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The Path Forward During the Pandemic

By: Martin W. Bloem

BALTIMORE—April 30, 2020. We are living through very challenging times, and around the world, the coronavirus pandemic is putting us to the test. Now is the time for us to be at our most compassionate and agile, to innovate and stay hopeful, and to remember that we are one global community united against a virus. Now is the time to double down on our commitment to and faith in science. And more than ever, now is the time to collaborate.

We’ve watched as dedicated health care workers put their lives on the line for their patients, and we’ve watched as food chain workers—from truck drivers to grocery store clerks to meat-packing employees to food bank volunteers—put their lives on the line as well, so that our food systems can continue to feed us. Every day, my thoughts are with my son and daughter-in-law, both physicians working in the National Health System in the UK. I am also thinking all the time about the Center for a Livable Future team, all of whom impress me with their professionalism and the high caliber work they do while navigating incredible pressures at home. Johns Hopkins students have been challenged by new circumstances, as have all my colleagues at the Bloomberg School, and everyone is rising to the challenge. I’m particularly grateful for the work of Tom Inglesby, a colleague in the Department of Environmental Health and Science, and my JHU colleagues at the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) team, housed in the Department of Civil and Systems Engineering, who are the masterminds behind the University’s Covid-19 Dashboard, which is being relied upon worldwide for its clear, objective presentation of data.

Sadly, we’re seeing the highest number of mortalities among poor communities and communities of color, which is the consequence of decades’ worth of health care disparities. We’re seeing tragic impacts in the food systems world, too, with small to medium scale farms going out of business, countless restaurants having to close, staggering rates of hunger among US families, and food chain workers being asked to report for duty without proper health and safety gear, without paid sick days, and without the premium pay they deserve. We’re seeing crops being plowed under and milk being dumped, while school children struggle to access the school meals they need now more than ever. Globally, we see the food chain breaking and the World Food Programme is predicting a “famine of biblical proportions.”

For decades before this moment, the scientific community engaged in the One Health initiative has been warning us that a pandemic was around the corner. SARS, MERS, Ebola, avian flu, and Zika virus were all warnings, but the world’s response was limited. Several factors such as global population growth, the industrial food system, and climate change have contributed to the decrease of habitat of many animal species, and spillover of pathogens could be expected. While livestock was not a reservoir for SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that causes Covid-19, pigs and poultry are intermediate reservoirs for Nipah virus and influenza. There are many reasons why we should limit industrial food animal production—antibiotic resistance, animal welfare, and environmental degradation among them—but the prevention of spillovers of zoonosis is an important reason itself.

In some ways, the coronavirus has forced a terrible natural experiment on the planet. How many times have we asked ourselves, “What would happen if we drove fewer miles, wasted less, and cut back on business as usual? What would it look like if we just did less?” We’re beginning to get an idea—I’ve seen photos of the Himalayas, Venice, and Los Angeles with dramatically less pollution, and they make me feel hopeful that the world knows how to clean itself up. But I’ve also seen some dramatic lessons being learned in the food systems world. When I was a boy growing up in the Netherlands, we had a milkman who delivered milk to our door. Today I have food delivered from my local store, which is sourcing from local farms, and it strikes me how odd it is that in “normal” times, we drive to the supermarket constantly, to buy food that’s shipped from thousands of miles away and supplied by huge corporations. Why can’t we do more farm-to-consumer purchasing in “normal” times? This terrible natural experiment has laid bare that our entire concept of “efficiency” in the US food system is artificial. Can we do this in a different way? Can we re-imagine the roles of all of our food chain workers, and can we re-think how we support and dignify them in the future? The global food system appears to be even more precarious than those of high-income nations.

What if now is the time for “emergency reform” to lead us toward a more equitable, resilient and healthy food system? Can we build it better this time around? In the US, we can build on momentum already created in the coronavirus relief packages being passed by Congress as we speak: Let’s make sure that no one in the US is food insecure. Let’s remove the stigma from receiving school meals. Let’s make participating in nutrition assistance programs easier and more dignified. Globally, can we seize this moment to improve food security and nutrition for those who suffer the most? When the pandemic is finally over, let’s remember that we can do all these things if the situation is urgent enough, and let’s ring the bell loudly enough that everyone understands the urgency of food system reform.

As I watch all these reforms and innovations begin to happen, I realize that the work of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future is more important now than ever. The world needs science and objectivity, and the world needs collaboration. And when a majority believes in the same thing, we don’t need to bridge the extremes to solve big problems.

We’re seeing this pandemic politicized and we’re watching it degrade into ideological arguments—but this is not about right or left. The issue right now is not about who’s right or who’s wrong. We have enough bright people in the world to come up with treatments and vaccines, and we can only overcome this virus with solidarity. Let’s take care of each other and take away the lesson that we can make this a better world.

Martin W. Bloem, MD, PhD, is the inaugural Robert S. Lawrence Professor and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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