Professor i marinbiologi, Åbo Akademi

Professoriblogissa otetaan kantaa yliopistojen ja tutkimuslaitosten ajankohtaisiin asioihin.


Perfidious Contagion or Harmonious Coordination

To predict what may happen next, at any stage of the Covid-19 pandemic, is a risky business. Especially in a forum such as this, where there may be a 2- or even a 10-week delay between something being written and actually published. On top of that, it is obviously the duty of all of us in science to exercise due caution, especially those of us like myself, who cannot claim any special expertise in epidemiology, public health policy or social psychology.

I do write as someone with a more than passing interest: I am after all, on the fringes of what may be considered a moderate to high-risk group due to age, if not other factors. I have already lost one colleague from Glasgow days, Mike Wakelam, who was latterly director of the Babraham Institute in Cambridge. Mike died on 2 April due to complications from what was believed to be Covid-19. I could not write this column without mentioning his groundbreaking work to define lipid-based cell signaling, nor the fact that he was in all things a model scientist as well as a universally liked colleague, whose leadership will be greatly missed.

On the day of writing this column, I also learned of a cousin of mine in England who is struggling with an inflammatory heart condition arising from the disease. These two cases remind me that the pandemic is not just an abstraction mentioned on the nightly news, where the focus is on the increasingly grim number of deaths, presented as a bald statistic. Apart from the extreme distress experienced in severe cases of the disease and the painful loss of those who succumb to it, it is increasingly clear that the complications and manifestations of Covid-19 are diverse, rather common, sometimes long-term, and can seriously impact the life-quality of 'survivors'. Recovery or death are not the only two outcomes: prolonged or perhaps even chronic illness may turn out to be the greatest issue of all.

Doubtless, many of the contributions to this site over the coming months will focus on the pandemic and its ramifications, and how it has been handled in so many different ways across the globe. The jury is still out on which approach was best, in terms of minimizing human suffering. The middle of 2020 may come to be seen as a kind of fulcrum point, when the disease had apparently been eliminated in a few places, notably New Zealand, and had been brought under control in others, including Finland, with the expectation that future outbreaks could be contained, if not prevented. Yet, at the same time, it seemed poised for a major upsurge in places where it had previously been only a minor concern, such as in many US states. In much of Latin America, Covid-19 was plainly out of control from the start, sometimes with the apparent indifference of the authorities. 

It's impossible to say which of these scenarios will still be true in the late autumn of 2020 or next spring. My gut feeling, or perhaps my greatest fear, is that the worst of the human damage – physical, mental, economic, social and even geopolitical, is yet to come. Governments that acted too late, that relaxed too early, that acted very stringently only to see their work later undone by the actions of others, or that left their peoples at the mercy of a ghastly but preventable disease, will pay the price eventually, as will all of us. 

The UN and World Health Organization have repeatedly criticized the lack of international cooperation as a major factor contributing to the spread and amplitude of the pandemic. It seems that short-term political considerations have trumped sensible measures, in many cases driven by an unwillingness on the part of politicians to admit that they simply don't have the answers.

 What is sorely needed is not just coordination and mutual understanding, but jointly agreed actions and common rules based on evidence. Even where politicians have subcontracted decision making to scientific experts, they have largely relied on local voices, not on an international consensus. The end result is a collective failure to eradicate Covid-19, global economic damage far surpassing what would have resulted if early and stringent surveillance had been implemented, and a worrying precedent for future crises that humanity is likely to face. Not to mention a climate of acrimony that could easily spill over into a new cold war or even armed conflict.

As scientists and scholars, we are already a global community: one that can speak on behalf of all humanity when nobody else will. We should be crying out at all levels, for common action to replace accusations, recriminations, confusion and complacency.

Ali Harlin 11.10.2020
We have now, as some times earlier, understood how slow any action under fuzzy information might be. There is nothing more that learn from this and be prepared for epidemies in future and really understand them. Even a normal flu and its cyclicity is not yet fully explained, but we know measures to avoid its spreading. We need proactive science based measures as a shiels for next seriuos virus infections to come certainly, and when not knowing which one is pandemic virus, we have to consider all flu as a potential one before proven not.