The Next Pandemic May Be Closer Than You Think
After COVID-19, similar crises could arise sooner rather than later. Can we really afford — and not just from an economic standpoint — to keep taking the same approach?
BERLIN — By now we've got the good news from the pharmaceutical industry: It has developed coronavirus vaccines heading into mass-production. This heralds the start of what may prove to be the greatest immunization effort in world history. Across the globe, millions of people will be vaccinated against coronavirus every day, and then, in summer 2021, or autumn at the latest, the pandemic will be over.
Or so we think. Politicians, cinema and theater owners, businesspeople, artists and restaurant owners are all pinning their hopes on the vaccine. But it may be false hope, and not because the vaccines will be ineffective.
The problem, rather, is that the current pandemic may well be the first in a long line of pandemics and other natural disasters. And for that reason, it is high time that we ask ourselves how we want to live in this new world, rather than locking down and waiting patiently for science to restore our former normality.
In 2014, no one knew the name of the virus that would spark a global crisis, but we knew there would be one. In December of that year, the then-U.S. President Barack Obama gave a speech in which he warned that, along with climate change, the steady rise in personal travel and the transport of goods would lead to pandemics that were more dangerous than Ebola or swine flu. The current pandemic proves him right.
And of course, there's no reason to assume that eliminating this pandemic will also eliminate the causes of further pandemics. The decrease in business travel may be long-term, now that we've seen it's possible to hold negotiations, presentations and conferences over video calls. But tourism will return to pre-Covid-19 levels, and people will go back to their workplaces — meaning the brakes will only have been applied temporarily.
The crisis next time
Even without a new pandemic, we already have our seasonal flu viruses, which can be serious indeed. We should thus ask, in light of our response to the Covid-19 crisis, how our society will react the next time we face a flu-like that of the winter of 2017/2018, which claimed around 25,000 lives in Germany.
And what if pandemics like the current one become as common as flu? We'll need to ask ourselves whether we want to shut down the economy, people's social lives, and the cultural and sporting sectors, as we have done this year? What would become of our society?
What if pandemics like the current one become as common as flu?
One problem is that even a strong economy like Germany's couldn't afford to invest in improving healthcare and restructuring education and training at the same time if a pandemic necessitated this. But let's leave aside for a moment the economic and political considerations that concern ministers and local authorities.
Let's look instead at the consequences for the cultural sector, in its broadest sense: from cultural institutions such as cinemas, museums, theaters, concert venues and event organizers, to the world of sport (of all levels) to public ceremonies that mark historical events, to celebrating life events from christenings through school exams and weddings to funerals, and finally, to daily life, spending time with colleagues and friends.
All of these make up the cultural fabric of our society, and in a pandemic, they are all restricted, starved of oxygen or stopped completely. They are seen as dispensable, less important than the danger of infection. The roots of that attitude go back to well before this year.
Rules and regulations
It's telling that we so easily accept the argument that any price is worth paying to reduce the number of deaths or severe cases and that everything else must give way to that. This willingness to accept all restrictions as long as they minimize the risk to health is a consequence of a long-established trend of introducing rules, guidelines, bans and technology that make our lives safer and — at least at first glance — healthier.
Without question, it's important for politicians to react quickly and bring in the necessary measures at a time when intensive care units are reaching capacity. But it's shocking how easily and unthinkingly society has accepted restrictions that will bring cultural life to a standstill, without anyone proving the efficacy of these measures.
So what will the consequences be if this becomes our new normal in the era of pandemics?
First, let's think about how it will affect those who make their living in the cultural sector: musicians, cinema owners, actors, directors, restaurant owners, coaches, athletes, pub proprietors… At the moment, they are surviving through state funding.
Whether this money will be enough remains to be seen. But there is also the question of what it means to be dependent on the state rather than practicing your vocation. It's clear that we can't allow this to become a norm that establishes itself every few years.
But that is precisely the future we might face. Organizers of big events can't predict whether or not they will be able to take place — just as now no one can say whether it's worth rehearsing a play for a premiere, training for a competition next year, or even planning a wedding.
More and more people will leave the cultural sector and seek employment elsewhere. It's not just about money. It's about having a meaningful life, which is only possible if what we plan and create can become real.
What's wrong with this picture? — Photo: Jonathan Borba
Why would anyone open a pub if they're not sure how long its doors can stay open? Why would they dream up an exotic dance school if they may have to shut it for weeks or months at a time?
At the cost of culture
It's also possible that the people who used to visit these cultural centers will have found other ways to spend their time during the lockdown. When the pandemic is over, they'll have got out of the habit of going to the theater, cinema or pub, to support their favorite bands at gigs or their soccer team at the stadium.
Instead, they may stay at home to watch TV, cook, build model railways, surf on the internet or do a spot of gardening. Even when these cultural institutions reopen, we may not see visitors in the same numbers as before, especially if they are concerned about the next pandemic and see it as their civic duty to stay healthy at any cost.
We could simply shrug our shoulders and say, "That's life. Change is the only constant, and we'll soon get used to it." But this attitude ignores how integral culture is to our society.
Cultural institutions, from the theater to the pub, are not just venues for entertainment and relaxation, on the same level as other places where there is a lower risk of infection. They are places that facilitate encounters.
They are where people get to know each other, make friends and meet their life partners. They are where conversations about politics and society take place, where people form their opinions through encountering others with different viewpoints, lifestyles and goals. They are where we see the diversity of our society. Someone taking a taxi to the opera sees soccer fans celebrating on the streets, and someone going home from the pub meets theatergoers.
Surrounded by the hubbub of voices on the street on a Saturday evening, no one can deny the complexity of our society. At family gatherings, we see the different courses that people's lives have taken from the same starting point. We see what we still have in common and how we've grown apart. In short, this is where society lives.
A society that is prepared to sacrifice all of this to minimize the risk of infection will not only change dramatically during the era of pandemics. It will fall apart. We can't allow that to happen. We must speak up.