"Our life is vulnerable!”

Neuruppin/Brandenburg an der Havel, 31 May 2021

Prof. Edmund Neugebauer and Prof. Markus Deckert investigate the extent to which the Corona pandemic has changed society in a joint guest commentary published by the daily Märkische Allgemeine Zeitung. They suggest a task force to be set up for policy advice and improved crisis management.

The pandemic has clearly demonstrated the vulnerability of our society and our remarkable ability to meet challenges. It has also shown us the lesson to be drawn. Hunger and violence, mishaps and diseases have threatened the lives of all previous generations. We know with certainty that we will die; today, however, we have considerably reduced the risk of unexpected death and far extended the human life span. Today a fifty-year-old woman, even with diagnosed breast cancer, has a higher life expectancy than a healthy ancestor 300 years ago.

This gain is based on prosperity, scientific advances and solidarity. We have grown accustomed to all that and no longer expect fundamental threats. It is in our nature to attach greater importance to acute threats than to future ones, even if those in the future are much more serious. For four decades we have been aware of the ecological crisis and of climate change, but our personal as well as political decisions focus more on today’s amenities than on tomorrow’s basic needs.

False sense of security

The Corona pandemic reveals a false sense of security. Life changed overnight for all of us in ways which in autumn 2019 would have seemed like poorly made science fiction.

Actually, this virus is not excessively harsh: It has permitted us to continue with our previous lives for the most part. Many people were only deprived of particular highlights, such as meeting friends and family, cultural events, travels. We have been able to compensate via video chats and virtual cultural events and had some surprising experiences of nature just outside the front door. But the message was unusually definite: our life and everything about it that is dear to us cannot be taken for granted. It is vulnerable.

Keeping up solidarity in the future

In the debate on major future challenges, we are often told that political options are limited. In general, people love to buy cheap meat wrapped in plastic and drive oversized cars. But the pandemic has taught us how radical political action can be if necessary. And another thing we have learned: the economic loss is comparatively small; the gross domestic product sank by 4.3 percent during the pandemic to reach the level of 2017. Where growth is the key yardstick, this is much but by no means a collapse. Losses during the financial crisis in 2008 were 7.0 percent.

We are able to afford that much to prevent the spread of a virus and to keep up the mechanics of our affluence economy to 95 percent – how much more must be possible where our future is at stake! What should we be afraid of? Of one thing only: that we fail in our real task. The point is not that everything should be as it was before the pandemic. The aim must be to transfer the spirit of solidarity that makes our civilization strong into the future.

The first mission will be to heal wounds. Those who suffered most from restrictions need immediate support: people whose occupational situation slipped through the net of aid programmes, and primarily children and adolescents who missed important “firsts” and important experiences in their development.

What lessons can we learn?

We will have to strengthen those institutions that are based on solidarity; the first to be mentioned are health care and educational systems. The main focus must be not on money but on benefits to those for whom the system was created and those who take care of others. Physicians, nursing staff and patients alike were frequently left to their own devices during the pandemic. Improvements are required in the provision of not only medical care but also and specifically of important coordinated information so that the general public can better understand and appreciate policy actions. In our open society we can only accept what we understand.

Climate protection is health protection

One way out of the pandemic (or other, future crises possibly related to climate change) is to set up an ideally interdisciplinary pandemic task force which in the medium term should be transferred into a National Health Institute. In case of a new global crisis, this institution would bring all threads together, provide reliable and transparent decision criteria for policy makers and coordinate public communication.

Beyond the pandemic and from a more global perspective, the time has come for reforms in our country so that we do no longer intensify the climate crisis and appreciate creation not in terms of resources but as a value in itself. This is the only way to show solidarity with future generations. It is neither ideology nor magic, it is genuine necessity. We know well what has to be done, and what it will cost. Costs will be far higher if we do nothing.

We have thus come full circle: SARS-CoV2 will not be the last virus to be transmitted from animals to humans. Pandemics will occur less frequently if we refrain from destructing natural habitats.

(Prof. Edmund Neugebauer is the president of the Brandenburg Medical School MHB, and Prof. Markus Deckert is the Dean of the MHB Faculty of Medicine and Psychology. The article was published in the daily Märkische Allgemeine Zeitung on 31 May 2021.)