As a disease ecologist, this has been a very unusual year. Every year, I teach my students in my Disease Ecology capstone class about infectious diseases, the basic reproduction number and pandemics. However, it has been surreal to live through a pandemic myself! As a scientist, particularly a disease ecologist, living through the pandemic is the most exciting thing ever! But as a human being, it feels like a nightmare I can’t wake up from. I vividly remember the email I was reading on ProMed-Mail a year ago about a strange cluster of cases of respiratory illness connected to the wet market in Wuhan, China. While I have seen many similar reports on ProMed-Mail that turned out to be nothing major, I remember having a strange feeling about this one. I also remember giving a guest lecture to students about the impact of climate change on infectious diseases at the end of January, just after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Washington State, US. At that point, I naively assumed that the closure of borders and aggressive infection control in China would stop the spread of COVID-19 and prevent a full-scale pandemic. I only realized the gravity of the situation when Nancy Messonnier at the CDC announced that we will have to focus on mitigation instead of containment as COVID-19 already escaped or will escape containment. As they say, the rest is history.
This year was definitely one of the worst years in recent memory, only comparable to World Wars and previous pandemics, such as the Spanish Influenza in 1918. As of 30 December 2020, according to the COVID-19 Dashboard at the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University, 82,655,924 people were officially infected globally and 1,803,942 people have died. However, we know that cases are under-reported about 7-to-10 fold, so the true number of cases approaches a billion, 1/8th of the global population. The lockdowns and other restrictions imposed in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic, while saving millions of lives, had other side effects, such as the loss of employment of hundreds of millions of people and subsequent economic crisis. This was further exacerbated by additional racial and political crises in some countries. Finally, while we hoped that the reduced economic activity would reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally, this did not occur, and we were further plagued by the impact of our ongoing self-inflicted climate crisis, such as raging wildfires and a record-breaking hurricane season. It’s difficult to fathom the enormity of the crises and suffering that humanity has gone through this year. People tend to become desensitized to the numbers reported, precisely to protect our psyche from the crushing gravity of the current situation.
While there were plenty of mistakes made in how the pandemic was handled this year, both in the US and other countries, the crisis highlighted the willingness and ability of most people to rise to the challenge and persevere in the face of adversity. Healthcare workers fought tirelessly to save lives, sometimes against overwhelming odds, risking their own lives and those of their families, especially in the beginning of the pandemic when there was less information on effective treatments. Public health professionals did everything they could to educate and convince us to follow the few effective guidelines we had to control transmission, to counter misinformation (the infodemic) flooding social media, and fight back politically motivated resistance to public health guidelines. Scientists have worked tirelessly to develop treatments and vaccines with record-breaking speed, completing product development and clinical trials (which usually takes 5-10 years) within a single year, providing us with a safe and effective vaccine. Teachers, like myself, pivoted to online or hybrid teaching methods, switching to online teaching methods in the Spring and continuing to develop effective learning environments since. Ordinary citizens sacrificed seeing their families and friends and limited their interactions in order to reduce transmission, while also helping others in other ways, from making masks to delivering meals to donating money.
The editors and authors here at BugBitten have also persevered and continued contributing posts, regardless of their circumstances. Sixty posts have been written, between editors and contributing authors, marshaled by our steadfast editor-in-chief, Hilary Hurd. We also welcomed a new editor, Daniel Parsons. Many of the posts mentioned COVID-19 (see here and here), specifically how the pandemic impacts the amount of resources and attention given to other diseases, especially vector-borne diseases. By focusing so much of our attention on COVID-19, it’s easy to forget that other infectious diseases, such as malaria and dengue are still with us, and will become more prevalent with lack of attention on controlling them. While some other infectious diseases, such as influenza, do also get impacted by the methods we use to control COVID-19, such as masks, this is not true for vector-borne diseases. We hope that our posts have also provided a much-needed break from the constant deluge of COVID-19 coverage, especially for scientists whose work in the lab might have been disrupted.
As we go into the New Year, we have to deal with the ambivalence of the tantalizing proximity of returning to “normal” after getting vaccinated, and the immediate crushing impact of the pandemic still raging across the globe. While trying to restore and rebuild what we lost, we need to recognize the opportunities this crisis presents, to rebuild to a better future, one with more equity and less barriers placed in front of people before they can participate. We need to make this pandemic a “teachable moment”, like when I share a mistake I made in the lab to inspire students to do better. We need to think about what we learned from this crisis, especially in how we relate to nature, to science, and to each other, so we do better next time. This is not the last pandemic and we’ll need to be ready for next time.
Good riddance 2020, let’s get ready for 2021!