We need a health-based approach to tackle this pandemic (and the next)

Let’s stop thinking that covid will just vanish. Even if it does, it will sooner or later be followed by another pandemic. In addition to existing measures, it’s time to invest in longer-term solutions.

Photo by Jacek Dylag n Unsplash

Since the SARS-CoV-2 virus came into the global spotlight in early 2020, and millions became sick with covid-19, most efforts to curtail the pandemic — or at least its impact — have been defensive and reactive, focused on containment and “disease care.” Collectively, we have chosen to do three main things.

We are making big sacrifices to fight covid-19. Those three sets of measures were and remain essential — and in some cases should be further enhanced — to fight the pandemic as we know it and protect our most vulnerable.

However, it’s time we start giving serious thought, effort, and funding to two other types of pandemic-fighting measures: preventive health care and future pandemic prevention.

I will not discuss pandemic prevention in this post, however for starters I encourage everyone to watch Dr. Michael Greger’s video on the accelerated pace of new virus emergence, notably those of zoonotic origin like SARS-CoV-2, and what can be done to curtail them: How to prevent the next pandemic. (Spoiler alert: factory farming, for the mass production of meat and animal products, is at the core of the problem.)

Two years into this pandemic, we should now be able to take a step back to really take in the fact that covid-19, like so many other health problems, is made worse by our overall poor health status.

It’s no secret that existing chronic conditions like heart or kidney disease and diabetes increase the odds of a serious covid-19 infection and of suffering from “long covid.” Covid is not an anomaly in this regard: when one system of the body (including our minds) isn’t working as well as it can and should, fighting infections or bouncing back from injury or surgery is always harder. In the United States, “more than half (51.8%) of adults [have] at least 1 of 10 selected diagnosed chronic conditions (arthritis, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coronary heart disease, current asthma, diabetes, hepatitis, hypertension, stroke, and weak or failing kidneys), and 27.2% of US adults had multiple chronic conditions.” (Boersma, Black, and Ward, 2020)

That’s a lot of people at high risk.

This is true for diseases typical of affluent countries and related to “overnutrition” (like most of those listed above), but also for other conditions more prevalent in less-developed countries, such as parasitic infections. (Interestingly, the craze for invermectin in the Global North might have originated in the de-worming drug’s capacity to help covid patients in developing nations, since they reacted better to treatment once the parasitic worms in their gut were dispatched. Makes sense… in places where parasites are endemic.)

Now here’s the good news: improving our diet decreases our odds of suffering from a debilitating covid-19 infection. Shireen Kassam expertly reviews evidence to this effect on a regular basis, and summarized many useful peer-reviewed study to that effect even a whole year ago in her “Update on nutritional factors and COVID-19.”

What are we waiting for to add the promotion of healthy diets and lifestyles as aggressively as we have moved on virus containment and disease-care measures?

The reality is that covid is unlikely to go away any time soon. Since we are now at the two-year mark in this pandemic, it is convenient and comforting to believe that respiratory disease pandemics last two years, based on a history textbook timeline of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. I am guilty of that too, because I too am sick of [gestures wildly] all this.

Unfortunately, jumping to the conclusion that Omicron’s extensive dissemination will lead to herd immunity and decrease the need for vigilance is simplistic. If nothing else, the fact that the world’s most populous country, rife with mutation opportunities, hasn’t quite yet been exposed to it should give us pause.

This pandemic marathon isn’t over. It might be more like an ultra-distance event.

So let’s train.

What might it look like if governments and organizations around the world put coordinated efforts toward improving health as they have toward curtailing disease? This is just a brainstorm. (Spoiler: it also involves getting rid of factory farms.)

Collectively, we can choose to invest to make real change in our health as individuals and as a population. This is a radical idea, because we are used to sacrificing our health to the growth of the economy.

The ideas above are big steps that require the power of institutions, and we have to mobilize for change. Let’s talk about how that movement can gain momentum. At the same time, we also have to explore change for ourselves and our families, giving us the experience and language to describe both the hurdles and benefits of transitioning our society to one where health care really matters.

But another world is possible — and worth changing our habits for.

Brigitte Gemme is a vegan food educator, meal planner, and coach. After a PhD in sociology of higher education and a 15-year career in research management, she got impatient with the slow pace of planet-friendly change and decided to help individuals live a gentler life. If you need help deciding what’s for dinner, check out her meal plans at VeganFamilyKitchen.com. If you need personal guidance and accountability to embrace a gentler lifestyle, consider signing up for a free week with her on coach.me using coupon code BRIGITTEWEEK. Brigitte loves nothing more than helping more people eat more plants.



Vegan cooking mentor, mom, runner, writer, avid reader, PhD in sociology, certificate in nutrition, morning person. Author of _Flow in the Kitchen_.

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Brigitte Gemme

Vegan cooking mentor, mom, runner, writer, avid reader, PhD in sociology, certificate in nutrition, morning person. Author of _Flow in the Kitchen_.