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Post COVID-19: Should we reconsider our EA cause prioritisation?

Updated: Aug 16

Winky Leong, HKU Bachelor of Arts and Sciences, Financial Technology

This is a personal analysis based on the EA survey 2019 on cause prioritisation, with insights drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 is a crisis pertaining not just to health, but one of which is humanitarian, financial and economic as well. An analysis by UNWFP has shown that 300,000 people could die from starvation everyday due to supply chain disruptions; Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (Oxfam) has warned that poverty levels could shoot up to as high as 30 years ago in certain regions. It is shocking to see how the pre-existing global issues are magnified under the lens of COVID-19 pandemic, and our efforts in poverty alleviation and economic development are offset at such a large scale as if our slate has been wiped clean. It is frustrating.

Throughout the years, I have been passionate about the causes of global health and poverty, where I have been actively volunteering in related projects. However, the aforementioned phenomenon has provided me food for thought - isn’t it wasteful to channel resources into these areas, just to see our efforts washed down the drain after a biological catastrophe? Many countries - be it major economies or LDCs, have been seriously hit by coronavirus and found it difficult to mitigate its adverse impacts. Perhaps, the root of this problem could be the underinvestment in research on the diversity of virulent pathogens and reducing GCBRs.

The Global Health Security (GHS) Index revealed that the average score of countries in pandemic preparedness is a worrying 40.2 out of 100. In addition, EA survey has shown the following results:

Figure 1.0: % of all top priority responses (Source: EA survey 2019)

Figure 2.0: Top cause areas if forced to choose 1 cause (Source: EA survey 2019)

In Figure 1.0, a low 8% of EA community consider biosecurity as a top cause prioritisation, while global poverty constitutes a percentage far beyond the aforementioned cause. In Figure 2.0 where people could only choose one cause, Long Term Future (where biological risk is a subset) received the highest attention. It is a good sign that people care about altruistic efforts on the LTF. However, when LTF is broken down into detailed components - climate change and AI safety are major priorities, while biosecurity risk remains unprioritized.

I am not implying that we should stop caring about global poverty. I strongly believe a stronger focus towards GCBRs is needed. It is the time for us to pour resources into funding systematic research - be it technological research on scaling up vaccine manufacturing capacity to combat future outbreaks, or identifying virulent pathogens which may take COVID-19’s place. Beyond well-funded research, countries should collaborate in developing protocols for a seamless information exchange.

The reluctance to divert philanthropic investments on this cause is understandable - you might feel hesitant to invest in an uncertain future issue with an indeterminable risk landscape when you witness people suffering in poverty right around you. Moreover, not only is it hard to evaluate its effectiveness, it costs a significant amount of time and resources. On the other hand, charities focused on poverty and hunger lead to more immediate results. However, we need to realise that in this era where humans are so interconnected, transmitting a pandemic level disease is just one flight away. Advances in biotechnology exposes us to engineered pandemic risks - and worse, these pandemics might be more deadly than natural ones. In other words, it is not a question of whether the next biological catastrophe will happen, but rather it is a question of when it will happen. Clearly, it is worth investing in mitigating GCBRs for it is one of humanity's greatest threats. The prevention of such danger is crucial.

Moreover, the effort into robust pandemic preparedness is linked to global health and poverty. If we perform better in pandemic preparedness through a resilient health security system, we can significantly reduce the population plunged into poverty if a similar situation occurs. Simply put, diverting resources to reducing GCBRs is able to bring a net positive in global health and development in the long run.

In a nutshell, despite the adverse impacts coronavirus brought across the globe, it prompted us to change things for the better by finding suitable trade offs on diverting resources before it is too late.

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