25 May 2020
Opening just one of many cell doors for COVID-19
Written by Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty
With the lockdown of Australian society being gradually lifted across the country, many of us may have the sense that we’re coming out of a period of house arrest. The cell door is open, and we are increasingly free to roam beyond the confines of our cell block. Depending on our financial circumstances, family situation and so forth, that experience of confinement may have been more or less comfortable.
As anyone who has visited the Port Arthur settlement in Tasmania is aware, cell blocks are part of our history. Decades back, as a Board Member of the World Bank-affiliated ILRAD (International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases), I was sitting in the premium lounge at the old Nairobi Airport when in walked about half of the cabinet of the Kenya Government. They all proudly wore the big, round badges of the ruling KANU People’s Party, which look much like those sported by members of the US Congress. As we sat and waited for our flight to Amsterdam, Prisoner: Cell Block H played on the TV screen above our heads. A proud moment for me to know that Australian culture is everywhere! Kenya is currently (18 May) reporting a total of around 1000 cases of COVID-19, with about a five per cent death rate. After 53 truck drivers tested positive at points of entry, Kenya closed the borders with Tanzania and Somalia. We are indeed fortunate to be an island nation.
What COVID-19 is doing across the planet is to highlight the extent of social inequality and, for many countries, the extreme danger of being poor and marginally housed in the face of a rapidly spreading pandemic. Back when I was visiting, the outskirts of Nairobi featured massive shanty towns inhabited by those fleeing the war zones to the north. Such “informal settlements” are, of course, an increasingly distressing feature of the contemporary landscape.
With a comprehensive taxpayer-funded health system and a national government that has been prepared to spend in an effort to keep people safe, the contrast in fates for the rich and the poor has been less obvious for Australia than for most countries. Still, even for this (as we see from COVID-19) basically decent and compassionate country, it may cause us to rethink a little of how we operate. We have the wealth, plus the traditions of democratic governance and rule of law, that allow us to explore alternatives.
For many Australians, there have been positives as well as negatives. Some have the sense that they won’t ever go back to a lifestyle where there’s a requirement to wear a necktie, or a return to pants that don’t have elastic around the top. Has our social world evolved to the extent that informality will be the new normal? Likely not. While the realm of fashion may seem a kind of conformity prison to outsiders who don’t have much regard for it anyway, others may see dressing-up in various ways as a statement of their place in society and/or a mechanism for the expression of individuality. And, of course, spending money on elegant clothing, shoes and the like drives economic activity.
What it actually means to be confined is the one aspect of cell life that I didn’t think much about back in 2013 when I published my Q&A book Pandemics: what everyone needs to know. (available as an e-book from VitalSource). As it’s my research area, I wrote a lot about the cell biology of virus infections and how our immune cells, and the molecules produced by those cells, deal with invading pathogens. Though there was some mention of economic consequences and what we now refer to as “social or physical distancing”, I now realise the inadequacy of my grasp of the psychological and, particularly, the microeconomic consequences. Did any of the economists engage seriously with this issue? If they had, would we have changed some of the ways we do things? Probably not!
We are now heading into unknown territory re COVID-19. At the Doherty Institute, our scientists and medical professionals who are involved in community testing, in the development of drug and vaccine strategies, and in co-ordinating with diagnosticians, researchers and physicians locally, nationally and internationally (a key information stream), are immensely grateful to our political leaders and to our fellow citizens for the respite of this lockdown period. This has allowed us, along with the spectrum of hospital and private laboratories working with tracking teams in health departments across Australia, to get up to speed so that we can do our job and help get us out of this crisis. And the lockdown bought us time to get the clinical resources in place that will allow our doctors and nurses to save lives, including their own, as they are exposed to very sick and very infectious patients. Again, we thank you.
Economically and socially, we all understand that the lockdown had to come to an end. For the immediate future: our best hope is, I think, that we can keep the incidence of infection down to “spot fires”, to limited “cells of SARS-CoV-2 terrorism”. Whatever happens, many lives will have been saved.