What can be done to prevent global epidemics such as coronavirus? (III place)


For many, the last day of the year is a day of hope and excitement for the future. On 31 December 2019, medical staff in the Chinese city of Wuhan reported treating dozens of cases of pneumonia, with no obvious cause to link the cases. The first weeks and months of the new decade would see the rapid spread of a new virus that, at the time of writing (which will be woefully out of date when you read this) has infected 120,000 and killed 4,300, which escalates hourly. Cities and economies have been shut down in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus. Travel bans restrict international movement and quarantines placed on ships and hotels contain infected victims. The panic buying began, somewhat comically, with toilet rolls, and shops are responding with restrictions.

What is the cost of this response? It is likely will we never know, but the stock markets lost over $6,000 billion in just one week at the start of the crisis and keep dropping to lows not seen since the 2008 financial crash. Whilst traders are prone to the same paranoia and fallibility as loo-roll preppers, it is an indication of the disruption to global supply chains, the cautiousness of consumer spending and time lost to illness or death. The question isn’t what can be done to stop global epidemics such as the coronavirus, but rather, what can we afford to do.

How much would you spend to save a life? The answer probably depends on who’s life that is. You would probably sell every item you own and then some if it meant saving a child, partner or loved one. Our reluctance to give to charity suggests our sacrifice would be markedly less for a stranger living on the other side of the world. It sounds like a philosophical question, but there is, depressingly, a quantifiable answer. To the individual, a life is infinitely valuable – in fact, it is the only thing we truly own. But governments and organisations have limited budgets and need to rationalise the value of a life based on productivity towards an economy. A statistically-derived number helps guide investment and spending on things like safety engineering, medical treatment and public health initiatives. Initiatives such as responses to epidemics. What is the value of a life? (look away now if you don’t need an existential crisis).

Between $2-4 million.

This does vary with age; older people have already made their contributions to society and are, economically-speaking, worth less; Americans are seemingly worth more, but that is only because of the extortionate healthcare costs that are best avoided.

When deciding where to dedicate resources, governments weigh up the cost to productivity against the cost of a life. Like any project, the earlier you invest and make changes, the greater the benefits down the line. Instead of the cripplingly expensive response of shutting businesses, public spaces and even cities, we should instead look to the source of the epidemics, to see if there is a more cost-effective way of combating them. In this case, as with many other epidemics that are a result of virus crossing the species barrier, we need to look at the Chinese Wet markets, where a wide variety of live animals are in close proximity to large numbers of handlers, sellers and customers. The resulting contact of humans with respiratory droplets, faeces or body fluids from live animals, or the carcasses or raw meat of dead animals each year provides millions – if not billions – of opportunities for new strains of coronavirus, influenza or other viruses to make their way into humans. If there were no wet markets, the risk of COVID-19 mutating into a form that infects humans would be far far smaller. In fact, eradication of all intensive farming would reduce the exposure of thousands of animals in close proximity and with humans. It is up to society to decide whether the costs of epidemics are a price we are willing to pay for cheap meat and a diminishing agricultural sector for employment. Attempts to close the markets after the SARS and MERS epidemics drove them underground and so a more effective response should be better regulation.

Once the dust has settled and we count the cost of this tragic epidemic, we will realise that coronavirus is just one of many public health issues we face. Relatively speaking, it isn’t our biggest threat. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that a whopping 2.8 million people die each year from obesity-related health problems, yet it doesn’t enjoy the media coverage. Cities aren’t implementing reverse-quarantines, where people are forced out from their homes to go for a walk and we don’t see incentives for healthy eating or lifestyles. Quite the opposite. Our cities build more roads, encouraging sedentary behaviour, instead of investing in cycle lanes and walking to enable an active lifestyle. The transport department for London, a city of 9 million people (or between $18 and 36 quadrillion in value-of-life terms) invests a paltry $500 million each year in healthy modes of transport. If obesity isn’t sensationalist enough for you, then we can add drama with climate change. Frequent flooding, storms and pollution cost incalculable numbers of lives every year, but still will fly and drive, we pollute, we throw away, we live a generally accepted unsustainable lifestyle.

We cannot stop epidemics. The human race is a biological system that has successfully learned to adapt to survive. Viruses are equally successful at adapting to our adaptations in order to survive. As a society, we need to make decisions as to what cost we will pay to save lives. Coronavirus is lining the pockets of media outlets and giving traders opportunity to profit. There are more pressing health concerns that aren’t sexy or sensationalist, but let’s first question our actions and their consequences before fixating on external problems beyond our control.

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