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.
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.
- First, we decreased opportunities for virus transmission (restrictions and masks), at the cost of reducing social, cultural, and economic interactions.
- Second, we made room in our hospitals to treat those acutely suffering from the disease, often decreasing our capacity to treat other conditions in the process.
- Third, we invested heavily in boosting our immune systems thanks to vaccine technology, in order to decrease both the transmission rate and the severity of the disease. The cost of vaccination campaigns is both monetary and social: the vaccines themselves are inexpensive (especially compared to curative approaches) but the logistics of mass immunization mobilizes workers that could have been employed at other tasks while, very unfortunately, triggering divisive rhetoric that tears friends, families, and communities apart.
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.”
An update on nutritional factors and COVID-19, 12th September 2021
It is exactly 2 years since I started writing my weekly updates. This week I bring you an update on the impact of…
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.)
- Immediately cancel subsidies and other advantages benefiting meat production, including those pertaining to the cultivation of grains for animal consumption.
- Rapidly boost production of legumes, vegetables, and fruit for human consumption with subsidy and incentive programs, including through government procurement for institutions like schools, prisons, and long term care; add staff education to ensure the palatability of plant-based dishes.
- Mobilize crews of cooking educators to teach home cooks how to prepare flavorful plant-based dishes.
- Subsidize the retraining of meat-centric chefs to transition them and the restaurant industry to plant-heavy meals. Perhaps tighten restrictions on meat-heavy restaurants while facilitating the growth of healthy plant-based restaurants.
- Invest in R&D, including consumer research, to accelerate the development and distribution of tasty plant-based meat alternatives that are healthful (as close as possible to whole foods), easy to prepare, and appealing for harried households everywhere.
- Add after-school care to school hours and dedicate the extra time to outdoor activities, preferably in nature, with the benefits of improving physical and mental health for children while decreasing parental stress caused by inadequate and expensive childcare options.
- Public mandates forcing government suppliers to ensure that their employees have adequate time for daily exercise (especially outdoors) and self-care, which may require them to increase salaries (so employees do not have to cumulate multiple jobs to make ends meet, cutting into their health-promoting time).
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.