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Ten lessons to learn from the coronavirus pandemic

By Paul Hoffman

‘Doctors without Borders on steroids’ – 10 goals for dealing with ‘unseen enemy’ – Paul Hoffman

30th March 2020 by Linda van Tilburg

The coronavirus is spreading across the planet and countries that thought that they are immune to events on the other side of the world, are falling like dominoes to this ‘unseen enemy’. Scientists are fearing that for Africa it could become a nightmare as the continent’s health care facilities are not as robust or well-funded as the wealthy nations that have recorded thousands of  fatalities up to now. Paul Hoffman, the Director of Accountability Now, known for his day job of chasing after corrupt officials, has come up with a list of the ten lessons we can learn from the pandemic, which is an adaption of the 17 sustainable development goals of the United Nations. Apart from a recommendation that we need “Doctors without Borders on Steroids” to ensure health care as a basic human right for everybody in the world, Hoffman writes that we should recognise that illegal poaching and exports have not been taken seriously and “if the poaching syndicates were in jail, the pangolins would not be in the wet markets.” China and Vietnam have finally banned the consumption of wild animals, but there is a loophole; it does not include the use of wild animals for medicinal purposes and judging from news reports from Australia, many of the wet markets in China have re-opened and are trading as before. – Linda van Tilburg

Now is a good time to dust off the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with a view to seeing what relevance they have to the worldwide pandemic called Covid-19.

The 17 SDGs may be summarised as follows:

The SDGs are the goals of the members of the United Nations envisioned in 2015 for delivery by 2030. The agenda is to use “a holistic approach to achieving sustainable development for all” as the UN website puts it.

The pandemic involves or challenges the achievement of most, if not all, of the SDGs and its ravages are likely to set back the UN efforts to realise the worthy aims of the SDGs by 2030, due to the economic implications of fighting a winning war against the virus as it spreads exponentially across the planet at a dizzying rate.

In SA the last major pandemic of airborne kind was the Spanish influenza or “swine flu” of 1918 -1920 brought to our shores by returning WWI servicemen. It is estimated that 300,000 lives were lost in SA to that pandemic, at a time when the total population was under 7 million. As the population now approaches 60 million the maths suggests that a death toll of over 2,5 million can be expected if the current pandemic is as devastating as swine flu was by 1920.

However, the advances of modern medicine and learned estimates for SA suggest a toll of 240,000 deaths is expected if one applies the Chinese data to an infection rate of 50% in SA. Nathan Geffen has observed that:

“To understand what it means for 240,000 people to die, consider that about 60,000 South Africans are expected to die of AIDS in 2020. In the worst year of the AIDS epidemic, 2005, about 285,000 people died of the disease, an average of nearly 770 people per day. So we’d be looking at the kind of mortality we had in 2005.

This is bad enough, but it will be a lot worse if much more than 50% of people get infected (which is possible if the virus is allowed to spread without efforts to stop it) or our population’s poor health results in more deaths.”

There is also the matter of the suddenness of the Covid-19 pandemic which will mean great stress on healthcare facilities and other public infrastructure if the deaths occur over a few months rather than spread out over the entire year ahead.

There is so little certainty about the extent of the spread of the virus, the actual number of unremarkable and light infections that were dismissed as a cold or flu, about how it is passed on and whether it is able to survive a long time on surfaces used later by even the vigilant among us.

In an insightful 2015 TED Talk Bill Gates warned that a pandemic brought on by a new strain of virus would be the next worldwide catastrophe and he made some suggestions very much in line with the implementation of the SDGs for the purpose of preparing the planet to deal with the unseen enemy.

Perhaps, at this stage it is prudent to prepare a preliminary list of the top ten “lessons” for humanity, to be learned from the current worldwide crisis, so that a greater state of readiness and less panicked decision-making is made when next a new virus attacks humanity. The list can be adjusted and added to as the crisis unfolds and the success or failure of measures taken to contain and eliminate the virus can be measured, evaluated and assessed.

A suggested preliminary “top ten” list, based on what is known at the end of March 2020, would ask all humanity to:

  1. Show greater respect for the delicacy of mother nature’s careful biodiversity balance and the need for sustainable climate control on the planet that humanity, a relatively new arrival, shares with so many other species, plants and organisms, many of which are under threat and stress due to the thoughtlessness and greed of humans. It would be a sad fate for humanity to perish in a cloud of microbes generated by greed and thoughtlessness when these characteristics are so easily curbed and countered if the will to do so is mustered. The dinosaurs became extinct in a cloud of dust and ash not of their own making; humanity ought to have the tools to avoid so ignominious a fate brought on by a cloud of highly toxic microbes accidentally made by humans.
  2. Recognise that if the ongoing illegal poaching and illicit export of exotic animals into the wet markets of China had been treated with the seriousness they deserve and require under the rule of law, there would be no corona virus crisis. We learn that the export of pangolin from Zimbabwe is not even a crime, as it should be, and that a blind eye is turned to all manner of illegal import of live exotic animals into China’s wet markets to feed its hungry masses or pander to the strange preferences of some who shop there.
  3. Get real about countering corruption with impunity, especially of the trans-border kind that enabled and gave rise to the current crisis; an International Anti-Corruption Court and better functioning machinery of state at local level are needed to end the impunity the corrupt enjoy. If the poaching syndicates were in jail the pangolins would not be in the wet markets.
  4. Address the vulnerability that stark inequality of means and income causes when the poor are placed under the type of stress that the crisis has elicited; this involves greater attention to the UN SDGs – especially those that focus on the need for good governance and the elimination of poverty and hunger.
  5. Realise that adequate health care for all is a basic human right that is currently inadequately delivered in the world, including in rich nations like the USA, but especially in the poorer states in the third world; act on this realisation in ways that render health care more accountable and more accessible to all at times of crisis when responsiveness is at a premium. Doctors without Borders on steroids, well-funded, properly equipped and expertly informed to be in a position to deal pro-actively rather than reactively with any new outbreak of disease of the kind that is a threat to life on earth.
  6. Respect the inherent human dignity of those who have been exposed to the virus. All too often the panic engendered by a crisis tends to bring out the worst in humanity. Xenophobia, naked and hateful nationalism, the rise of populism and authoritarianism are all hallmarks of the type of response to a crisis which is not indicated. A more pragmatic and human rights oriented approach is in keeping with the ethos that informed the establishment of the UN.
  7. Work co-operatively to stop the spread of the virus in the ways the best science suggests especially at individual level by boosting immune systems via appropriate hygiene, exercise, sleep and diet regimens with supplementation if needed. Those living with compromised immune systems are individually far more vulnerable to infection and death from exposure to the virus than those in rude good health.
  8. “Do as you would be done by” when developing personal strategies for coping with the spread of the virus and the potentially deadly disease it brings with it. This lesson involves educating the public to be engaged and participating citizens reacting responsibly and accountably to the crisis in a law abiding and responsive fashion rather than as if they are an ungovernable and ill-disciplined rabble.
  9. Use the interactive features of cyberspace as a means of reaching out to those in isolation; we are a social species and isolation is not our natural comfort zone. Skype, Zoom and all forms of social media can be harnessed to mitigate the loneliness of isolation and its mental and emotional side effects.
  10. Pray, together using cyberspace, and work every day towards the effective, efficient and economic use of resources to develop a successful and universally available vaccine that renders the virus harmless as soon as is humanly possible.
  • Paul Hoffman SC is a director of Accountability Now and was lead counsel in the case in which the STIRS criteria were laid down by the Constitutional Court in 2011.
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