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?

Commuters in face masks on a train in Russia
Commuters in face masks on a train in Russia
Jörg Phil Friedrich


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.

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Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

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