When Bill Gates, the famous humanitarian, entrepreneur and founder of Microsoft, was asked in an interview with Vox about the greatest threat to humanity in the coming decades, his answer was scientific, reasonable and startling. Rather than mentioning the kinds of threats usually brought up in such discussions, dangers such as nuclear weapons, climate change and planet-killing asteroids, Gates pointed to something else with a much higher likelihood of occurrence but with the potential to be just as devastating.
A widespread pandemic is the most likely cause of a mass extinction event in the 21st century, yet despite its relatively high probability of occurring, it remains less discussed than many flashier topics like war and environmental disaster. The last time the risk of pandemic sparked widespread fear and discussion was in 2014, with the spread of the Ebola virus devastating communities in West Africa, and, in rare cases, spreading to other countries as well.
Though the topic has since faded from national conversation, the threat remains real. Even more important, unlike reducing carbon emissions or preventing nuclear proliferation, one major remedy for disease is relatively straightforward and within our capability. The human race could significantly reduce the likelihood of a pandemic disaster by eliminating extreme global poverty.
In 2014, West Africa suffered an outbreak of the Ebola virus, which devastated communities and killed more than 11,000 people by 2016. It also shed international light on the link between poverty and epidemics. Ebola became such a threat in 2014 because the region was impoverished and lacked the basic healthcare infrastructure necessary to fight the outbreak. This allowed the disease to spread at a fierce pace, risking a worldwide epidemic and sparking fears around the globe. Many patients were at first handled without proper caution, which led to an increase in cases and the rapid spread of the virus throughout the region.
If the United States invested more in these countries, especially toward improving their medical infrastructure and quality of life, such spending would not only create a new market for American exports, but it would also decrease the likelihood that a virus-like Ebola could spread without proper defensive strategies from the medical community. If healthcare infrastructure in West Africa had been better in 2014, the outbreak could have been contained much faster and the death toll reduced drastically.
The way in which a given disease spreads and becomes an epidemic is a complicated issue that depends on many factors. Poverty, however, has been shown to be a major determinant of how many people will be infected and how quickly. A World Health Organization report found that poverty in Africa correlated with an increase in the likelihood of contracting HIV, which researchers speculated was due to poor sexual education and high levels of economic disparity in impoverished regions. Similarly, the National Health Institute found in a 2012 report that communicable disease and poverty were linked to one another.
Though correlation did not imply causation, the researchers stressed that it would be foolish to disregard the link between poverty and epidemics, and that environmental conditions like economic status played a major role in the spread of disease. They argued that the link was likely caused by poor education, crippled healthcare infrastructure and the lack of clean water and food, all of which are common in areas suffering from extreme poverty. By investing in the healthcare infrastructure of other nations, the United States could help both itself and the world by reducing the likelihood of a major global pandemic, as the link between poverty and epidemics is a major risk that could become even more dangerous to the future of humanity than nuclear warfare.
– Shane Summers