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Community in the Age of Pandemics

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

We knew it was just a matter of time.

As we have expanded into an interconnected global community, the potential for novel microbial pathogens to emerge and spread has escalated with us. COVID-19 is the virus we knew would arrive and you can feel the panic rising.

What else could I write about this week?

Everyday the number of coronavirus cases increases. The only thing that seems to be spreading faster than the virus itself is the amount of content related to its spread. What this means of course is that there is as much misinformation being passed along as information that is reliable. But we read it all because how can we not. Fear regarding the ease of transmission and the range of virulence compels us.

So yes, a novel, communicable virus is amongst us and together we must face it. It is the vision of Relational Space to build a more just and sustainable world, inspired through art and informed by truth. Because this is our home and working together, to preserve this planet and build a more resilient global community, is the way forward.

We are all part of this global community. This virus does not care whether we are rich or poor - mercenary or charitable. Race, gender, education, wealth…none of it matters to the virus. But these things do matter, especially in the age of pandemics.

An infectious respiratory virus can lead to suspicion and the subsequent demonization of groups of people based on irrational conclusions. Misinformation in an environment of fear accelerates unfounded beliefs giving rise to discrimination, xenophobia and racism.

Once our social contract has been breeched so we can no longer trust that our own government is providing consistent, accurate communication informed by good science we need to build new, credible platforms for knowledge exchange and the dissemination of evidence-based information.

In 2018, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History became a leader in creating Art + Science platforms for public health dissemination with its exhibition “Outbreak” dedicated to examining the relationship of humans, animals and their environments as they relate to the spread of infectious disease (on view until 2021). The exhibit provides interactive experiences to engage the public; stresses the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration and international cooperation for understanding new virus outbreaks; and, identifies best practices for response. Accessible storytelling leads to education that is compelling and relatable. Millions of people have been able to gain scientific insights about transmission and prevention because of this installation.

Our world is a complex system of non-linear relations between constantly changing components. In our interconnected world, we are all responsible for the emergence of new disease. It is our actions – global travel and trade, urbanization, industrialization, pollution, governmental standards, public health measures and spending – that drive pandemic impact and transmission. Pandemics are not random – all of us contribute to the vulnerabilities that create them. There is reciprocity between the way we treat the environment and the way it reacts toward us. We must examine our politics, economic, social structures and the disparities therein.

We are all in this together but it doesn’t always feel that way. We need to take a critical look at who gets treatment and who is excluded and determine how to address the inequalities. We need to understand that quarantine for individuals with illness does not equate to isolationism along national or regional boundaries or by categories of people. Borders will not keep us safe from a virus.

To promote open dialogue and opportunities for public health emergencies to be understood from multiple perspectives, new platforms are essential where issues of social equity, environmental regulation, industrial policy and global health can be explored, using empirical data from crosscutting experts. Effective responses to complex issues, such as pandemics, require collaboration between disciplines, sectors, communities and nations as well as alliances with consumers and advocacy groups.

When scientific information is presented in the context of assessable narratives the public can relate more easily, with reduced probability of partisan filters. When data is presented within interactive, immersive formats people engage more fully with the experiences. Being able to see things from a different perspective improves the likelihood of empathy-based collective action.

We need to find ways to work together as human beings within a single species; organize our society to care for another; and, understand that the health of our most vulnerable people is a consequential factor for the health of all of us.

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