meIf you wanted to conduct an experiment on Earth to understand human behavior, the pandemic would be the perfect opportunity. In some people, the virus that causes Covid-19 has no symptoms. In others, it leads to fatal diseases. The virus pits the healthy against those with underlying health problems, and the young against the elderly. Infectious diseases can bring us together or separate us. Low-income countries know this too well; many face multiple infectious disease outbreaks each year. But richer countries like Britain are still painfully learning that a virus doesn’t just attack the human body – it is a mirror of national weaknesses and wreaks havoc on society and the economy.
Around the world, the pandemic has resulted in wicked “Hunger Games,” where countries have competed on the mortality rate leaderboards while trying to save their economies and cope with successive waves of this disease. . In February and March, European governments searched for limited stocks of PPE, ventilators, oxygen, depleted reagents for their laboratories, and experimental steroids and drugs. The United States was accused of stealing fans from Barbados, PPE from Germany, and bought the rights to remdesivir, limiting the supply available to other countries. At the World Health Assembly in May, governments pledged to share research products and work collectively to address Covid-19. But when governments faced difficult decisions about how to share resources, their promises of cooperation were broken.
The pandemic has been a test of our personal interest, both as individuals and as nations. One of the key questions has been what responsibility richer countries have to poorer countries, particularly when it comes to ensuring the equitable distribution of a vaccine. Earlier this year, 171 countries pledged to participate in the Covax initiative, which aims to support the development and equitable distribution of 2 billion doses of vaccines before the end of 2021. But when the first vaccine was successful, manufactured by Pfizer and BioNTech, the richest countries bought 80% of their doses.
In fact, an Oxfam analysis found that even if the five most advanced vaccine candidates are successful, there would not be enough vaccine for most of the world’s people until 2022. This has always been the case in global health: whoever pays the highest price buys the research products . The World Health Organization has I tried to warn Against this nationalistic approach, but in the end, words and promises are useless unless followed by action. It is money and power that count.
The same questions about selfishness can be asked about our commitment to each other at home. What responsibility do each of us have towards our communities? The pandemic has divided families, friends and neighbors over whether they are willing to modify the rules to suit individual wishes or make sacrifices with others in mind. The mixed reaction to the summer holidays reflected this, as some people decided to travel to other countries, risking carrying the virus with them, while others stayed. In some schools, whole bubbles of children were sent home for isolation because a student from the bubble had been on vacation abroad and their parents had decided not to follow the 14-day quarantine rule.
Families have been divided over the issue of Christmas celebrations; whether it makes sense to host multiple families at a reunion or wait to delay the holidays until spring or summer when a mass vaccination program gets underway. On many occasions, the virus has forced us to decide how comfortable each of us is with particular risks and to re-evaluate the others according to their own risk threshold. We may have reached out to some families who share our thinking and distanced ourselves from others who have different approaches to the pandemic. By comparing our pre- and post-Covid selves, we perhaps risk overstating how much the pandemic has changed us – instead, it has simply shown each of us who we really are.
There were many brilliant moments of self-denial in 2020. Many people made enormous personal sacrifices, none more so than healthcare workers who risked their own lives to treat patients in need of care. Due to their occupation, healthcare workers seven times more likely to contract severe Covid-19 than other workers, and many showed up to work the wards in March and April without the proper PPE, ready to accept whatever was presented to them. Elsewhere, bus drivers, security guards, social workers, cleaners, grocery store workers, self-help groups, and teachers put the needs of society above their own health and wellness. In any case, this pandemic should give us reason to reflect on who adds value to society and whether we are adequately compensating for these roles.
On the other hand, time and again in Britain, we have seen that it is a rule for some people (the rich and powerful) and another rule for others (the rest of us). The government created a loophole in quarantine restrictions that allowed “high value” business travelers to skip the mandatory 14-day isolation period upon arrival in the country. Celebrities have hosted private parties, while the rest of us have avoided social gatherings and seeing our family and friends. Most memorable of all, then-Prime Minister Dominic Cummings’ then-senior adviser violated Covid rules but remained in his post.
Of all the lessons we have learned from this pandemic, the most significant is how uneven its effects have been. Wealth, it turns out, is the best Covid-19 protection strategy. While the poorest people huddled in cramped dwellings, the rich escaped to their refuges in the countryside. Two of the biggest risk factors for dying from Covid-19 are having a disadvantaged background and being from an ethnic minority, pointing to the underlying role of social inequalities, housing conditions and occupation.
Our society’s recovery from this disease must focus on building more egalitarian and resilient societies, in which people in all parts of the world have access to both protection against the disease and advances in research. It all starts with the government. At the end of 11 grueling months, I keep the words of Abraham Lincoln in my mind: the pandemic has shown that we need “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” not just government for the wealthy elite. Perhaps that is the strongest legacy of Covid-19.
• Professor Devi Sridhar is President of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.