The metaphor of war has come to permeate the way we talk about the COVID-19 pandemic. It began with a justifiably heroic view of our medical personnel, underequipped and undersupplied on the front …
The metaphor of war has come to permeate the way we talk about the COVID-19 pandemic. It began with a justifiably heroic view of our medical personnel, underequipped and undersupplied on the front lines of fighting a deadly virus. Then, as stay-at-home orders rolled out across the country, we expanded our definition of a frontline worker to include a range of food supply, service and delivery workers, many of whom are paid minimum wage but suddenly found themselves deemed essential, required to work while others sheltered safely. Now the wartime metaphor has morphed into an economic message as some of our leaders speak of “defending our way of life” as an excuse to rush the nation’s lowest-paid, least protected workers into unsafe work environments, and to prematurely end the social distancing measures that have averted a worse disaster. But a virus is not a sentient enemy. It can’t be shot down, beaten into submission or persuaded to negotiate a ceasefire. We should worry when politicians call us warriors and speak of accepting human casualties as the cost of doing business.
It’s time to find a different kind of language to talk about the pandemic—one that promotes preparedness, healing and resiliency based upon a deeper understanding of the natural world. Borrowing the language of climate action, this approach would focus on research, mitigation and adaptation, applying the perspectives of science and sustainability holistically across many sectors to learn everything we can about the virus and plan a practical, comprehensive, long-term strategy to protect our health, our systems and our economy.
Mitigation in the COVID-19 context means addressing the root causes of zoonotic or “spillover” diseases—illnesses that jump from animals to humans. Those causes include environmental degradation, loss of habitat due to human encroachment, which leads to unprecedented interactions between humans and wildlife, as well as the vogue for consuming exotic meats like those sold at the now-infamous “wet markets” in China where epidemiologists believe the virus originated. We can mitigate by, for example, supporting development strategies that preserve wildlife habitat and biodiversity through education about the zoonotic diseases, and through identification and rapid response to new viral hotspots.
We already have some excellent mitigation efforts in place. One Health, a multidisciplinary global initiative that recognizes the connections between human, animal and environmental health is supported by numerous medical, research and financial agencies around the world. The CDC established a One Health office in 2009, the year the One Health Commission, based in North Carolina, was chartered. U.S. participants include the American Medical Association, the American Veterinary Medical Association, USDA and the U.S. National Environmental Health Association. Last June, a bipartisan bill to support One Health was introduced in Congress, and last month, its supporters urged its inclusion in the CARES Act.
Another program, PREDICT, is a project of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Emerging Pandemic Threats program. Working to identify emerging infectious diseases in global hotspots, PREDICT identified more than 1,000 new viruses between 2009 and 2019, trained 5,000 people to do this work, and established or upgraded more than 60 research labs. The program was defunded by the current administration in February 2020 but granted an emergency allocation last month. On a grander scale, PREDICT’s founder Dennis Carroll has launched the Global Virome Project, which seeks to map the genomes of hundreds of thousands of viruses around the world to get a head start on the next possible pandemic. Robust funding and expansion of initiatives like these could save enormous expense and suffering down the road.
Adaptation measures designed to alleviate the effects that cannot be mitigated could be organized around the principle of “health in all policies.” Adaptation might focus first on improving baseline health outcomes across the board, starting by investing in our public health infrastructure and ensuring affordable access to everyone. Going deeper, we should address the problems of environmental pollution and substandard housing that contribute to coronary disease, COPD, asthma, hypertension, stress and other underlying conditions that have made COVID-19 more life-threatening for many patients. We can employ our knowledge of building science to improve indoor air quality through better ventilation and elimination of toxic materials, insulation, paints, adhesives and finishes. Public agencies and private organizations are already developing guidelines for adapting office settings to promote effective sanitizing and safe distancing practices, and we should speed the development of industry-specific techniques for safe operations in manufacturing settings. Innovation will be required as we work to restore our ability to gather safely for recreation, study and fellowship. We also need to encourage and strengthen the community networks that make an effective emergency response possible.
Buckminster Fuller said, “A problem adequately stated is a problem solved theoretically and immediately, and therefore subsequently to be solved, realistically.” Warlike metaphors may serve to galvanize action in the early stages of an emergency like COVID-19, but now we must pivot to problem-solving language that expresses what we want to build and how we plan to live. Framing our pandemic response in the principles and strategies of sustainability and effective climate action might help us draw upon our best knowledge and practices to build a better and safer world.