What’s penicillin got to do with Covid?
What work are we doing now that our descendants will be really grateful for in 75 years’ time? Seren Thomas reflects on this week's ABC Chat with Will Warburton.
A shift in value
Without discrediting the grief they cause, crises can create consequences that have huge future value. For instance, penicillin was discovered in 1928, but it took 15 years and a crisis before its life-saving potential was truly recognised. Amidst the devastation of the Second World War, penicillin was rapidly transformed into an established and widely used medicine. There wasn’t demand for it to be developed before, but due to a crisis, its value shifted. It is estimated to have saved tens of millions of lives since.
The possibility of future benefit for others is scant solace to those of present suffering, but in a new world, existing ideas take on different values.
Covid-19 may spark similar shifts in priorities and value. Nevertheless, Will assured us this is not a celebration of tragedy. The possibility of future benefit for others is scant solace to those of present suffering, but in a new world, existing ideas take on different values.
The ongoing health inequalities of our society are becoming ever more visible during the pandemic, and in a time of rapid transformation, marginalised perspectives remain unheard. During a crisis, it can be tempting to let creative destruction run riot, seeing where innovation takes us and picking up the pieces later on. However, for inclusive innovation, we need to support change to happen, but also developing quick methods of evaluation so we can learn from and address the inevitable inequalities they contain.
We are more than a crisis
As frustrating as it may be, it can take a crisis to make all that work you’ve been doing worthwhile. Some poor souls were developing penicillin for almost 15 years before its development shot into overdrive. During Covid-19, the legwork health professionals have been doing for years is finally coming into play. We must remember to honour it.
Although crises are responsible for incredible innovations in health and care, it’s not sustainable or moral to rely on them to move our services forward. Policy, strategy and everyday practice are also responsible for so many important and effective innovations. People, not crises, are what deserve the credit.