Forget coronavirus: Worry about antibiotic resistance instead

Gavin Victor, Columnist

I’m terrified of COVID-19. My head jerks at the sound of a cough. I wash my hands whenever I have the opportunity. The health threat is almost omnipresent in my mind – a predator watching me, always from behind. 

This attitude is a common phenomenon. It is incredibly easy, especially with media sensationalization, to focus on coronavirus as an imminent existential threat to us as individuals and to our communities. After all, it is close to home, relatively dangerous and essentially uncontained. Essentially, our dramatic responses are stimulated by how proximal the risk feels. 

Amid the poles of overreaction and not enough reaction to the virus, one thing is certain: To be as consumed by fear as I am about the coronavirus alone is fundamentally ungrounded. Certainly, we should be vigilant. We should be careful, but our response illustrates the catastrophic human tendency to improperly acknowledge those alternatively much greater existential threats that seem distant. Just slight contemplation, though, shows that the blinders we have to our real existential threats are truly and incredibly terrifying.

A survey of experts from the “Future of Humanity Institute” at the University of Oxford states that there is a 19 percent chance of human extinction before 2100. If this is the risk of our extinction, then consequently, an extreme decrease in quality of life is much more likely, too. Among the many risks within contemporary life, issues surrounding antibiotic resistance are almost completely unacknowledged, incredibly dangerous and subject to change with only slight cultural and industrial shifts. The WHO claims that, “without urgent action, we are heading towards a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor illnesses can once again kill.” The UN claims that by 2050, ten million people will die every year from antibiotic-resistant diseases – which is more than the current figure for cancer. 

Antibiotic resistance stems from the misuse of antibiotics. The more we use antibiotics, the more we allow bacteria to build up a tolerance to them. We have already seen the advent of MRSA and antibiotic-resistant salmonella. The most obvious fix for this is to only prescribe antibiotics when absolutely necessary, which doctors are beginning to do. Humans, however, only use 20 percent of the antibiotics manufactured. The rest are consumed constantly by animals waiting for slaughter in massive feeding operations. Lance Price, an expert on bacteria resistant “superbugs”, claims that our food system’s predication on a constant use of antibiotics for animals is a recipe for disaster, because it uses antibiotics in a way that will inevitably lead to antibiotic resistance. 

As with almost all recent disease outbreaks – like Swine-flu, MERS and SARS – COVID-19 is zoonotic, meaning that it originated in animals. Not only did these diseases originate in animals but in a particular species of animals that inhabit unnatural conditions for the sake of humans: including Swine-flu from pigs, MERS from camels, as well as SARS and COVID-19 likely originating from bats. While viruses are not the same problem as is antibiotic resistance, overlap between them indicates that top priority global health issues are stemming from our failure to have a healthy relationship with animals. We get zoonotic diseases as a result of exploitative and unnatural relationships with animals.

We need to use the fear generated by COVID-19 to jump start legitimate action in order to mitigate the fallout from catastrophes right around the corner. The fact that we turn a blind eye to pandemics that are becoming more and more inevitable is a sign that we shouldn’t trust our natural tendency to just “deal with it later.” Dealing with it later, dealing with the pandemics that are coming, doesn’t work. We should be scared – but of much more than COVID-19.