Modelling work based on historical data shows that, for many of us, coronavirus is not the last pandemic we’ll live through. Covid-19 is not even the only pandemic of recent decades. In the last twenty years alone, we’ve seen an outpouring of epidemiological events.
Recent pandemics have ranged from infectious, neglected tropical diseases to non-communicable diseases. These include the 2001 Anthrax outbreak, the 2003 SARS outbreak, the 2009 H1N1 (Swine Flu) pandemic, the 2014 Ebola Crisis across West Africa, and the 2015 Zika outbreak across Latin America—and that’s a non-exhaustive list.
Many people seem to forget that prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, pandemics remained commonplace, particularly for people living in the Global South. We are still, for example, living through a cholera epidemic that started in Indonesia in 1961 and has re-emerged across Asia, the Middle East, and Africa over the course of each decade, continuing to this day. The 1990s saw cholera outbreaks also take hold in South America for the first time in more than a century. And the HIV/AIDS epidemic is still far from over.
Pandemic risk is largely underestimated, and actions to prepare for outbreaks are grossly underinvested in. The continued insistence on a ‘return to normal’ post-Covid places that risk at a higher significance. In reality, the fact is that despite huge scientific and medical advances, today, the potential for diseases to spread is increasing—not helped by the sustained investment into systems of global capitalism.
Where the Risk Comes From
Different factors can influence the likelihood of an infection becoming a full-blown pandemic. One is the rate of animal-to-human virus transmission, which is increasing. Over the last thirty years, seventy-five percent of emerging diseases have been zoonoses.
Like the Covid-19 virus, other pathogens are emerging out of the circuit of production. Some of these pathogens exist on the axis of industrial agriculture, which, by cutting into the forest, increases the interface between the wildlife that forms those pathogens’ natural reservoir and local livestock and/or workers. For example, new strains of avian flu circulate in wild birds across the world every year. Industrial agriculture produces genetically similar livestock, like poultry, by the thousands. This makes it easier for pathogens to infect and mutate when no line of immunity exists.
That means the same factors driving the climate crisis, particularly ecological destruction, are directly linked to a higher risk of pandemic. Encroachment into ‘virgin forests’ for mining and timber can expose humans to pandemic-prone pathogens like Ebola. Rising temperatures enable mosquitoes, ticks, and other disease-carrying insects to proliferate, adapt to different seasons, and invade new territories. Flooding due to extreme weather creates new breeding grounds for mosquitoes, too, making the spread of neglected tropical diseases like dengue fever more likely. As a result, the low-income countries that experience the worst of the climate crisis are also the ones disproportionately affected by infectious disease spill-over events.
The situation is not helped by the changing landscape of healthcare provision. Healthcare workers are among those migrating across borders, and particularly out of the Global South, often as a result of social, economic, and political instability facilitated and maintained by countries in the Global North. This ‘brain drain’ means countries most affected by future pandemics may lack the resources to deal with them.
Underpinning these processes is the focus on profit maximisation. Agribusiness is pitted against global public health and the wellbeing of the planet—and the former maintains the upper hand. To avoid spill-over infections, then, countries globally should abandon the business model on which much industrial agriculture is being produced and look toward treating agriculture as a natural economy.
The Next Pandemic
Global healthcare experts have suggested the next pandemic will come from the coronavirus or influenza families. Other possible culprits include viruses that sit under the Neglected Tropical Diseases subheading, such as the West Nile virus, filoviruses such as the Ebola virus, and alphaviruses known to associate with a number of human encephalitis diseases. Like Covid-19, the pandemics that could occur from these pathogens would not occur in silos—in turn, they also increase the likelihood of pandemics of non-communicable illnesses, like mental health issues.
Risk is constantly evolving. The best way to prepare is to build up public health infrastructure, reliable data, and medical countermeasure capacity for everyday use, especially in the most vulnerable countries. The pandemic preparedness groups of the Global North, like the EU Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority, do not have parallels with the same level of resourcing in Latin America, Asia, or Africa, despite the fact that for countries with weaker public health systems, preparedness is literally the difference for between life and death.
It’s now been more than two years since Covid-19 first emerged in late 2019, and countries globally have failed to come together with a cohesive response to the virus. Instead of protecting the most vulnerable populations, countries have pursued vaccine nationalism in order to protect their own interest. The resulting vaccine apartheid alone is enough to highlight is the social vulnerability that stems from health systems that prioritise monopoly-owned capital. Only the pursuit of an alternative, founded independent from political manipulation, can demonstrate a commitment to global health care and create a defence against future pandemics.
Globally, we need a joint pandemic preparedness ecosystem—one that is not dependent on profits, and one that streamlines regulatory processes in ways that this time around, governments have failed to do. Future solutions must account for the interconnected nature of the effects of capitalism on the climate, on our livelihoods, and especially, on our health.