Four truths coronavirus has revealed about humanity. The corona story is far from over. But this unprecedented (I won’t say it again) pandemic has revealed much about the state of humanity. About who we are as people. About what we really value. These truths were already there, simmering under the surface but corona has brought them into the light. What floated in the ether has crystallised. Here are four truths I have observed about us, humanity, homo sapiens, that have become clear during the pandemic.
Truth 1. Humans can solve problems really fast.
In just over a year we did the improbable and invented not one, but around 10 vaccines, almost 10 times faster than we had ever done before. Putin’s daughter was jabbed with the aptly named “Sputnik V” just 9 months after the first corona case, and Astrazenica produced 100 million doses by the end of the first corona year.
Our ability to focus our energies to invent complex lifesaving technology is astonishing.
And not only the vaccine. Wastewater covid tests detect tiny traces of virus, helping countries like New Zealand detect new outbreaks before anyone tests positive. One dollar corona tests allow us to test anywhere, any time. The English used a staggering 2 billion rapid tests in 2021, an average of 30 tests per person. Tracing apps help Countries like Taiwan track virus spread in real time. Our ability to innovate, invent and solve problems goes from strength to strength.
Allow me a brief diversion – this makes me doubly concerned about our climate crisis. While scientists saved millions of lives from coronavirus with a smorgasbord of technology, over the last 20 years we have invested hundreds of billions to find technical fixes for climate change but to little avail.
No magic energy source. No magic carbon capture machine. Unlike with corona, no technological fix.
On this rare occasion I disagree with Bill Gates – our innovative abilities have thus far failed us and seem unlikely to solve our climate crisis. Maybe us rich people will actually have to change our lifestyles and flee from fossil fuels (“fly, you fools!”). But I digress…
Truth 2. The Rich get Richer, the Poor get Poorer and we don’t care.
Inequality is the worst it has been in 50 years. Not only has corona exposed the gap between between the haves and the have nots, the divide has become a canyon. The richest 0.1% of the population have shown that a plague is still a great time to amass wealth while the poor either stayed poor or go evet poorer. In America 10 silicon valley billionares swindled 300 billion dollars (what does that number even mean?) of wealth from the poorer half of the population as the internet became even more important while we sat at home. In New Zealand house prices skyrocketed a mind boggling 50% in two years. It’s now impossible for the young middle class to buy a house. In Uganda coronavirus aid money poured into the pockets of megarich, megacorrupt politicians. Their kids stayed well educated on zoom while 99.99% of Ugandan children sat at home with schools closed for over 2 years. School only opened a few months ago, and now Uganda’s poor have a generational education catastrophe on their hands.
And to top off, trillions of dollars of coronavirus relief money was printed by governments and poured mostly into the hands of the rich. Even little old New Zealand printed 50 billion dollars, much of which lined the bank accounts of wealthy companies. Governments worldwide showed they were perfectly willing to ignore their poorest people to keep the economy rolling and keep the middle class happy. What to do when businesses can’t operate? Pour cash into their bank accounts.
And what happens when you print that much money? Inflation! There was some excitement that wages had risen during the pandemic, but it turns out the cost of living has increased even more. And in case you think it’s just richer countries suffering from inflation, have a look at the insane hike in food prices in Sri Lanka, Kenya and Uganda. And what are governments doing to help the poor with these high prices? Not much, because they don’t care. At least the economy is rolling now (suffering yes, but rolling), damn the poor.
Inequality is bad for all of us – rich, poor and the sea in between. High inequality causes lower life expectancy, increased mental illness and increased crime across all sectors of the population, not just the poor. We should care.
Truth 3: A “Gobal Village” is a myth. Humans are selfish.
Within a year, laboratories in China, the UK, Russia and the USA all invented different vaccines which stopped people from dying from corona. Hundreds of millions of doses were produced within months. This should have been a decisive victory for us clever, innovative, compassionate humans (see Truth 1). Surely within a year we would vaccinate the whole world and life could go back to normal. Our question as a global village of good humans should have been
“How can we save the most human lives with this vaccine?”
But instead, what we did with this miraculous vaccine revealed our selfish natures. We protected our own at any cost. If we were truly a global society, our goal should have been clear – vaccines for the worst hit countries first, then for everyone else. But despite WHO protestations it turns out you that can just vaccinate your own country, take the pressure off your own hospitals and leave millions to die in other countries. Winston Churchill’s star fell after we discovered he unnecessarily allowed millions to die of famine in India during the second world war. Can we look at our own “progressive” society and say we are any better?
What will future generations think of the great vaccine moral failure of 2021?
If truth 2 was that we don’t care about growing inequality within our own countries, then truth 3 extends across borders. We should have started by vaccinating Peru, Mexico and Bulgaria which had the highest death rates in the world. We should have rushed to India in the midst of an enormous outbreak. Instead every country fought tooth and nail for their own own vaccines. England and Canada ordered 5 times as many doses as they had people. Others stored millions of extra doses in fridges while body bags lined up in other countries. We are not a global village. We are selfish.
