Learning to Live with Covid-19: Perspectives from Past Pandemics

Recently, Dr. Michael Bresalier gave two public lectures from a project he’s developing on “Learning to Live with Covid-19: Historical perspectives on how humanity adapts to epidemics”.  

The first lecture, “Learning to Live with Covid-19: What can the history of influenza teach us?”, was part of the Hay Festival’s lunchtime talk series. It addressed a claim, made by the former Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, in the Daily Telegraph in February this year, that with vaccines and treatments Covid-19 will “become another illness that we have to learn to live with … like flu.”

Drawing on research from his forthcoming book on the history of influenza in the twentieth century, Dr. Bresalier showed that efforts to control influenza have involved enormous organisational efforts and challenges, the history of which provide instructive examples for how to live with an epidemic disease, but also how not to live with such a disease – what not to do. The lecture traced how managing influenza globally has been based on the idea that only approach is to control the disease within and between nations. Epidemiologists have defined “control” as all efforts aimed at bringing sickness and deaths down to an “acceptable” level. This definition raises important ethical, moral and political questions about what is an acceptable amount of illness and death, and, ultimately, about who lives and dies. In the case of influenza, an estimated 500-650,000 people die annually, with overwhelming burden falling on so-called developing nations. The key reason is that low-and-middle income countries lack healthcare infrastructures and resources to effectively manage flu. Given the historical challenges and failures in controlling flu, it is important ask if this the right model to use for learning to live with Covid-19. The lecture can be accessed here: https://www.hayfestival.com/p-17762-michael-bresalier.aspx?skinid=16

The second lecture, “Contagion Across Species: Global Histories and ecologies of zoonotic diseases”, was part of an online exhibition on Contagion, hosted by the Science Gallery Bengaluru (https://bengaluru.sciencegallery.com/contagion).

To contextualise the framing of Covid-19 as a “zoonosis” –  an infection spread between animals and humans – the lecture put into historical perspective some of the changing ways in which influenza has been conceptualised and tackled as a paradigmatic global zoonotic disease. It showed how ideas about its emergence have been connected to human interactions with animals, with changing environments, and with each other through globalised systems of animal food production and consumption. The lecture highlighted efforts  by the World Health Organisation, Food and Agricultural Organisation and other agencies over the last 70 years to build scientific collaboration and surveillance systems across species to monitor and manage zoonoses, but also the daunting biological, economic, cultural and geopolitical challenges that they present. There were two takeaway historical messages. First, effective approaches to controlling zoonoses need to be grounded in understanding their complex global ecologies, which are increasingly shaped by the growing scale and impact of human relations with animals and their environments. And second, equitable sharing of vital resources, such as vaccines and treatments, is essential to tackling epidemic threats. 

The lecture can be accessed here:

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