This year has certainly not been a normal one. But then again, as science journalist Ed Yong elegantly put it, “Normal led to this”.
When trying to write this end-of-the-year post, I realised my words were not enough to describe the COVID-19 pandemic or its impact. So I borrowed an idea from science journalist Kai Kupferschmidt, who asked his twitter followers which were
the “pandemic quotes” they most remembered.
Many things have been said during these (painfully long) 12 months. But I have selected 10 statements that struck me- for better or for worse- and which may help illustrate
how the pandemic has unfolded and what may await us next. 1. “Normal led to this”, wrote Ed Yong, science journalist for The Atlantic, in August.
Our current model of economic growth has led to
increasing deforestation and loss of biodiversity, accelerated urbanization, intensive animal farming, global travel - all factors known to increase the risk of zoonotic viruses jumping to human hosts and spreading with alarming ease. Scientists and public health experts around the world have been warning us for many years that a pandemic caused by an unknown virus was not a matter of “if” but of “when”, and that we needed to prepare. But, as German virologist Christian Dorsten pointed out, “there is no glory in prevention”, and pandemic preparedness has not received the necessary resources or attention. Hopefully, this will change. Ultimately, the best way to reduce the risk of future pandemics is by avoiding a return to “business as usual”. As economist Mariana Mazzucato and others have been saying, it is time to rethink capitalism.
2. “Not liking the look of this”, tweeted Helen Branswell, science journalist for statnews, on January 2.
Unfortunately, she was right, even if at that time many of us believed unlikely that the handful of reported cases in Wuhan would become a full-blown pandemic of such magnitude. Alas, unlike SARS, which was successfully contained by isolating sick people, it turned out that this “new” coronavirus is highly transmissible (even by people who present no or few symptoms) and can remain airborne longer than thought. Although its lethality varies greatly across settings and ages, in average it kills
almost 1 out of every 100 infected people and may leave long-lasting sequelae in up to 1 out of 20 infected people. With over 75 million confirmed cases and 1.7 million deaths to date worldwide, there is no questioning its health impact.
3. "Be fast, have no regrets... If you need to be right before you move, you will never win”, said Mike Ryan, epidemiologist at WHO, in March.
Without any doubt, the countries that best succeeded in curbing the spread of the virus (and even eliminating it from their territory) were not necessarily those with more resources, but rather those who did not hesitate to implement aggressive measures to contain the virus (testing, contact tracing, isolating) or eventually control its spread (restricting mobility or closing businesses) as early as possible. Asian countries, building on their previous experience with SARS or other infectious diseases, were quick to react and implement contact-tracing procedures, while Western countries often “
floundered with this basic public health procedure”. And, as New Zealand’s government has so brilliantly demonstrated, the adoption of early and aggressive measures is much more successful when leaders show empathy and inspire trust.
4. “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear” repeated Donald Trump, President of the US, many times throughout this year.
Yes, well, it obviously didn’t. The United States has had one single wave with three major surges, each worse than the previous one, and some of its states have recently broken world records for number of new daily infections or deaths per capita. From the beginning, the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response has been guided by politics instead of by science.
5. “With COVID-19, we’ve made it to the life raft. Dry land is far away” said Marc Lipsitch, epidemiologist, in March.
The speed at which the virus spread took most of Europe by surprise. The first total lockdowns were like jumping from a sinking boat to the life raft. That was the “easy part”. Reaching land safely was trickier. Much time and energy were spent on discussing the best exit strategies. At the end, Europe’s second wave shows that it may be necessary to aim for more than simply keeping the virus in check. New Zealand and other Asian countries have shown that a
Zero-COVID strategy is possible. We are better prepared now to achieve this- we have faster tests for detecting infections and more knowledge on the settings that favour transmission. In addition, specific treatments and vaccines are not far away. As Wellcome Director Jeremy Farrar rightly summed it up: “Science is our exit strategy”.
6. “We, the poor, are immune to the coronavirus,” said Miguel Ángel Barbosa, governor of Puebla, Mexico, in March.
Few statements have been so outstandingly false and misleading. The pandemic has taken
a disproportionate toll on the underprivileged. Not only they are highly exposed to the virus (many are essential workers, do not have sick leave, and/or cannot telework), but they are also more likely to get severely sick (many do not have access to quality health care and have higher rates of chronic diseases that increase the risk of severe disease). In addition, they have suffered the most from the economic and social consequences of the lockdowns (children who cannot follow online schooling and a rise in domestic violence and teenage pregnancies, among others). A recent survey shows that three in four households suffered a decline in income, with 82% of poorer households affected. And this takes us to the next quote:
VIDEO 7. “This pandemic has magnified every existing inequality in our society – like systemic racism, gender inequality, and poverty,” said Melinda Gates in an interview in September.
In fact, every type of inequality –
gender inequality, racial inequality, income inequality- has been exposed and amplified during this pandemic. To cite some examples: In the US and the UK, Black, Asian, Latinx and other minority ethnic groups were two-four times more likely to die from COVID-19. People who live in deprived areas had higher diagnosis rates and death rates than those living in less deprived areas. In Spain, recent seroprevalence results show that women who work as cleaners or carers, as well as migrants, were more exposed to the virus than the general population. Borrowing a line by British writer Damian Barr: “We may be in the same storm, but we are in different boats”.
8. “Without equity, we cannot end COVID-19, HIV or any other pandemic”, wrote Peter Sands, from the Global Fund.
Inequity per se is a pandemic, and tackling it should become a priority at the national and global level. The question is whether we are ready to take the measures (including tax reforms and investment in public goods) that are required.
9. “This is evolving science. You are seeing sausages being made — in front of the world’s eyes,” said Yale vaccine researcher Saad Omer in December.
This recent comment referring to vaccine development clearly illustrates the speed at which science has progressed during the pandemic and the level of attention it has received. Six months ago, there were a handful of vaccine candidates in clinical trials.
Today, there are over 70, of which 15 are in phase 3 and two have been approved and deployed. Despite the incredible feat of going from a viral sequence to an approved vaccine in 11 months, the most difficult challenge still lies ahead: producing enough doses to vaccinate the world’s population, and distributing them – from the beginning - in a fair and equitable manner. The vaccine alone will not get us out of this crisis. We need solidarity (within and between countries) and we need trust (in the vaccine, in science, in institutions).
10. “Be safe, be smart, be kind”, said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General, in the first months of the pandemic.
This is the best take-home message I can think of for the coming holidays.
May next year bring an end to this pandemic and the beginning of a “not-so-normal” lifestyle in which we finally decide it is time to build
a fairer, more inclusive and sustainable society.