COVID-19: The Learnings for Humanity

September 29, 2020

By Key Correspondent with the Irish Global Health Network, Dr. Sebastian Kevany, MA MPH PhD 

What, after what will perhaps be regarded as the greatest crisis of the 20th century so far, has humanity actually learned – what has nature, though some of its bluntest possible instruments, attempted to teach us?  Whether a product of human agency or purely natural, in all disasters – whether it is learning to develop early warning systems or resettle from low lying areas after Tsunamis, or adapting construction and city planning in earthquake-prone areas – there is always, inevitably, a message that nature is trying to convey.

To ignore these suggestions would be arrogant in the extreme:  should humanity assume that it is protected evermore from future epidemic threats because of our current response efforts, we may regret such hubris.  Even without second waves of infection, the pathways and mechanisms for the rapid spread of new forms of epidemic disease around the world in very short time periods are now clear.  

Thus — on the biggest possible picture level — what has humanity discovered that it has been doing wrong?  The throw-away argument is that the lesson nature is teaching us is that there are too many of us: that this is a natural cull, to control human population.  Yet the realities are far more subtle and nuanced than such unfounded and irrational messaging, which merely encourages us to do nothing.  There were, some readers may recall, related arguments put forward in favour of the HIV/AIDS epidemic: as some commentators watched the death tools mount, they were confident that, in the long term, it was the right thing — a lesser evil, for a greater good. 

Rather, too much high density living might be one fair and acceptable message we can all accept and work with: with growing population levels around the world, along with increasing urbanization and rural depopulation, humans are living in closer quarters, on a routine basis, than ever before.  Will the revolution in remote working, combined with more widespread recognition of the public health risks of urban life, thus spur a more even distribution of us between city and countryside in future?

In the same way, what has nature now told us about, say, packed commuter trains: about intense flows of humans, whether in cars or on buses, converging with their schedules, at the same time of day?  These practices were inherently unhealthy in themselves — even without infectious disease concerns.  Yet, because perhaps of their gradual increase, such experiences became an accepted part of the status quo — despite our gradual realization of how unpleasant, occasionally degrading, and even inhumane such experiences could be.

Too much laissez-faire and often careless international travel, by us all, is a further possible lesson from nature that we perhaps cannot afford to ignore.  This has implications, also, for climate change and other pollution and resource extraction and consumption considerations — all of which have been a product of the most mobile and industrial period of humanity’s history.  Again, can technology, along with behavior change, come to the rescue — have we seen the curtain coming down on an era in which travel was almost always the first, rather than the last, option for international endeavours?

Too little attention to health security has, perhaps, been a further lesson for humanity – an unwillingness to put in place those inconvenient measures, at air and sea and other ports, that would routinely protect populations from the spread of epidemic diseases.  Despite the efforts of some academic groups and United Nations bodies, the reality is that we have never appreciated, in our daily lives — until now — the importance of using borders to control epidemics.  At best, such considerations previously arose in knee-jerk ways, in times of Ebola outbreaks – an extemporaneous strategy, which has let us all down, badly, in recent months.

Put another way, have our borders actually now reached a stage where they have gone from being too hard, to too soft — is there, bizarrely and ironically, actually some logic to neo-isolationist thinking in the public health and epidemic context?  As with any realm, there is a sweet spot for health borders in which they are neither too rigid nor too loose; a situation in which necessary travel for personal, business or leisure purposes functions adequately and safely – but a lot of unnecessary, dangerous, and wasteful movement does not.

There are many other considerations and possible lessons, as well.  The pressing need for a more virtual existence for work and commerce — even for the daily means of survival, as supermarket shopping lists are transacted online — may also, in the long run, serve both to highlight and curtail our collective abuse and misuse of the internet.  When people are living (as we have been) in an increasingly virtual environment for practical purposes, the concept of spending more time online for recreational purposes becomes, perhaps, less enticing.  In a similar way, possibly, cars were once regarded as leisure instruments, before they became mere workhorses.

