Right now, the world is in turmoil. As the coronavirus rapidly spreads across the planet, it is natural to ask what we can do to prevent similar global epidemics from happening in the future. For instance, antibiotic-resistant superbugs are considered to be one of the major existential risks facing humanity. We can decrease this risk by simply using less antibiotics, especially within the farming industry – we currently give more antibiotics to farmed animals than we do humans. We can also develop new antibiotic drugs and increase surveillance of drug-resistant strains.
The problem with this way of thinking, however, is that it largely misses the point. Of course we should do everything we can to prevent the outbreak of global epidemics. But this isn’t all we should do. It’s easy to look around at the deaths and chaos caused by the coronavirus pandemic and ask how to stop future global epidemics at source. But, by and large, it is not viruses that kill people – systems do.
This is something sociologists know very well about natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes. When it comes to the devastation caused by an earthquake, it is infrastructure that matters. The 1989 earthquake in San Francisco was as big as the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City and the 1999 earthquake in Turkey. The latter earthquakes were ‘responsible’ for the deaths of thousands of people, and hundreds of thousands became homeless. Because of good infrastructure, the San Fransisco earthquake resulted in 63 deaths – still tragic, but considerably less tragic than it could’ve been if the systems weren’t in place to minimise its potential destruction.
We need to think about global epidemics in the same way we think about hurricanes and earthquakes. In our increasingly complex, globalised, interconnected world, pandemics may be an inevitable part of our future. But if we want to minimise their impact, we need to analyse the social systems they so readily disrupt and start to build resilience into those systems.
From the coronavirus pandemic, we will learn what strategies are best to deal with future outbreaks. Is it the more authoritarian, ‘massive lockdown’, responses of China and Singapore, or the more laissez-fair, ‘herd immunity’, approaches of the US and UK? Or somewhere in-between, like the ‘trace, test and treat’ method used in South Korea? Again, this is important, but it is only part of the picture. We need to look at the wider health, social and economic impacts caused by these strategies. How many citizens were left starving, or in further debt, as a result of losing their jobs? How many children had to spend more time in stressful and dangerous domestic situations during school closures? How many citizens turned to substance abuse to cope with the uncertainty and isolation experienced throughout, and after, the epidemic?
A major unprecedented event, such as the coronavirus pandemic, quickly reveals the cracks that already existed within the system. To avoid the mass disruption caused by such events, we cannot simply return to business as usual and concentrate on possible vaccines and tighter response measures. We can, instead, view these systemic weaknesses as opportunities for change. What has been revealed by the pandemic and how can we change our social systems to make them stronger? This is the concept of ‘anti-fragility’ – using negative events and shocks as opportunities to increase the overall resilience of a system, much like how our muscles grow stronger in response to the stresses of exercise. So, let’s not just ask how to prevent global epidemics such as coronavirus. Let’s ask how we can grow stronger in response to them.
One thing we have learned so far is that the state can act as a buffer to the major economic shocks caused by the pandemic. The Danish and Dutch governments have offered to pay up to 90% of people’s wages. The UK government has offered to pay up to 80%. Similar policies have been adopted in South Korea and other European countries. Political commentators are currently speculating whether these measures are just a temporary solution or if they are the beginning of a sea-change in how governments support their citizens through uncertain times. If we are to take the concept of anti-fragility – and the possibility of future global epidemics – seriously, we need to treat these national safety nets less like an emergency band-aid and more like an exercise regime that keeps our economies fit and healthy.
On a local level, we have seen some of the surprising benefits that economic security can provide. Local groups of volunteers around the globe have mobilised to help out members of their community, often with a focus on the most vulnerable. Simple acts, such as dropping off a neighbour’s shopping or providing much needed emotional support, can save lives. There is no reason why these social networks cannot continue well after the coronavirus pandemic is over. If anything, this crisis has shown just how much we can – and want to – help each other given the time and resources to do so.
By switching our focus – away from prevention towards resilient social systems – we can see global epidemics as issues of justice. The fact that an earthquake in New Mexico or Turkey can cause a hundred times more fatalities than an earthquake of the same size in San Fransisco is unacceptable. Similar injustices within nations will continue to occur if our social systems do not take on the lessons we are now learning from the coronavirus pandemic.
The global epidemic has taught us that we’re all in this together. What happens in one nation has ripple effects across the globe. To minimise the negative impact these ripples have on our societies, we can start to build the infrastructure and systems that help all of us stay resilient in the face of major health, social and economic disasters. More earthquakes and global epidemics are going to hit us, but the impact of these disasters needn’t be as bad as they could be.