COVID-19, Our Latest Wake-Up Call -Reflections from Campus Ambassadors

Katharina Wabnitz, M.D. MSc Public Health candidate, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Photograph taken by Viola Graef on the Thames River Path, London (May 2020)

The emergence and spread of SARS-CoV-2 via global travel and trade networks constitutes a wake-up call — a call to us humans issued by the living world around us, that we need to collectively shift our focus towards our future. A future, which might harbour even more frequent hazards, diverse in nature and lethality, if we don’t finally shift gears and steer the complex apparatus of human activities onto a greener, more sustainable path.

But before the emergence of this new infectious agent, the world already heard another, very forceful wake-up call — it has been our children, grand-children and everyone who is concerned about the state of the Earth and the role of us humans in it who have been calling for change. Their call for change has spread through virtual networks across the globe. Campaigns such as 4future and Extinction Rebellion have brought together people who are united in their vision of a of the ways we live. And before, there have been other movements, smaller in scale and scope and of course scientists who reported anthropogenic environmental changes and promoted the profound changes necessary to reverse, halt or (more realistic today) at least slow them down. Despite this growing build-up of momentum, there has been more reluctance to undertake these necessary steps than courage to pioneer visionary thinking about how to reimagine our common future.

Hence, I often feel very hopeless.

To me, the changes which the pandemic has incited — and this is not to dismiss the suffering and harm COVID-19 has brought about — present a slight glimpse of hope. Hope, that by virtue of collectively experiencing the repercussions of disrupting planetary systems such as biodiversity loss and land use change, exposes us all — not just to new infectious diseases but to the grim prospect of a potentially unviable planet. It almost feels as if nature had wanted to put an “!” behind the campaigners’ words.

People across countries have started to applaud on their balconies to show gratitude towards their health care and other key workers — another example of how rapid spread of ideas across global networks can spark changes and novel habits. For me, it has been both humbling and energizing to witness these weekly expressions of “being in this together”. Are we finally ready for even more far-reaching changes? Can we set the as our collective goal?

I am once again hopeful that we can draw the right conclusions from this latest ringing of the alarm bell and start building back better. Let us all wake up now — we have snoozed long enough.

Generating better understanding of the links between accelerating global environmental change and human health to support policy making and public education