Sometime in December 2019, in Wuhan, China, a butterfly flapped it’s wings, or rather, a bat did, and in the process Covid-19, the coronavirus, jumped from animals to humans. In the months since, the world has been turned upside down and over 200, 000 people are dead. Whether it was a steaming bowl of bat soup, a feeble, malnourished chicken, or born from a pangolin, the world’s most trafficked mammal, Covid-19 has transformed death in 2020.
As far as global death tolls go, coronavirus can be viewed at this stage as an impressive rookie with potential, though with work to do if it wants to play with the big boys. This may come as a surprise, given the reaction to which governments around the world have reacted (under or over, depending on where you stand), and the daily, sometimes hourly, body count. It’s fair to consider whether better equipped public hospitals could have alleviated the extent of the shutdowns that have been imposed. Fear of the rapid spread of coronavirus seems linked to concern over weak public health systems, that would be unable to cope with a spike in admissions. With a greater hospital capacity what would the reaction have been? Some countries, such as Brazil and Sweden, have not bothered themselves with lockdowns, or shutdowns, opting instead for the ‘let her rip,’ approach, a strategy that at this stage, cannot be fully applauded or condemned.
Prior to coronavirus, in a time long ago, let’s call it 2019, the world was in a comfortable groove as far as death went. Plagues, whether they be Black, Spanish or otherwise, were a part of history, and it was in vogue to be dying, and having others die, from largely preventable ailments. Since the beginning of the century, heart disease has been leading the charge, with a “market share” of anywhere between 30% – 40%. Heart disease, the risks of which are reduced considerably by eating healthy food, regular exercise, and consuming less alcohol, sugar, fats and tobacco. None of that seems particularly difficult, yet for some reason this continues to be the leading cause of death in the world. Coronavirus can only dream of wiping out an estimated 9 million, as heart disease did according to 2016 figures from the WHO. Right up there with heart disease are many other preventable ways of dying. In high income countries they link largely to a slothful lifestyle, while in low income countries, to a want for breathable air, potable water, nourishing food and adequate medical care, all surplus and frequently wasted in high income countries. Anyone else see an opportunity here?
In China, where all this kerfuffle began, air pollution, or “mist,” as many locals euphemistically call it, is deadly. The ensuing lockdown early this year, potentially saved more lives than coronavirus has taken. So if you believe the population control conspiracies, well, China really shot themselves in the foot with that one.
Furthermore, in February of this year, just before corona-mania swept the world, the WHO was warning of the increasing global threat of obesity. The origins of obesity are not dissimilar to those that spawned Covid-19. In many mid-Western US towns, in sweaty, cramped and unhygienic conditions, live animals can be found cramped together, feeding largely on garbage. However these two-legged beasts are more commonly referred to as customers, or sometimes consumers. Frighteningly, it is common for many of them to reproduce, the results of which can be catastrophic. The WHO warned that 70% of cases of obesity are now found in low to middle income countries. Worldwide, rates of obesity have tripled since 1975, and with it’s prevalence now growing in the global south one could argue that obesity has become a more successful American export than democracy.
In many countries, where Covid-19 peaks have been reached, or the curves have flattened, leaders, and those who occupy positions of leadership (there is a difference), are musing about what sort of world will emerge post-coronavirus. What sort of economy will surface, what political shifts will there be, when can multinationals return to destroying the environment, and so on. Will the way we die be any different from 2021 onwards?
Already there are concerns that malaria could be on the rise in 2020, as attention and resources are poured into Covid-19. Particularly lethal in sub-Sahran Africa, malaria has the potential to claim over 750, 000 lives this year, many of them children under 5. It would be the highest annual figure this century. An emerging sentiment from the continent, and much of the global south, is that people would rather take their chances with coronavirus, as the shutdowns for those who live hand to mouth could be a life sentence in themselves. After all, hunger, another entirely preventable way of dying, is an ever-present threat for too many. Covid-19 is the new kid on the block, and doesn’t have the street cred yet. The so called global community has reacted in fascinating ways to coronavirus, Senegal have been 3D printing makeshift ventilators, and governments of all colours have suddenly discovered bundles of cash under their mattresses. So, any chance of printing some mosquito nets for Africa? And what about that hydroxychloroquine I’ve been hearing so much about? We’re all in this together right? Right?
The two other leading causes of deaths (also both entirely preventable) in the global south are lower respiratory infections and diarrhoeal diseases. Hmm, clean air and clean water will easily prevent both of these. The WHO estimate 7 million people died from air pollution in 2012. Once again, numbers coronavirus can only dream of. Over half of these deaths are are attributed to indoor smoke from cooking, and it doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots that most of these people will be women. So essentially women have been dying in plague proportions because they don’t have a safe kitchen space. Why has the world not shutdown for this? If Senegal can 3D print ventilators, then it’s hardly a quantum leap for someone to design a well ventilated, weather proof cooking space for mass production. Ikea, you got this? After all, you Swedes are still working!
And after mum has finished wiping her eyes from the overload smoke, and of course served her husband his meal, she wonders if her child is at risk from dying of a diarrhoeal disease. After all, over 2,000 children die this way on a daily basis. If you’re aghast at the daily New York death rates from coronavirus, roughly 400 at the peak, multiply it by five, and consider that it’s only children dying, from what is frequently described as ‘entirely preventable, with simple and low cost treatment.’ Will this leading cause of global child death be allowed to continue post coronavirus? Or will it remain, because it is largely black and brown children who are the victims. Are we all in this together? Preventable, simple, and low cost.
So what of the high income countries, where death comes in the form of heart disease, obesity, and cancers, which may or may not be partially self inflicted. Will lifestyles change? Once we’re all allowed outside again, will the desperation to exercise disappear? Will diets change? Everyone is a hipster now, making their own bread, and growing their own vegetables, will that continue? Or will we be drawn back to steak night and buffets, like hungry pigs to trough of slop? The early evidence suggests the latter, as New Zealanders this week marked their first day of ‘freedom’ by lining up at the drive thru windows of fast food outlets. Are these really the lives we’ve all been staying at home to protect these past few months?
A return to ‘normal life’ is the sentimental catchy cry for many at the moment, though as can be seen by the way we’ve been dying, normal was never much good for most of the world. Coronavirus has shown that governments and citizens alike can come together to prevent unavoidable deaths. It would take a fraction of the effort, and cost, to reduce the leading causes of global death pre-covid, so let’s not return to normal.