MediaFrolic’s Michel Martin speaks to journalist Ed Yong about his contribution to The Atlantic with the title “We are already on the way to the next pandemic.”
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The United States has now reached and exceeded a milestone that once seemed difficult to imagine: 700,000 deaths from COVID-19. And while the summer surge in new cases fueled by the Delta variant appears to be slowing, the rising number reminds us that this pandemic is far from over. Yet those who are watching this field closely say that we should concentrate on preparing for the next one. Science reporter Ed Yong wrote about it for The Atlantic this week. His play is entitled “We are already heading towards the next pandemic”. And Ed Yong is with us now. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.
ED YONG: Hello. Thanks for being back.
MARTIN: First I just have to ask the basic question. For example, what is the argument for facing the next pandemic when we are arguing in the US about whether children should wear masks in schools? I mean, shouldn’t we figure out how to end this first?
YONG: I understand. But unfortunately the answer is no. And for two reasons. The first is that while we would like to view this as a one-time pandemic, I assure you that it is not. More infectious diseases, more new ones are coming. They could happen anytime. And we may not have the luxury of just facing each decade or even one at a time. But the bigger and more important answer, in my opinion, is that history has shown us that every major epidemic creates a surge of interest and attention, which is quickly followed by a period of neglect. Experts have been talking about this panic-neglect cycle for years since I wrote about this topic. And it means that if we wait until COVID is no longer thought of as the next pandemic, we are well at the point where the window of opportunity for preparing for the next has closed.
MARTIN: You know, the Biden government put in place a pandemic prep plan to do exactly what you said to address future health crises. It is priced at $ 65 billion. In your article, you say that public health experts think this is insufficient. Why is that?
YONG: Quite simply because all the estimates we’ve heard of how much it would take to actually be prepared for a pandemic are much higher. The bigger problem, I think, is not just the amount of money but whether it is sustainable because COVID teaches us that you can have all the biomedical, shiny tools you want. But if you apply that to a society with gross inequalities, with a weak public health system that has been allowed to rot for a century and a health system that millions of people still have no access to, then they lose a lot of that power. We can’t just expect these panaceas – vaccines and drugs – to get us out of pandemics, which are basically a societal problem. You need massive societal fixes to address.
MARTIN: You know, you make that point very strongly in your play. You say reducing inequality is not a secondary task of pandemic preparedness. It is probably the central pillar, if not for moral, but then for fundamental epidemiological reasons, that infectious diseases can spread from the weak to the privileged. Could you talk a little more about this link between social equality and pandemics? Because the other point you make in your article is that people have made this argument earlier …
MARTIN: … Right? – the…
MARTIN: … That was an argument that was used a lot in our history, but is no longer so. So, talk a little more about why it’s important, and talk a little more about why we don’t talk about it anymore.
YONG: So we – wherever the virus goes, we see its burden drop dramatically on people who are less privileged in terms of race, class and other axes. And I think there is a tendency to see this as a yes but as a side note to the main problem of the pandemic. Indeed, it is the central theme.
There was a point where we actually realized this was true. In the 19th century, many scientists in both Europe and the US realized that epidemics were profoundly influenced by factors such as poor sanitation and overcrowding. But when we began to understand that disease was the work of microbes, when germ theory was on the rise, people lost that social focus. Germ theory gave everyone a villain, a target. One could look at diseases in the sense of a patient versus a pathogen. And that’s how we still think of her. It’s very tempting. But it overlooks the entire context in which this human-virus battle is taking place. And without that context, we’re missing a really important part of what preparation actually means.
MARTIN: Even if you take into account everything you said about the way it all relates – it has to do with working conditions, it has to do with living conditions, it has to do with being sick, eating, all of these Things – is there anything in the health sector that needs to be examined now in order to position the country better for the future?
YONG: If you look at health spending in the US, I think public health was getting a little over three cents per medical dollar in the 1930s. You skip almost a century forward, and now it’s a little over two cents. So it is still very secondary compared to medicine. And on public health, I’m talking about things that prevent disease in communities. I’m talking about people who have to provide services like, well, vaccinations, sanitation. They take care of the living conditions. You think of tobacco control and the opioid epidemic. And all of this with ridiculously small budgets. And if we don’t really get investment to fix that, it will just keep going. And whenever investments are made, they are always eroded. What we need now is a stable source of public health funding that is immune to the types of appropriation cycles that Congress must go through each year. People need money. And they need a law, don’t they? People have estimated that it takes about $ 4 1/2 billion every year to get the system up to date, let alone make it great.
MARTIN: This is Ed Yong. We’re talking about his piece for The Atlantic called “We Are Barreling Toward the Next Pandemic”. Ed Yong, thank you very much for sharing your coverage and insights with us today.
YONG: Thank you for having me.
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