Epidemics and behaviors: who changes what? – Fundamental science


By Mellanie Fontes-Dutra

The legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic


Important vectors of our behavior, the great challenges –such as the Covid-19 pandemic– encourage us to discuss what caused the conflagration scenarios and inspire profound changes, both on an individual and social scale. Today, what we apply in an attempt to overcome impasses reflects a set of knowledge and experiences from a time that is often not so remote.

Recovering measures and confrontations from the past can favor more effective strategies in the present, hence the importance of remembering health crises that have already been faced – not only in Brazil, but also in the world.

In 1910, an outbreak of a mysterious disease – which would become known as the Manchurian plague – hit northeastern China, adding 60,000 deaths in a four-month period. It was thanks to the Malaysian physician Wu Lien-teh that an innovative idea was launched, based on the conclusions that this plague, caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis (yes, you’ve heard of it in bubonic plague) it could be transmitted from person to person, possibly by respiratory droplets. From then on, the doctor advised that masks be used to treat infected patients, a protocol that was extended to all health professionals, whether or not they were dealing with this plague. It also recommended the creation of quarantine centers, as well as insisting that the authorities enact measures to restrict the movement of people. Remember anything?

Soon after, in 1918, the world experienced the Spanish flu, caused by the virus influenza, responsible for about 35 thousand deaths in Brazil alone. Faced with all the difficulties and challenges to face this, Brazilian society has undergone a profound and necessary transformation involving public health in the country, since, in many places (in Brazil and in the world), middle and upper class individuals held the privilege of medical appointments. Our history with viruses influenza there were other chapters, one of which in 2009, with the so-called “swine flu” that must be in the memory of many people. It was then that the use of alcohol gel spread, no longer a alien offered at the entrance of a restaurant or public place. During the epidemic of this flu, we closed schools and reduced the circulation of people to face this infectious agent. Again, remember anything?

Large pandemics have a common factor: the high and widespread transmission of an infectious agent that starts to infect our species, and for which we still have no therapeutic alternative. But past experience tells us that non-pharmacological measures, to which we can adhere both individually and socially, are critical for containing the spread. On the other hand, significant changes in society need to be a legacy of the post-pandemic. We shouldn’t fear them or see them as an attempt to kidnap what we used to understand as “normal” before this event. Rather, they are an opportunity to tread new paths capable of dribbling future situations that could turn into great challenges, thus avoiding incurring in past mistakes. It is also possible that many of the changes in society’s behavior from now on were already being prepared, and ended up being anticipated as a response to the crisis.

Our lifestyle has led us to great technological advances, as well as a strong territorial expansion of our presence, however it revealed to us how much we need to mature as a society, understanding our responsibility to the planet and all species that inhabit it. It showed us that perhaps we need to revisit the concepts of “living in society” and reflect on how the evolution of this society is intrinsically related to the ways in which the group works cooperatively, in health or disease.


Mellanie Fontes-Dutra, biomedical, researcher at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (RS) and coordinator of the Covid-19 Analysis Network.

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