Building back better buildings

The UK government of Boris Johnson has pledged to build back better. We can all form our opinions as to how much good will come of this pledge, but an international group of scientists have made a suggestion for how learn from the pandemic and improve all our health in this week’s Science magazine. Morawska et al‘s point is that since, the 19th nineteenth century in the UK’s case, we have taken decisive action to combat the spread of typhus, cholera and other diseases spread by infected water. Now in the 21st century it is past time to pull our fingers out and take comparable action against diseases spread by infected air, such as tuberculosis, and COVID-19.

In the UK we all take it for granted that we turn a tap and get water that does not contain the bacteria that cause cholera. In universities we also take it for granted that early in every autumn semester, “freshers’ flu” will spread among the students and staff. Students and staff squeeze into often poorly ventilated lecture theatres, and we all breath in air breathed out by people infected with flu and so exhaling the virus that causes flu. Last autumn that changed of course due to COVID-19 as lectures went online (which also almost entirely killed off flu transmission).

Morawska et al recognise that cleaning air is a lot harder than cleaning water. But improving the quality of air to at least reduce the amount of flu, COVID-19, etc virus in it, is very doable. It is just that it cannot be done overnight as room ventilation is part of a building’s design, and so changing it significantly in an existing building is quite a challenge. It would involve retrofitting air conditioning with filters, or adding ventilation.

This all costs money, but COVID-19’s worldwide economic cost is somewhere in the trillions, so it looks a good investment. And in the UK, spending money every year to vaccinate older people against flu but spending zilch on reducing their exposure to flu (e.g., by improving ventilation in care homes) seems silly.

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