Comment

Good habits must remain to beat the next pandemic

Viruses are becoming more prevalent and dangerous – we must not let hope for a vaccine make us complacent

Covid virus cell and map of UK

The Covid-19 pandemic has touched every corner of our planet. Well over 500m people have probably been infected and 1.3m deaths have been reported. In October, the IMF estimated that the cumulative loss of output to the global economy, compared to pre-pandemic expectations, will be severe at around £22 trillion over 2020-2025. 

The pandemic is the greatest challenge in peacetime facing the world for more than 100 years, and the sobering reality is that it won’t be the last. The prevalence of devastating diseases like Covid-19 is being driven by human behaviour. We have failed to live in harmony with nature.

Covid-19 has shown that even the bluntest and most extreme government interventions are not enough to eliminate a highly infectious virus. The recent news of over 90pc efficacy of two mRNA vaccines is bringing realistic hope to end this crisis for many of us in 2021. 

While the vaccine developments are extremely encouraging, medical interventions alone are unlikely to provide a silver bullet in the near-term. Science is one of our most potent weapons in this fight, but regardless of how effective vaccines may ultimately be, it will take time to roll out widely and equitably. This is therefore not the time to become complacent and let down our guard. 

Now, more than ever, we must make sure that changes to our behaviour – including wearing face coverings, avoiding crowds, close contacts and closed environments, while practising good hygiene – sticks.

Business has an important role to play. The prevalence of devastating diseases like Covid-19 is being driven by human behaviour. High-risk zoonoses (diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans) are emerging with worrying regularity due to livestock production and the wild animal trade. Population growth and density are also playing a role, with the global population expected to increase to 9.7bn by 2050 when, according to UN estimates, almost 70pc of the world’s population will live in towns and cities. 

Coupled with this rapid urbanisation, the increased interconnectivity of urban centres is a powerful factor in disease emergence and spread, and the speed and complexity of modern transport make traditional approaches to disease control and quarantine increasingly impotent. Climate change and the lengthening life cycle of insects will also be a negative factor.

As the historical foundation of public health, good hygiene is also one of the most important tools we have in fighting pandemics. Sanitation and hygiene have been at the cornerstone of our School’s research, since our inception just over 120 years ago. It is even part of our name. 

Good hygiene is often about good habits. We know that on average it takes 66 days to form a new habit. We are nearly 300 days into the Covid-19 pandemic, and we have seen significant behaviour changes as a result of the extraordinary circumstances we have found ourselves in. 

Handwashing is thought to have increased, face coverings have been widely adopted in many locations and social distancing is a new term that many of us are now familiar with and adopting in our day-to-day lives. However, we clearly have to do better and sustain our collective efforts, even if there is understandably growing “Covid fatigue”.

The challenge is that while new habits take a relatively long time to form, they can be lost quickly if the context changes. As the current Covid-19 situation continues to evolve, and hopefully improve, we must not reverse many of the new habits we have formed during the pandemic. Given the likelihood of increasingly frequent pandemics, it would be incredibly short-sighted not to act now to ensure that good hygiene habits outlast this pandemic.

Governments, business, scientific institutions and communities must all work together to inform public health recommendations and methods for maintaining positive behavioural changes. We need a concerted effort to ensure that handwashing and sanitising continues as it prevents so many types of infections. 

As part of the UK’s coronavirus recovery plan “build back better”, the Government must continue their existing campaigns to promote good hygiene, meeting people ‘where they are’, including on social media. We saw the power of social media with the Dettol #handwashchallenge campaign, which reached over 125bn views with some 270m uploads, making it the most viewed TikTok in 2020. 

Employers everywhere must actively encourage the maintenance of higher levels of hygienic behaviours now, well ahead of employees returning to more normal working practices. We should be drawing on industry and scientific expertise to reinforce these efforts.

Read more: How close is a Covid-19 vaccine – and who will get it first?

Hygiene should be a right not a privilege whichever corner of the globe you inhabit. As Director of LSHTM, and also as the inaugural chair of the new Reckitt Global Hygiene Institute expert panel, set up by RB plc, our researchers have been working to provide high quality scientific research and behavioural insights to drive the adoption of sustainable hygienic practices globally. But we all need to do more. 

We live in a world where diseases are becoming more prevalent and dangerous, threatening not only our health but our economies and the fabric of society. Government actions and medical advancements can only do so much.

To beat future pandemics, we must ensure that new hygiene habits stick. 

Peter Piot is the director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and chairman of the Reckitt Global Hygiene Institute expert panel