Wed | Apr 8, 2020

Anthony Clayton | COVID-19: Policy response options – Part 3

Published:Friday | March 27, 2020 | 12:18 AMProfessor Anthony Clayton/Guest Columnist

The COVID-19 crisis is an exceptionally serious threat, but the underlying trend is even more serious. The number and diversity of disease outbreaks has increased significantly since 1980, and most of these new outbreaks were caused by zoonotic diseases (diseases caused by pathogens that spread from animals to humans). Some 335 new diseases emerged between 1960 and 2004, at least 60 per cent of which came from animals, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated that three-quarters of emerging diseases now originate in animals.

The reasons for this include environmental change, urbanisation and human behaviour. Deforesting wildernesses, expanding agriculture, mining and road building are opening up remote regions, bringing humans and animals into contact. The destruction of habitats is forcing animals to migrate into increasingly crowded remnants of terrain, and some (including cockroaches, bats, rats, mice, foxes, birds and pets) are now urban species, sharing our cities and living in close proximity to humans. This is compounded by rapid and chaotic urbanisation and population growth, with about a billion people worldwide now living in informal settlements without proper sanitation or refuse disposal, in some cases also keeping animals for food.

Bushmeat is another major source of infection. Animals such as gorillas, chimpanzees, squirrels, mongooses, bats, rodents and marsupials are hunted for food, mainly in parts of Africa and South America; somewhere between 1 and 5 million tonnes of bushmeat per year is killed and eaten in West and Central Africa. This is probably how the Ebola virus, HIV and the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus were passed from animals to humans. Wet markets (where live animals are sold and butchered) are another major disease vector; the wet market in Wuhan was the ground zero of the current COVID-19 pandemic, and wet markets are common in west and central Africa. Many of these wet markets are in poor areas, in some cases close to refuse dumps, and with no proper drainage. Many people rely on such sources for their food, however, so it is impractical to close them (as China has now done) without making some alternative arrangement for people to obtain essential supplies.

It is highly likely, therefore, that there will be more zoonoses and other emerging infectious diseases in future. This means that some of the measures put in place to deal with the current pandemic should not be dismantled after the crisis has passed, but should remain in place or maintained in a state of near-readiness so that the country can respond more quickly and effectively next time.

DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY

A crisis like the current one also exposes where a country lacks resilience, i.e., the ability to absorb and respond to a serious shock while still keeping essential services running, mitigating the impact on society and reducing the harm to the economy. It is therefore important, as a long-term developmental strategy, to think of ways to build resilience in Jamaica.

Some of the necessary measures are obvious, such as the case for diversifying the economy (as some sectors will be less affected than others), reducing dependence on particularly vulnerable sectors (such as tourism), and investing in a sovereign wealth fund to provide a cushion against a recession. Bringing the unbanked into the banking system would allow the Government to make cash payments directly to those most in need, and a major investment in education would help to educate people in how to behave when there is a health crisis.

The crisis has also shown that good information systems are vitally important, as is universal media-literacy. The countries that appear to have done best at controlling the virus without damaging their economies are those that best understood the importance of information systems. Both China and Taiwan, for example, linked their health and travel databases, which meant that they could immediately see who was at risk, while South Korea linked health records to individual cell phones, so that anyone could check their phone and see if they were close to someone with the virus.

So the migration to online teaching, conferencing and business should not be reversed, but extended after the crisis. This is a rare opportunity to migrate Jamaica to an all-digital economy, which is an increasingly essential component of competitiveness in the modern world. The Government should accelerate the Digital Switch-Over process, so that Jamaica gets the modern Internet and media infrastructure that it needs. This would also allow the Government to detect and respond immediately to the next pandemic.

It is also essential to deal with the enormous damage caused by fake news. Many people now rely entirely on social media for their news, and many of them don’t realise how much of it is misleading or malicious. Some of it is clearly intended to cause harm, such as one item that circulated in Jamaica that said that the Government was about to shut down the country for months, and that everyone should run to the shops as it would be their last chance to get supplies. That was designed to cause panic-buying, which would have left many people without food.

BOGUS CURES

A number of bogus ‘cures’ for the COVID-19 virus were also being circulated; this was extremely damaging as some people believed them and so did not follow the guidelines from the Ministry of Health. Many well-meaning people pass these fake news items on to their friends, thinking that they are being helpful, when they are actually making things worse. China introduced a US$130,000 fine for anyone who deliberately started a malicious fake news rumour during the crisis, and all countries will now have to consider similar measures.

In the longer term, there are a number of emerging technologies that could give Jamaica far greater resilience against any future global health or economic crisis. One is ‘ferming’, which means using fermentation to multiply microorganisms that can then be made into any form of food. One kilo of fermed protein requires about 0.2 per cent of the water and 0.1 per cent of the land needed to produce one kilo of beef protein, so fermed proteins will be about 10 times cheaper than animal proteins by 2035. The food products will be more nutritious and healthier, and there will be zero risk of disease transmission. The second is additive manufacturing; 3-D printers can now be used to make any manufactured good, including engine parts, cars and even entire buildings. The third is the energy-plus building, which is a building that generates more power than it uses and can then sell the surplus to the grid.

If Jamaica implements these new technological solutions, the country would be far less dependent on global supply chains, and so much less vulnerable to any major disease outbreak that disrupts manufacturing and shipping. So a part of Jamaica’s response to the COVID-19 crisis should be to invest in intensive food production technologies to reduce the dependence on food imports, build additive manufacturing plants to reduce dependence on imported manufactures, and require all new buildings to be built to energy-plus standard to reduce dependence on imported fuel.

As the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, once said, you should never let a serious crisis go to waste, because it is an opportunity to do things that you thought you could not do. If Jamaica learns the lessons from this horrifying global pandemic, introduces the necessary reforms and builds resilience into every aspect of life, the nation could emerge stronger than ever before.

Professor Anthony Clayton, CD, Institute for Sustainable Development, The University of the West Indies. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.