Happy Darwin Day. Infection Reflection!

A time to celebrate the advance of science and its role in tackling infection, and decry those who ignore its lessons. Barking and Dagenham Post opinion piece 23.2.22.

Happy (belated) Darwin Day! The birthday of this pioneering scientist is a great time to celebrate amazing advances in our understanding of the world and our place in it.

Humanists UK marked the day with an event taking a long view at the evolution of infections and their interplay with humans. Not much joy there you might think, but amidst all the gloom of the Covid pandemic there is some cheer.  There is also much food for thought about our behaviours.

Dame  Anne Johnson has been at the forefront of research since the early 1980’s.  She provided a personal perspective on the groundbreaking science involved in tackling Covid. The annual event was chaired by Humanists UK president, biologist Professor Alice Roberts.

This is the first time in human history that the progress of a pandemic has been mapped in such detail in real time, with the ability to analyse the genetic code as a virus has evolved. Dame Anne began her career as the horror of Aids started hitting the headlines.  Profound dread was caused by the then inexplicable wave of death. It took years to identify the HIV virus that caused it, and further years to find any form of effective treatment. Vaccines for Covid were developed in record time. Though the Covid death toll has been dreadful, it has been dramatically mitigated through the cooperation of scientists from many disciplines around the globe.

Pathogens, the organisms which cause disease, have always been part of nature and have shaped human history. (Barking Abbey was a key site of the first reported plague in England around 664 AD). Dame Anne explored the factors through which ever-present pathogens give rise to pandemics. They include ease of transmissibility and environmental degradation. Another is the importance of human behaviour, for example unprotected sex in the case of HIV.

For me one big takeaway is the importance of human behaviour. This should be obvious. But this vital public health message has been seriously undermined by the Government. Throwing rule-breaking parties is one thing. Another is the celebratory way in which the early lifting of preventative measures was announced. We can debate the most effective way of encouraging safer behaviours, and whether criminal law should play a role. But acting as if Covid no longer presents a deadly threat is plain irresponsible.

Paul Kaufman
Chair East London Humanists

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