At the turn of the decade, we saw the emergence of the first case of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Millions of cases later, the world is almost unrecognizable. The global pandemic has changed the way we live; lockdown restrictions have relegated most people to work or learn at home, border closures have made travelling a thing of the past, and we have a heightened sense of personal safety with masks and social distancing front of mind each time we step outside. It has also caused the stock market to plummet and widespread job loss, not to mention the millions suffering from illness and the resulting deaths. Currently, it is difficult to see a world that is unaffected by COVID-19 and the damage it has caused. However, we cannot let this suffering be in vain. We must utilize this time to reflect on how society is run and come together to affect meaningful global change, for humanity improves not during idyllic times, but under conditions that strain the very fabric of our existence.
The world has gone through many events so impactful that they have shaped generations, yet we have survived each one and the lessons learned from them transformed society. World War I highlighted the importance and capabilities of women in the workforce, earning them the right to vote shortly after the war. From the Great Depression came government programs designed to help those most heavily impacted, including pension plans, unemployment insurance, and government care for children and people with disabilities. World War II drove the development of new technologies, many of which form the backbone of modern society. Tragedy forces us to set aside our differences and work together for survival. In his book entitled Epidemics and Society, Frank M. Snowden explains how pandemics “hold a mirror to society”, forcing us to examine our relationship to our own morality, as well as the relationships we have with our environment and the people around us.1 It is still too early to say what changes the COVID-19 pandemic will bring, but this kind of introspection allows us to leverage these stressful and dire conditions for the betterment of the future of mankind.
The most obvious improvement resulting from COVID-19 is in our response to infectious diseases. This pandemic will change the way we think about public health, identifying what works well and the pitfalls to avoid. The world was unprepared for a crisis of such magnitude with many nations slow to respond and a plethora of misinformation and fear-mongering in the media. Millions have already died due to COVID-19; although it is currently difficult to estimate the exact mortality rate, it appears to be lower than previous pandemics, e.g., the case fatality rate of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) were 10% and 36%, respectively.2 If COVID-19 had a similar level of mortality and we were as unprepared as we were, the consequences would have been unimaginable. This is not a baseless hypothetical; research suggests that increased contact between humans and animals through the massive expansion of agriculture, deforestation, and farming creates a “perfect storm” for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people.3 Diseases originating in animals (known as zoonotic diseases) have already impacted humans, e.g., novel influenza A (H1N1), avian flu, Ebola, SARS, MERS, and COVID-19, and similar outbreaks could become more common. The lessons we learn in this pandemic, such as wearing face masks, early lockdown measures, widespread testing implementation, contact tracing, and rapid vaccine development may be the difference between nipping a future virus in the bud and another pandemic with levels of mortality akin to the Bubonic Plague.
If pandemics hold a mirror to society, then inequality is reflected back. While some say that COVID-19 does not discriminate, data shows that it disproportionately affects minority populations and people of low socioeconomic status.4 Minority populations make up a large proportion of essential workers who, ironically, often have low wages, e.g., grocery workers, public transportation employees, healthcare workers, and custodial staff.4 Many individuals cannot afford to stay at home in the absence of earning an income and must put their own health and the health of the public at risk in order to survive. People from marginalized groups are also more likely to live in crowded housing, have preexisting health problems, and have poor access to healthcare, further exacerbating the risk and severity of infection.4 These problems existed before COVID-19, but the increased focus on public health shines a spotlight on them brighter than ever before. The knowledge that marginalized populations carry the heaviest burden of the pandemic has pushed the issue of structural and racial inequalities over the tipping point and into the collective consciousness of the media, government, and society. The wrongful killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department in May 2020 galvanized the world into action, which included the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Unfortunately, this was not the first instance of such a tragedy and yet none before sparked outcry quite like this one. The new world under the COVID-19 pandemic has left little room for complacency regarding increasing inequality; with all eyes on the internet, major social movements are made more enduring and widespread.
Possibly the largest global crisis besides COVID-19 is climate change. However, as countries went into lockdown, industrial and manufacturing sectors slowed down, and road and air transportation came to a halt, causing pollution to decrease by nearly 30%.5 Pollution has been directly linked to mortality and the reductions we have seen, even if only for a few months, have the potential to save thousands of lives.6 While promising, the exact impact of lockdown on the environment is not yet clear. With many countries beginning to re-open, causing a rise in greenhouse gas emissions back to regular levels, downstream effects on the climate and levels of pollution are likely to be small.7 COVID-19 will not directly solve climate change, but it may be the catalyst we need to turn the tides in our fight against global pollution. The temporary reduction in emissions proves to the world that environmental change is possible, however small. Governments and policy makers can use this as a test and take the lessons learned from this natural experiment to develop sustainable changes toward reducing our carbon footprint. We have a unique opportunity while recovering from a pandemic to rebuild and strengthen not only our public health and the healthcare system, but the energy and transportation industries to build a better future.
Life during the pandemic has been a trying time for us all; social isolation is causing a strain on mental health, work and school life are unpredictable, and we must constantly protect ourselves against a threat we cannot see. However, COVID-19 has forced us to critically examine society and highlighted the most pressing issues. When we eventually emerge from this crisis, the world will be a different place. It is up to us today to turn a dire situation into an opportunity to affect meaningful and long-lasting change for a better tomorrow.
Edited by Sarah Richter & Emily Mastragostino
1. Snowden FM. Epidemics and society: from the black death to the present: Yale University Press; 2019.
2. Lu L, Zhong W, Bian Z, Li Z, Zhang K, Liang B, et al. A comparison of mortality-related risk factors of COVID-19, SARS, and MERS: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Infection. 2020.
3. Settele J, Díaz S, Brondizio E, Daszak P. COVID-19 Stimulus Measures Must Save Lives, Protect Livelihoods, and Safeguard Nature to Reduce the Risk of Future Pandemics'. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services 2020.
4. Van Dorn A, Cooney RE, Sabin ML. COVID-19 exacerbating inequalities in the US. Lancet 2020;395(10232):1243.
5. Muhammad S, Long X, Salman M. COVID-19 pandemic and environmental pollution: a blessing in disguise? Science of The Total Environment. 2020:138820.
6. Burke M, Auffhammer M, Burney J, Hsiang S, Lobell D, Roberts M, et al. COVID-19 reduces economic activity, which reduces pollution, which saves lives. Available at www g-feed com/2020/03/covid-19-reduces-economic-activity html (last access: 2020-03-28). 2020.
7. Forster PM, Forster HI, Evans MJ, Gidden MJ, Jones CD, Keller CA, et al. Current and future global climate impacts resulting from COVID-19. Nature Climate Change. 2020;10(10):913-9.