We have also perhaps learned of another dimension of our internet use that may need correction: not just the belief that the technical landscape is an all-powerful panacea, but that what we read online is necessarily true.  Neve before has a public health — or perhaps any — issue garnered such online attention.  Communications, collaborations, and vital messaging have been facilitated, but the costs are equally significant:  the abounding misinformation, uninformed commentaries, conspiracy theories, and other malign effects of instant, round-the clock news saturation.  In truth, only academia (and even then only a subset of publications) and verified statistics can be trusted – yet, too often, the interpretation of such information is only possible by those experienced in the field.  Even the respected broadsheet media have perhaps succumbed to hype and sensationalism:  unquestioning trust in what we read has, perhaps for the good, now been irreversibly questioned.

An inattention to personal hygiene might also be a lesson for 21st century humanity.  In the millennial era, we have had much less concern for the old traditions of washing hands on a regular basis than, perhaps, there was a generation ago: freed from the spread of most epidemic diseases in developed countries, there was a corresponding decline in preventive measures. The lesson is a simple one: without personal hygiene once again instituted an integral part of human behavior, epidemic risks increase.

And what of other concerns – what of racism?  From the catastrophic overlap of epidemic and racial problems which arose the in the United States, perhaps a further lesson may be derived:  that humanity cannot afford to live with racial tensions that can spill over in to epidemic problems, if time and place coincide.    Such a series of events, each of which compounds the other, quickly turns public health emergencies in to complex humanitarian emergencies; public health becomes exponentially harder to manage when it is accompanied by such tensions.

Turning to the political realm, should the heads of state that we elect now be evaluated based on the their response to public health threats, rather than single-issue politics such as European Union membership or national geographical unity? Likewise, should critical positions such as leadership of the World Health Organization and its related departments be determined based solely on expertise, rather than nominations on the basis of regional origin?

And the list of possible lessons that nature may be attempting to teach us goes on: a need to move away from the brain-drain of scientists in to tech and finance; a need for robust public health systems.  The more generalized risks of increasingly polarized societies may also be revealed based on a need to pay more attention to socio-economic patterns of disease: the need for the enforced end of the live animal trade, in the Far East and elsewhere, has unquestionably been highlighted.    We have learned that the term ‘emergency’ is inappropriate for climate change concerns when compared to epidemic risks; we have been shown the need to reconsider our frantic pace of life; felt a need to move away from celebrity culture, and the social congestion it creates: all of these are possible lessons for humanity to learn.

But perhaps the most significant lesson that nature may be trying to teach us is that, despite our borders and health security measures, no country or community on earth is any longer an island. No matter how hard we try, and how unpleasant it may be, we now live in an irreversible era of global coexistence — therefore demanding of us unprecedented levels of cooperation, if for no other reason than enlightened self-interest.  In tis way, nature has reminded us of our limited power — despite all our industrial, agricultural, artistic, technological and other achievements — over organic global forces.  Our sense of unrivalled domination and control has been rudely shocked:  we have, as a famous football manager once remarked, been at least temporarily knocked off our perch.

A final related ethical-philosophical question is what needs to be retained, in terms of our behavior change, from our individual and collective experiences. In Ireland, it was unfortunate to see rush-hour commuter traffic jams returning as the epidemic abated during the summer months.  Should humanity revert to its pre-pandemic status quo, a repeat of the events of 2020 will inevitability occur: we have thus already seen that a wholesale return to old ways is inappropriate.  Even with vaccines now on our immediate horizon, the cliché that those who ignore the mistakes of history are destined to repeat them has never been more apposite. 

If humanity chooses to revert to the pre-epidemic status quo, the same events will inevitably recur.  Fortunately, for many, the so-called ‘new normal’ is not such a bad thing: cutting down on unnecessary or optional car and long distance travel, thereby reducing pollution and road safety; reducing consumption and consumerism — and thus unnecessary shipping and air transport improving ocean and air quality: the list goes on. We have seen, also, not just threats to, but also improvements in, physical and mental health as people stay out of pubs, exercise more, understand that smoking is more dangerous than ever, and appreciate nature more and more.  These are perhaps just some of the behavioural changes that nature is exhorting us to – nay, insisting that –we maintain.


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