The COVID-19 pandemic has had a massive impact, dislocating our economy and society. It has resulted in an estimated 23.5 million cases and more than 800 000 deaths world-wide (as on 24-8-20) and led to an unprecedented effort to develop vaccines and new technologies to prevent and contain the disease. The effect of the pandemic will be felt for years, if not decades, and the cumulative human misery will be immense.
It is instructive to compare the impact of this virus with that of another human pathogen, malaria. An estimated 228 million people were infected with malaria in 2018, resulting in 405 000 deaths (around 66% of which were infants). This is an improvement on the 1 million deaths a decade ago, a result of better prevention and treatment. While the number of people dying is less than COVID-19, this death toll is relentless, happening year in, year out.
Malaria is concentrated, with 19 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and India carrying nearly 85% of the worldwide malarial burden. Given the shock COVID-19 is having on affluent societies, it is not surprising that the countries that are subject to this unrelenting pressure are among the poorest in the world.
We are, quite rightly, concentrating on responding to the immediate threat. But this should enhance our awareness of the impact of diseases such as malaria, diarrhoea (including cholera, E. coli and dysentery, 1.4m deaths pa), lower respiratory infections (3.2m pa) and tuberculosis (1.3m pa) have not only on individuals, including their mental wellbeing, but the societies that they are part of.
The link between infectious disease and the viability of communities must be more widely recognised. On the positive, the impact of the pandemic on our society may help us develop empathy and understanding of countries that have been subjected to these challenges for many years. This empathy will be essential to develop the collaborative partnerships needed to tackle the global challenges we face.
An executive coach and consultant. Andrew has been held senior roles in universities. His interests include medical research and innovation, education, leadership and research ethics.
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© 2020, Andrew George, all rights reserved
Published 25 August 2020