Epidemic Pandemic

A flood of infections impact society

Perspective by:
Research Squad
Moxi Ventures

Variants of Epidemics are all around.

Each day, right across our hyperconnected world, more and more people, goods, and dollars are on the move. International travel is booming,[1] the value of goods sold around the world is skyrocketing,[2] and international capital flows are creating previously unimaginable levels of global wealth.[3]

This is the lifeblood of the global economy. But its interdependency brings new risks. The free flow of people and trade has greatly increased the risk of epidemic disease. And, as the velocity of epidemic variants increases, the next global pandemic looms ever closer.

Already, disease outbreaks are hitting tourism and productivity hard. Brazil’s 2015 Zika outbreak created a major global health scare just months before the country hosted the Olympics.[4] And for the victims, outcomes still largely depend on finance, education, and access to healthcare. As many as 11,000 people died in the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, for example.[5]

But epidemics aren’t just about viruses. Addiction plagues millions around the world. Illicit drug use is the highest it’s been for a decade. [6] Binge drinking costs the US economy billions of dollars each year, and is responsible for one in ten deaths of working-age citizens.[7] Prescription opioid abuse is developing into a severe issue in middle-income and developed countries.[8] And digital technology is even becoming a problem addiction for many.[9]

The vast migrations and displacements forced on global populations by war or natural disaster only add to the risks. Today, as many as 60 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide.[10] Between 2008 and 2014, over 26 million people were displaced by natural disasters.[11] As climate change bites ever more severely, those numbers will only grow. Civil wars, terrorism, and other conflicts continue to create huge numbers of refugees. As the world enters perhaps its most dangerous chapter for decades, with flashpoints everywhere from Yemen to Myanmar,[12] epidemiologists are braced for ever more frequent and disastrous outbreaks of global disease.

Structures will be disrupted.

First and foremost, epidemics inflict a physical toll on people. And displaced populations are the most vulnerable. They suffer shorter life expectancy, as well as higher rates of cancer, birth defects, infant mortality, asthma, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.[13] But minds can be affected as much as bodies. Post-traumatic stress and serious depression are major problems among settled refugees, with children and adolescents often the most afflicted.[14]

Epidemics damage nations too. The 2014 West African Ebola outbreak severely hit growth rates in affected countries, caused by plummeting travel, tourism, and trade.[15] Substance abuse costs the US $420 billion each year.[16] And drug-resistant strains of bacteria could lead to something like $100 trillion in lost global output by 2050 – the equivalent of the entire UK economy.[17]

In response, digital humanitarianism is a growing phenomenon, thanks in part to the global ubiquity of the smartphone. In Jordan – a country where over a third of the population are now refugees – social enterprise Techfugees hosted a hackathon to find new solutions to problems like water shortages caused by leaking pipes.[18]

In drought-stricken regions in Somalia and South Sudan, a crowdsourcing platform called Abaaraha is connecting first responders with victims and mapping cases of malnutrition, disease, and death.[19] And Chicago startup Triggr is using smartphone data and artificial intelligence to predict the likelihood of drug addiction relapses and connect victims with professional recovery coaches.[20]


Acts of solidarity will change the game.

From Ebola to Zika to MERS, the world has seen just how ill-equipped governments are to deal with the next pandemic on their own. A central problem is a lack of a global public health infrastructure. This is thought to be driving more than 40 percent of international disease outbreaks.[21] Creating that infrastructure comes at a cost – as much as $3.4 billion a year according to the World Bank. But that cost is dwarfed by the projected annual $37 billion benefit it would create.[22] 

So how can we best come together to fight the problems caused by epidemics and population displacement? By pursuing micro-movements of solidarity through unique alliances between the public and private spheres. For example, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have backed the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a major public-private partnership speeding up the development of vaccines and other preventative measures.[23]

Unique alliances are also solving issues caused by displacement and natural disaster. Airbnb’s Open Homes, for example, has been making short-term accommodation available to victims of the Northern California wildfires.[24] And Tesla provided vital Powerpacks and solar panels to help a Puerto Rican hospital re-establish the power grid in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.[25]

[1] Lonely Planet; “International travel set to increase by 35% over the next decade;” posted June 21, 2016

[2] The Wall Street Journal; “The Changing Nature of Globalization in Our Hyperconnected, Knowledge-Intensive Economy;” posted June 20, 2014

[3] International Monetary Fund; “A World of Change;” Finance & Development, September 2014, Vol. 51, No. 3

[4] https://www.wsj.com/articles/zika-fears-imperil-brazils-tourism-push-1454461138

[5] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; “2014 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa - Case Counts

[6] American Society of Addiction Medicine; “Increased marijuana, heroin use contribute to highest reported illicit drug use in more than a decade;” posted September 10, 2015

[7] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; “Excessive alcohol use continues to be drain on American economy;” released October 15, 2015

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2017/02/09/the-opioid-epidemic-could-turn-into-a-pandemic-if-were-not-careful/?utm_term=.23b767ed2465

[9] The Fix; “The Neurological Basis for Digital Addiction;” posted October 6, 2014

[10] United Nations Development Programme; “Migration, refugees and displacement;”

[11] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre; “Global Estimates 2015: People Displaced by Disasters” 

[12] Foreign Policy; “10 Conflicts to Watch in 2017;” January 5, 2017  

[13] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; “Health Effects of Gentrification;”

[14] Refugee Health Technical Assistance Center

[15] World Economic Forum; “Global Disease Outbreaks;”

[16] National Public Radio News; “Surgeon General Murthy Wants America To Face Up to Addiction;”

[17] World Economic Forum; “Global Disease Outbreaks;”

[18] The Guardian; “Refugee hackathons and 3D printing: apps for the world's displaced people;” June 20, 2017

[19] Quartz; “Homegrown technology is being used to help millions at risk from a devastating famine in Africa;” March 23, 2017

[20] MIT Technology Review; “Treating Addiction with an App;” April 17, 2017

[21] PBS News Hour; “Ebola outbreak is latest example of globalization’s risks;” November 13, 2014

[22] The World Bank; “Pandemic Risk and One Health;” September 13, 2013

[23] Time; “The World Is Not Ready for the Next Pandemic;” May 4, 2017

[24] Siliconbeat; “Airbnb activates free housing for victims of Wine Country infernos;” October 9, 2017

[25] ExtremeTech, “Tesla Powerpacks Accelerate Puerto Rico’s Transition to Renewable Energy, Aid Hospital;” October 27, 2017