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How Science, People and Communities could offer a route out of this Global Pandemic.

How Science, People and Communities could offer a route out of this Global Pandemic. 

Many of us have been getting excited about the hope that the new covid 19 vaccines offer. So many people have lost so much, and now at Christmas again we experience the pain of separation and disconnection from family and friends. It’s a time when we traditionally down tools and share time together. So we badly need some hope to maintain the commitment to prevail as global community against this tiny but deadly adversary. 

I would like to highlight that the vaccine program replicates the convergence of 3 key areas we so commonly see in creating health. Science, how people look after themselves (self care), and community support. All 3 need to work well together for the outcomes to be good. 

The science behind the vaccine is incredible. A medicine that is stable enough to cope with production, storage and injection into our bodies. The vaccines all work slightly differently but their common mechanism is to offer a replica of a small part of the virus to our immune system, so that it can prepare it’s defences. Our immune system makes antibodies unique to the virus and stores these ready for exposure to the real virus. It also stores a record of how to scale up production of these antibodies really quickly and at a massive scale. This means we are at a huge advantage should we become infected. Our immune system has the tools to kill the virus before it has a chance to take hold and cause any damage to us . In effect it is like having the antidote to the ‘poison’, stored inside us, ready for release when we need it. 

As soon as this virus emerged the scientists started experimenting on how to treat it with a vaccine. In fact many of the new vaccines are based on knowledge and techniques developed over decades, knowing that this sort of virus would emerge at some point. The Oxford team had the delivery mechanism ready and waiting, with ‘just’ the last step of inserting the right code needed for this particular virus. The testing for safety and effectiveness have happened at unparalleled speed. No corners cut, ‘just’ people, teams and organisations prioritising a shared purpose of developing a solution that will allow us to beat back the threat of COVID-19. It really has been an incredible culmination of human ingenuity and technical skill.

The science is mind blowing, but what of our immune systems? They are equally, if not more mind blowing. Our immune systems have evolved over millions of years as our main defence against infection, damage and danger in our bodies. It is the same immune system that is constantly destroying the harmful bugs we come into contact with every day. It detects cancer cells and destroys them, it stimulates tissue healing and repair. Without our immune system functioning well it’s game over for us pretty quickly. 

Whilst a clever vaccine can ‘arm’ our immune system to a specific threat, we still depend on our immune system working well, and this depends a range of other factors. These fall into the category of what we call ‘self care’. These are the things we need to do day to day to keep our immune system working well, in fact keep everything our body does working well. What GP Rangan Chatterjee calls the ‘4 pillars of health’. Sleeping well, eating well, moving well, and managing stress. We are incredibly tolerant to not attending to all of these all the time, we can adapt, but our science also tells us that these 4 areas of self care are hugely influential on how well our immune system works. 

What science (behavioural science) also teaches us is that how well we sleep, eat, move and manage stress is hugely influenced by the conditions we find ourselves in. By these we mean our environment, the facilities and the people around us. We are very rarely able to function in isolation on our own. We are generally a product of the community we are part of. Our behaviour is mostly influenced by the culture and social norms of our community. If we don’t have access to good food we can’t eat well, if there aren’t safe attractive spaces to exercise in we don’t move well. The mental and emotional pressures that influence our sleep and mood are very dependant on our family or our work colleagues and the sense of purpose we feel around our lives.

We see this combination of medical science, human behaviour and environmental and social influences playing out in so many situations that determine our health and wellbeing. Nearly all the long term physical and mental health problems I deal with as a doctor are effected by the combination of these factors. You have to pay attention to all of them and make the most of the benefits each has to offer. Medicines work so much better in combination with self care, and vice versa. We generally fare much worse if we wholly depend on one without the others.

So back to hope. Our immune system is incredible. We all have one. It is our main defence against viruses like covid 19 and many other viruses we encounter day to day. Humankind has learnt how to use science to empower our immune system. But we also have to do our bit to look after our immune system, and that is very dependant on the communities we are part of. The solution offered by this vaccine program relies on that same beautiful combination of science, self care and community that underpins how well we flourish and thrive everyday. If we pay attention to all of them together we have the hope of a way out of this mess.  

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