Pandemics and public health: have we found our new normal? - Conan Leavey and Graeme Mitchell, Public Health Institute, LJMU

It was only a relatively short time ago - in March this year - that the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic. We know now that it is likely to be many, many months before the UK pronounces its outbreak over; and certainly years before it is over globally. 

With hundreds of thousands of Covid-19 related deaths across the world, individuals, organisations and communities are all striving to find new ways to stay connected whilst remaining apart. It is surprising how quickly this has become our new ‘normal’, and how conversations about flattening the curve, observing the two metre rule and ‘R’ is now part of everyday life. These concepts are central to the government’s strategy to help keep the population safe from infection, because until we find a vaccine or have proven effective treatments, the way to control Covid-19 is through a range of public health measures. Some of these measures are decidedly low tech and largely down to us - social distancing, regular handwashing, face coverings, for example – while others such as mass screening and a national track and trace system require investment and technological innovation.

Pandemics have the effect of fast-forwarding history, something noted by historian Yuval Noah Harari, meaning that changes that would have normally taken years or decades occur much more rapidly. This is true for technology but it is also true for broader changes in society. Britain’s cholera epidemic in 1854 prompted John Snow to challenge the popular ‘miasma theory’ of disease (using dot maps and contact tracing) and inspired other Victorian reformers to campaign for better living conditions in Britain’s slums, including in Liverpool. In the last century, the Spanish Flu pandemic at the end of the First World War saw a drive towards social welfare systems. What social and technological changes and advancements will we seek as a result of the all too pervasive and devastating effects of this pandemic?

Another historian, Frank M. Snowden, points out that as well as causing momentous change in society, pandemics can affect our personal relationships on a more intimate level. It’s likely we will all have felt the loneliness of not being able to embrace our friends and loved ones at this time, but we would now think twice about a group hug. The human effects have also inspired artists and intellectuals, and prompted us to radically alter our human-made and natural environments. 

Human impacts

Whilst it may be a generation before we can fully understand the impacts of Covid-19, they are starting to be felt already. Like other pandemics, it has highlighted the vulnerability of socio-economically disadvantaged communities, the elderly, and those with underlying health conditions. It has disproportionately impacted on BAME people, with Public Health England stating that people of Bangladeshi ethnicity were at most risk, with around twice the risk of death than people of white British ethnicity.

But it has also given us cause for hope. As road, rail and transport hubs have emptied during lockdowns around the world, and oil and coal based industries slowed, we have seen carbon dioxide emissions reduce globally. People have quickly integrated public health principles and technology into their lives, not only for their own safety, but for the safety of those who are more vulnerable. We have seen whole sectors of the economy, our schools, universities and primary care services move online.

Where possible, people have adapted to working and studying from home. We have been creative in the ways we have sustained and supported each other, whether that is clapping for NHS and key workers on a Thursday night, or teaching our grandparents to use Zoom. In order for the new normal to work, in order for us to make things better, the future must be shaped by those who can combine the old and the new. We are controlling the spread of Covid-19 using public health measures that have been understood for a long time, but how we are managing our lives and keeping society going increasingly draws upon the latest technology.

What have the Covid-19 public health measures meant for you, your family and your friends? What changes do you want to see and how do you think public health organisations, individuals and communities can make them happen? Could you be part of the next generation of public health professionals shaping interventions of the future?


We’ll be hosting a special Schools webinar followed by a live Q&A session. If you would like your class to participate, please contact our Outreach Team to book your place:

Karen Forman, Schools and Colleges Account Manager


T: 0151 904 6361

You can find more information about LJMU’s Public Health Institute, and our Public Health undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes on the PHI website.


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