The Coronavirus Took Advantage of Our Weaknesses
A physician explains the nature of opportunistic infection
In 1971, a professor of epidemiology named Abdel Omran proposed the epidemiological transition theory. He concluded there have been three main “stages” of human health concerns. First, in the pre-modern era, we dealt with widespread pestilence and famine. This time period was characterized by a high mortality rate and a low average life expectancy — around 20 to 40 years. Major causes of death included infections, malnutrition, and complications of childbirth.
Next came stage 2, dubbed “the age of receding pandemics.” Average life expectancy increased, averaging between 30 and 50 years. Infections remained a significant issue, but epidemic peaks became less frequent. Finally, early in the 20th century, we reached stage 3. Omran called this “the age of degenerative and man-made diseases,” when chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes became our principal problems.
Scholars have debated the specifics of Omran’s theory, but the basic premise is sound: The burden of illness in humans has largely moved away from infectious concerns and towards chronic, often preventable diseases. Worldwide, high blood pressure, smoking, high blood sugar, and obesity are four of the top five risk factors for death. Of course, this doesn’t mean that infectious diseases have completely gone away. HIV/AIDS remains a major health threat, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. Hundreds of thousands of people also die of malaria each year. Still, in industrialized nations, the overall threat from pathogens like bacteria, parasites, and viruses is now relatively low.
This pattern has been turned on its head in 2020.
As we’ve all learned in frightening, real time this year, the 2019 coronavirus strain (SARS-CoV-2 virus) rapidly spread from Wuhan, China to wrap its way around the world. Globalization fueled a steady viral march across countries and continents. By mid 2020, millions of people had been infected with the pathogen — a significant problem, as the SARS-CoV-2 virus can of course cause a potentially lethal disease: Covid-19. Unlike pandemics in times past, the interconnectivity of the modern world allowed for transmission of the pathogen across massive distances…