Truth 4. Our Bodies Matter
Over the last 100 years our life expectancy has improved by over 30 years, from a miserable 50 in 1900 to around 80 now. This improvement is thanks to many factors including reduced poverty, better hygeine and improved medical care. During the last 50 years this increase in life expectancy is even more impressive, as our life expectancy has continued to increase, while we have become progressively less healthy. While rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes have skyrocketed due to our unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles, medical innovation has kept us alive for longer and longer (see truth 1).
Coronavirus however reminds us that our bodies matter. Those less healthy died of corona in exponentially higher numbers. Heart disease and diabetes enabled coronavirus to kill far more than it would have had we had looked after our bodies better. Our unhealthy lifestyles contributed to our demise. The countries that suffered worst from coronavirus, mostly in South America and Eastern Europe, had the deadly combination of both unhealthy populations and substandard health systems. The USA is renowned for Obesity and unhealthy lifestlyes, and we all saw the result. This is not to blame any individual for their death, but to help us realise that both as individuals and a society that we need to take the health of our bodies more seriously. Conronavirus showed us that we can no longer treat our bodies like they don’t matter, relying on medicine to keep us rolling into our twilight years.
Where I live in Uganda, surprisingly few died of coronavirus. Much of this was due to a young population, but also due to the population being healthier. Most people are subsistance farmers with an active lifestyle and healthy diets low in fat and processed food. Heart disease and diabetes are increasing, but remain rare especially among the rural population. Sub-saharan Africa was the only region in the world where most countries were not overwhelmed by coronavirus, even while their health systems are among the worst in the world.
Our bodies matter. When a disease like coronavirus hits our healthy body, the odds are in our favour. If not, the odds turn.
What other truths have emerged?
These are just four truths I have observed. Four of many. They may not be the most insightful, nor the most important. What has coronavirus taught you about humanity during this strange time?
Hi Nick thank you for this apocalyptic and fascinating piece. One or two comments.
Truth one. humans can solve problems really fast.
I think the difference between the coronavirus crisis and climate crisis is the immediate threat to rich societies. When the threat from climate affects rich countries in a major maybe even devastating way, then I believe technologies and actions will become more effective.. Sadly, by that stage, billions of lives will have been either lost or adversely affected. One issue, and this is a personal thought that recurs, is that it would be quite possible to green the desert. I think overall world climate might change possibly adversely but apparently there is a large area of desert in China that has been made fertile but this potentially useful development has not been rolled out in a significant way anywhere else. Even if mankind chose not to green the desert, it would be an ideal place for mega sized solar panels to create electricity. When working in Sudan and seeing endless desert I had a picture of huge solar panels piping electricity from this resource poor country into Europe benefiting both the people of Sudan and the climate.
Truth two. The rich get richer the poor get poorer and we don’t care.
It is certainly true that the rich get richer. I have an interest in investing (actually it really is gambling but hey as a middle class European such activities are seen as appropriate and normal despite our Lords teaching about treasure in heaven) and I read one American guy to even as as the stock market plummeted from coronavirus and was getting out of control, kept saying that these were creating unprecedented opportunities which he predicted the rich would take advantage of making them richer and the uninformed amd poor would not be able to take advantage of. You are right and he was right.
And we don’t care.
I’m not too sure about this. a lot of folk did care but they were not the majority and we do have a big problem in the that we live in democracies where the majority voice is what speaks loudest. So, yes, the majority will put self Interest first but there are a minority, like Tessa and yourself who are busting a gut to make a difference
Our bodies matter.
Interesting insight that some of the most unhealthy countries are middle income. It reminds me of the research that showed that when mankind massively increased food security by moving to farming rather than hunter gathering, the population increase was accompanied by a significant deterioration in health.
Thank you for this piece. An interesting read first thing in the morning! Love to Tessa.In my prayers. Continuously admiring of the wonderful work that you are both doing
Thanks so much Pete! Wow I wasn’t intending for it to be too apocalyptic really, but now that I think about it maybe it was a bit too much on the negative end! I love the idea of Sudanese solar powering Europe. Big ideas like that which could still come to fruition, especially with the current price of oil.
And definitely a lot of people care a lot. “We don’t care” is definitely too broad a statement. I think I’ll change it now to “Not enough people care”. Definitely in any financial crisis the rich seem to make things work while others suffer. I’m feeling for some lower income nearly-pensioners at the moment who are seeing their life savings plummet. They will suffer more than those who own the companies that’s for sure.
What research have you been reading about food security? I think I read about that health deterioratoin in “Sapiens” by Yuval Harari.
Always so awesome to hear from you Pete. Was with Chris this morning in an in-charges meeting and he was a superstar as always. A leader even among the other leaders.