was hailed as a miracle chemical for eliminating typhus, malaria and other insect-borne diseases. In the US alone, it was estimated that more than 600,000 tons of DDT were used on crops and homes well before marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson released her 1962 book, Silent Spring, which helped prompt a reversal in national policy on pesticides.

DDT is known to be highly persistent in the environment, taking 2-15 years to achieve 50 percent degradation on land and 150 years in aquatic environments. The health impact of DDT can last for three generations or more and includes, but is not limited to obesity and renal/ovarian/testicular cancers.

Although DDT was banned by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1972, it was not until the introduction of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2004 that its use was restricted. DDT is still used indoors in some countries as a pesticide for mosquito control. In 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) advocated its use in African countries to fight against malaria. The impact of DDT on health has come to be accepted as endemic and not in need of further attention or prevention, rather than a compelling reason to cease its use completely.

Plastics pollution is a global problem affecting every country, including small and remote nations (Credit: mbeo)

Plastics pollution is a global problem affecting every country, including small and remote nations (Credit: mbeo)

The plastic explosion

Synthetic polymers, or plastics, were created by replacing substances in natural polymers with long chains of carbon atoms from petroleum and other fossil fuels. With its versatility and extensive list of desirable properties, plastic has become one of the most pervasive materials on the planet. It is used in every sector of the economy – biomedical, packaging, building, construction, textiles, consumer products, transportation, industrial machinery, electrical and electronics, among others. It is estimated that by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons in landfills or in the natural environment. Moreover, plastic disintegration in the sea is polluting the ocean with toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA), which can cause hormonal disruption to both humans and wildlife.

At every stage of its lifecycle, plastic poses distinct risks to human health, arising from both exposure to particles and associated chemicals. Due to the pervasiveness and the enormous economic interests of the plastic industry, the associated healthcare and financial costs to society are of similar proportions. Yet, global power elites are seemingly resigned to the plastic problem and classify this critical challenge facing all countries in the world, including the smallest and most remote nations, as just another endemic issue.

The ineffectiveness of antibiotics

Since antibiotics were first mass produced in 1940, they have saved an estimated 200 million human lives. Prior to their development, life expectancy for men was 46 years and 48 years for women in the developed West due to the prevalence of infectious diseases. The advent of these drugs has extended the average human lifespan by 23 years over the past century.

Antibiotic administration has extended from the treatment and prevention of bacterial infections in humans to livestock. In late 1948, Thomas Jukes found that adding trace amounts of antibiotics to chicken fodder increased their growth rate. It turned chicken into America's favorite protein and fed the world inexpensively in the post-war era.

Antibiotics overused: In the Philippines, government officials encourage farmers to let veterinarians administer antimicrobials (Credit: Mark Jaypee Gonzales/FAO)

Antibiotics overused: In the Philippines, government officials encourage farmers to let veterinarians administer antimicrobials (Credit: Mark Jaypee Gonzales/FAO)

Routine use of antibiotics throughout the agriculture industry has had an impact in a variety of areas including land use, international trade and the diet around the world. An estimated 70 percent of all antibiotics administered to livestock are for non-therapeutic purposes, though this has been banned by the EU since 2006. Economics, profits and poor management, including by health professionals, have resulted in the aggressive and inappropriate use of antibiotics in both humans and livestock, stimulating mutations in bacteria and other microbes. This has resulted in antimicrobial resistance (AMR) leading to the reduction of the effectiveness of drugs to cure or prevent infections even to the point of their becoming useless.

It has been estimated that 80-90 percent of the antibiotics ingested by both humans and livestock are not broken down and remain intact in the passage through the body and enter the environment as waste. There, they are also able to promote AMR even after they have entered the soil or water. This is a public-health crisis requiring urgent concerted global action but AMR is treated as an endemic situation that has been pushed further to the sidelines by the Covid-19 public-health crisis.

Endemic income inequality

Since the 2007-08 global financial crisis (GFC), governments and central banks had supported the global economy with economic stimulus that lasted a decade. They pledged to safeguard the economy and social wellbeing of citizens from the dysfunctions of the banking system. Covid-19 has disrupted the lives and livelihoods of people around the world, with the global economy shrinking by 4.3 percent in 2020, the worst recession worldwide since World War II.

Despite this, the Forbes World’s Billionaires List for 2021 marked a new record high of 2,755 billionaires, an increase of 660 from the previous year. It also found that their collective wealth saw a US$5 trillion increase over the year. Thirteen years on from the GFC, the disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street continues to be wider than ever.

