For the past year and a bit, the world has been gripped by COVID’s nexus of fear, anxiety, and conflict about the disease itself and the social and economic fallout around it. Now, as the world starts to peep out from the blanket of lockdown amid vaccination rollouts and talk of COVID passports as a must for those wishing to travel, clever minds are beginning to grapple with the actual cost of the pandemic. There seems little consensus, however, other than whichever way you look at it, the world has taken a punishing body blow. And there may well be more to come given all the predictions of third waves and the emergence of several genetic variants of the virus.
The only glimmer of anything positive is that COVID has been a brutal reminder of our dysfunctional relationship with Nature and that this has forced us to confront a brutal truth: our planet can no longer support our profligate ways. During this period of human confinement, Nature has given countless examples of how quickly it can recover when allowed to breathe. But the nasty reality is that this won’t continue, for the immediate cost of repairing our economies will claim every dollar that can be printed, and there will be little left in the purse to address the root cause, the consumption of wildlife and the habitats that support it.
I am 72 years old, and I admit that I remain fearful of COVID. I’m not consumed by fear of the virus and the nasty effect it can have on our bodies, but I do feel an unsettling vulnerability. For the past year, I have seldom ventured far from my home, I do almost all my shopping online, and I’ve had very little face-to-face contact with human beings outside of my immediate family. But, notwithstanding regular contact with those closest and dearest to me, the remarkable inventions of Skype, Zoom, and WhatsApp, and the constant companionship of my dog and cat, at times I feel a deep loneliness. I know I’m not alone in this, that billions of elderly people worldwide are similarly affected, and that, comparatively, I am truly fortunate to enjoy a very comfortable life. However, a pang of nagging guilt nibbles at my shoulder, telling me I should be ashamed at my moments of grumpy ingratitude. And, I guess I’m not alone in that either.
I am also fearful of the effect COVID is having on our society at large. It is one thing for an older person to feel isolated and lonely, but even without the virus, those emotions are present. Maybe not as intensely felt as now, but still around as an inevitable process of aging and the contemplation of life mostly lived. But now we hear of a disproportionate increase in psychiatric disorders in young people who face deep insecurities around household income, fear of elderly parents and grandparents being hospitalized or dying, isolation from physical contact with friends, interruption of education…the list goes on.
In South Africa, for example, there was a 30 percent increase in maternal deaths at the height of the 2020 lockdown. None resulted directly from the disease, but rather because of resource and service failures, including delays in referral and appropriate medical intervention, a lack of available expertise and hospital beds, and crucially the transport availability to take pregnant women to the hospital. South Africa has not been alone in experiencing serious issues around pregnancy and childbirth; in Nepal, stillbirths increased by 40 percent and neonatal deaths three-fold. Again, these are not deaths due to the disease itself but rather from the knock-on societal stresses resulting from lockdown strategies.
To these sad, birth-related statistics, we also have to add rampant unemployment in most parts of the world—annual estimates confirm that global labor markets were disrupted on a historically unprecedented scale in 2020, with a massive loss of 255 million full-time jobs. With a loss of income, of course, comes increasing poverty and the real risk of starvation in many developing world environments. Furthermore, a chilling article in BBC Future states: “From a famine of ‘biblical’ proportions to a deluge of undiagnosed cancers, while we’re all worried about the coronavirus, most fatalities could be collateral damage.”
The same article warns of patients being denied cancer care, kidney dialysis, and urgent transplant surgeries. At the same time, disruptions to the control of diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria could alone result in deaths on a similar scale to COVID itself. Illnesses such as cholera could wreak even greater havoc. A particularly black irony is that while the world races to vaccinate citizens against COVID, the WHO reckons that disruptions to existing vaccination programs have put at least 80 million children under the age of one at risk of Diptheria, polio, and measles.
Estimates of the cost of covid to the global economy vary wildly. The Visual Capitalist puts the cost to the US economy alone at as much as US$16.2 trillion, while the Centre for Risk Studies at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School sets the global cost as high as $82 trillion over five years.
So, with all these vast amounts of money being bandied about and the associated appalling human collateral damage, was the global strategy of economic shutdown together with individual isolation, mask-wearing, and social distancing the correct one?
One person who certainly believes it wasn’t is South African Nick Hudson, the co-founder of PANDA, a global think tank comprising actuaries, accountants, economists, and other professionals. He and his colleagues contend that the draconian lockdown reaction to covid has been out of all proportion. Furthermore, they suggest that we have been duped by rampant misinformation championed by the nakedly-profiteering alliance of Big Pharma, Big Tech, who control a narrative of fear through a compliant media. In his keynote address, The Ugly Truth about the Covid-19 Lockdowns, at the inaugural Bisnews Investment Conference in March, he stops short of calling the alignment of these powerful agents a conspiracy. But he does speak of them in terms of a “convergence of incentives” that are placing “civilization under threat.”
PANDA champions The Great Barrington Declaration signed by a group of infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists who “have grave concerns” about prevailing COVID-19 policies. Their recommendation is the practice of “Focused Protection.” The premise is “that because older people were 1000 times more likely to die of covid-19 than younger people, an ‘age stratified’ approach could allow resources to be focused on older and high-risk patients, while allowing younger and healthier people to attend school and keep businesses open.” This strategy, they say, would reduce the “collateral harms” of lockdown, including deaths from suicides, reduced childhood immunization, and increases in domestic violence.
Are they right about this and the cynical venality of Big Pharma and Big Tech? I honestly don’t know. Deep down, however, and in the longer term, I can’t help but feel they’re all barking up the wrong tree. The long-term debate should not be about how we should or shouldn’t contain the disease and others like it that will probably follow. We should be dealing with the cause.
I’ve heard the advent of COVID-19 described as the opening of Pandora’s Box, but I challenge that. Lifting the lid of her jar indeed released great and unexpected troubles into the world, but COVID was not unexpected. For decades we’ve known about zoonotic diseases and how they leap from other animals across to humans. Until we address the way we relate to Nature by trafficking and eating creatures we should not consume in the first instance, we will reap successive waves of COVID-like diseases or worse. And no matter the strategy of containment, it will cost huge amounts of money and millions of lives.
To illustrate the point, Dr. Christian Walzer, chief global veterinarian of the Wildlife Conservation Society, had this to say: “Some 60 percent of emerging infectious diseases reported globally are zoonoses, causing about 1 billion cases of human illness and millions of deaths every year. Of the more than 30 new human pathogens detected in the last three decades, 75 percent have originated in animals. Importantly, research has shown zoonotic-origin pathogens increase along the supply chain from source to market.”
Early today I received my weekly newsletter from WWF international. “Protect Nature to Prevent Pandemics,” reads the headline.
But will we?