No. 43




The World Was Not Ready for a Large Health Crisis

09 June 2021


RiTo No. 43, 2021

  • Irja Lutsar

    Irja Lutsar

    University of Tartu, Institute of Biomedicine and Translational Medicine, Head of Office; Head of the Government’s COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Board

The coronavirus crisis hit the whole world unexpectedly. We had been used to seeing natural disasters, local theatres of war and outbreaks of infectious diseases in developing countries (Zika and Ebola viruses).

However, they were happening far away from us, looking frightening on TV screen, but leaving ordinary people relatively indifferent. We in the Western world are used to a life that includes travelling and holidays and fine meals for the sake of enjoyment, not eating to stay alive. It was no news to experts that viruses are transmitted from the animal kingdom to the human population, and that only respiratory viruses can cause pandemics.

We as humankind had developed a feeling that infectious diseases were subject to our will. We wanted to believe that it would remain so. And then, SARS-CoV-2 came. The virus entered the human population where it was expected to take place – in South-East Asia. Having been brought to Europe, the virus spread covertly at first, but in February 2020, the rates of infection increased drastically in Italy. The virus could not be contained, and within a matter of a month it had taken hold of the whole Europe. The crisis had begun. But a crisis would not be a crisis if the humankind were ready for it. You are never ready for a crisis. And thus the spread of the virus was followed by a total chaos in Europe. Very soon it became clear that the infection prevention measures that were effective in the authoritarian Asian societies could not be implemented in the democratic European countries. But half-way solutions did not work.

The world was not ready for such a large health crisis, although it had been known that viruses, including coronaviruses, were capable of mutating and becom­ing human pathogens. It was urgently necessary to introduce a monitoring system for such viruses.

The pandemic has lasted for over a year now, more than 200 vaccines are being developed and the most successful of them have reached the market. However, the vaccines have shown side effects, and they may not be effective against all new variants of the virus. At the same time, the development of antiviral medicines is lagging far behind the vaccines. And yet they could be of great help against COVID-19.

The only means to fight the pandemic in 2020 was a full or partial lockdown of countries. This method was first introduced during the plague outbreaks of the 16th century. Unfortunately, no alternative has yet been suggested. Although lockdown is effective, it has a devastating effect on economy and on people’s psyche.

Extensive vaccination of population is seen as the only solution to the crisis. However, it is not wholly clear if it will allow to discard other public health measures like social distancing, avoiding large gatherings, wearing a face mask, and temporary lockdowns. Nor will it be sufficient if total vaccination can be used only in the rich Western countries. There is a risk that, if the spread of the virus continues in Africa and in other developing countries, new variants of the virus will emerge there. This will force countries to close their borders for a long time and to restrict travelling.

The spread of SARS-CoV-2 that started in 2020 and the health crisis that followed it may go on ebbing and flowing for many years to come. The WHO is probably right – nothing is over until everything is over. Our chance is to adapt to the situation as well as possible.