Unless and until global leaders are willing to address the challenges posed by income inequality, the gap will only grow. It is unlikely that global regulatory agencies will be able to design effective policies and frameworks to separate speculators from genuine investors, given the fungibility and velocity of money, coupled with the dynamic power and influence of the “money-elite” and the short-term memory arbitrage culture of high-frequency traders. The political and economic elites of the West have seen no need for any serious interventions to address the endemic inequalities that the GFC or the Covid-19 pandemic have perpetuated. These have been allowed as an inevitable cost of economic growth.

With the surge in digitalization including such major computational tasks as Bitcoin mining, what are the consequences for energy use? (Credit: Marco Verch - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

With the surge in digitalization including such major computational tasks as Bitcoin mining, what are the consequences for energy use? (Credit: Marco Verch - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Climate change and the digital economy 

During the past 18 months, with the implementation of various forms of lockdowns in different countries around the world as a result of Covid-19, the digital or virtual economy has expanded, its growth accelerating, powered by the activities of the world’s political and business elites. Thus far, there has been no open discussion and debate about the implications of the increasing use of digital consumer and business applications to accomplish more computational tasks and the higher data storage demands and power consumption required.The end of Moore’s Law (the proposition that the number of transistors on a semiconductor chip doubles every two years) and the push for Industry 4.0 and 5G and now 6G networks around the world point to the implicit increase in the demand for energy-hungry data centers (factory of the future). Consider too the surge of interest in Bitcoin, which requires significant energy to mine. But what impact will this rise in energy use – presumably a new-normal condition – have on the existential crisis of climate change?

The danger of acquiring an endemic mindset

Given the ongoing upswings in the severity of the pandemic in countries across the world, including those that had previously handled the crisis well, one needs to question why global leaders and elites are shifting mindset and classifying Covid-19 as endemic all in an effort to return to social normalcy. It is obvious that none of the global issues described above are anywhere near being solved. Instead, they have dropped off from the international community’s agenda of pressing challenges. Pushed to the edge of the radar screen, they have been relegated to a black hole of endemic issues. The situation is not dissimilar to an individual with a fractured hip being advised to take two aspirins and carry on, with no prospect for meaningful treatment.

Adding to this tragedy of indifference is the geopolitical pecking order. Decisions and policy measures initiated and taken by the G7 collectively or by certain Western developed countries do reverberate in the Global South. But these emerging markets, due to population size, poverty and limited capacity, are often at the mercy of the major players in the “green room”, with policies formulated by them not necessarily bringing any real benefits or positive change to the developing economies. Indeed, they may even be harmed by the actions of the rich countries. As in the case with DDT, the plastic explosion, anti-microbial resistance and the financial inequalities driven by the GFC and the Covid-19 pandemic – all the decisions made by Western developed countries have had negative repercussions in the Global South.

Is the human race smart enough to face up to reality?

Humans are profoundly ignorant about the intertwined relationships among health, microbes and the ecosystems. Studies in sustainability science suggest human activities (lifestyle, agricultural and industrial activities) are damaging and challenging the microbial ecosystems. Microbes are responsible for producing critical elements – oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and sulfur – that support other life forms. These make possible the photosynthesis for the planet that is responsible for food production and decomposition. The microbes in humans facilitate digestion, essential Vitamin K production and immune system development, and make detoxification of chemicals in the body possible.

Will our selfish desire for the return of social economic normalcy edge us carelessly to destabilize planetary boundaries and alter the microbial world beyond the point of no return? Global wealth under the status quo will certainly flow disproportionally into the hands of the elites. As the earth becomes unlivable for most of its poorer inhabitants, however, this would remove a significant proportion of consumers and leave no human service providers for the elites.

Is there opportunity for a global reset? The Covid-19 crisis provides humanity with a unique opportunity to address all the pressing global issues highlighted above (including Covid-19) instead of adopting the endemic mindset and putting off tackling them. A new and immediate global reset would demand that we no longer put livelihood above lives and operate on the basis of a binary trade-off between economic benefits and humanity. It would be necessary to take on all these challenges together, acknowledging and understanding their linkages, how all the scientific and social problems the world faces are interconnected. Solutions will require an integrated approach that focuses on sustainability’s triple bottom line, namely, people, planet and profit.

It is a fallacy for the human race to think that a global public-health crisis or ecosystems disaster, whether man-made or natural, is but an everyday problem that can be dealt with in bits and pieces – in the manner of the proverbial can kicked down the long road to a calamitous end. If the human race is not up to the task despite all its intellectual firepower, then we are tragically worse off than the brainless single-cell slime molds that at least can actually solve problems and make intelligent decisions.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

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