In the midst of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a renewed focus on the importance of science and medicine, both as educational subjects and as careers. The scientific journal, Nature, recently cited biophysicist Trevor Forsyth as saying “People will be interested in this at a basic scientific level for years to come”. Forsyth revealed that his students were more eager to work on coronavirus projects since the pandemic, with Covid-19 revealing new avenues for scientific interest and study. 

In fact, we’ve all been educating ourselves on coronavirus during 2020. For better or worse, people across the world have turned to the internet, television, textbooks, academic articles and scientific journals to learn more about the virus, its causes, effects, transmission, medicines and vaccines. Could this new wave of learning help to prevent the next pandemic? 

One way to answer this question is to look back at the world’s preparedness for Covid-19. Although few could have foreseen 2020 unfolding in the way it has, scientists have been warning of the need to take the spread of an illness like Covid-19 seriously for some time. The structures are already in place to study and research pandemics, as evidenced by the more than 150 countries which have been able to very quickly engage in Covid-19 vaccine research. What matters is not the capacity to learn, but the impetus to learn, and that impetus requires investment, from governments, business, educational institutions and, of course, the general public. 

A recent poll by the British Scientific Association (BSA) found that 59% of young people aged 14 to 18 said they were concerned about the impact of Covid-19 on their future career. The BSA also conducted a study which found a “marked uplift” in the number of young people who would consider a career in science in light of the events of 2020, with 37% now more likely to think about a career in a scientific field. This is one way in which education could prevent the next pandemic. If  more students turn to science as an educational pursuit, investment in science as an educational subject could grow. That additional impetus to learn, both now and in the future, could lead to more research, more scientists, and a greater understanding of how pandemics operate, and how to stop them. 

A wise Chinese proverb says that “Learning is like rowing upstream: not to advance is to drop back.” In other words, education is a challenge, and unless we keep paddling, we’ll be swept back, both as individuals and as a species. 

In the context of pandemics, education can indeed prevent the next one – although it’ll require effort to maintain funding and public interest. The ingredients are all there. Covid-19 has brought the world together in an effort to protect and save lives, and if as a world we can deploy education in a bid to never see a year like 2020 again, then there’s every hope that the scientists of today and tomorrow can learn, study, research and educate us all to stop future pandemics.