“It feels like another age now, although it is only a matter of months ago. On Hampstead Heath, I was in a packed, sun-warmed tent, with the bar beside it buzzing. The term “social distancing” had yet to be invented and I was talking about science at the How the Light Gets In festival…
One of the things I enjoy about debates is the way you can bounce off other speakers, rather than use the familiar approaches that inevitably dominate in an individual’s talks.
Animal metaphors aren’t usually my thing, but another speaker started the pattern, and I ran with it, with a trope that now feels uncomfortably prophetic.
I talked about science as a magnificent lion, head of his pride, stalking the forest, but pointed out that he could be felled by the small beast in the forest, bacteria on a thorn, should that bacteria have acquired antimicrobial resistance.
It was perhaps stretching the metaphor, but I of course thought back to it as the coronavirus crisis took hold.
The human world, with all its science and knowledge, has been brought to its knees by a microscopic bundle of fats and proteins, not even properly alive, of which we still have scant understanding
The ancient Greeks were well aware of hubris as a dangerous characteristic of human beings, but that is a lesson that we have had to learn again.
We knew about the risk of pandemics – it was at the top of security agendas – but we did very little to prepare or reduce the risks, and not just in the obvious matters of stocks of medical equipment and development of vaccines (research on vaccines for the two coronavirus warnings that we had in SARS and MERS stopped when the immediate threat passed).
We also created societies, particularly in the UK and US, that are economically and socially vulnerable, in which many millions of households live perpetually financially on the edge of disaster, as do huge numbers of businesses. Profit-maximisation is king, resilience left for the birds.
Of course, there’s a lot of focus now on one particular vulnerability that SARS-CoV-2 has highlighted, and that is wet markets. One in Wuhan is thought to have been linked to the start of the global pandemic.
Calling for the complete closure of these is obvious and easy, although not necessarily the best way forward. They exist because huge numbers of people, and businesses, in the world still operate without refrigeration, and there are other microbial risks with food in those circumstances. And having written, many years ago, a piece for Bangkok TimeOut on the market in bear bile, I know just how crime-filled and wealthy such a trade is, and how difficult to shut down.
And there’s a risk that this is a distraction from the enormous microbial threat in all of our backyards, from factory farming.
The H1N1 swine flu epidemic of 2009 was linked to factory farming, and with little attention an animal disease, African Swine Fever, is still sweeping around the globe with massive impacts. Having led to the death of up to a quarter of the enormous Chinese herd, it is also established in Europe.
The swine flu epidemic was bracketed by SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012, and multiple outbreaks of Ebola (the latest still sadly rumbling along in Congo).
Viruses (and bacteria) will keep crossing the species barrier and will emerge from animal reservoirs into human populations. That’s simply a biological fact.
As is the rapid growth and spread of resistance to antibiotics, they are absolutely essential to human medicine. Yet 75% in the US and EU are used in agriculture, producing, of course, resistant microbes that are a further massive health threat.
We can reduce the risks of the microbial world to which we have all now been reminded we are intensely, acutely vulnerable. But the current food system instead multiplies those risks hugely. That has to change, just as we have to rethink the entire fragile structures of our economies.”
Natalie Bennett, Green House of Lords member, @natalieben