By Jim Harding
The COVID-19 pandemic challenges us to think outside the box. With economic globalization, geo-political strife and the climate emergency at play, it was a matter of when, not if, this would happen.
Just six months ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) and World Bank co-convened the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, created in 2017 after the Ebola crisis. Their 2019 report, A World at Risk says, “We have allowed a cycle of panic and neglect when it comes to pandemics: we ramp up efforts when there is a serious threat, then quickly forget them when the threat subsides.” Not long after, the coronavirus jumped to humans, probably in an open wild meat market in Wuhan, China.
The mortality rate is much higher than influenza; 10 times, perhaps more. It is more contagious and could infect from 30 to 70% of a population. Thankfully, this virus doesn’t hit children too hard and 80% of people infected have few or manageable symptoms. This, however, can include mild pneumonia. 20%, however, have a more serious illness and it is the elderly with preconditions that are at most risk of dying. One or two percent of millions of infected people, dying, could become catastrophic.
Our universal healthcare enables a coordinated response, in sharp contrast to the chaos across the border, where Trump’s alternative reality is colliding with medical science. Early on Trump abolished the Pandemic Response Team in the White House. His administration botched preparing for mass testing. Our single-payer system ensures that everyone has a right to access testing and treatment, i.e. but only if these remain available. This is going to be a huge stress test for healthcare and governance.
And for the global economy. The price of oil and stocks have been free-falling, as before the 2008 crash. Our monetary and fiscal toolkits have structural limits. The attempt to protect the economy has clearly slowed precautionary and containment strategies.
Prior to community outbreaks in other countries, infections had spread from global travel, with cruise ships acting like petri dishes. There were 39 million international flights in 2019, up from 24 million in 2004. Billions of us moved around. Meanwhile, in our fractured world, millions of refugees are desperate for a better life. What would occur if this virus got into UN humanitarian camps?
We have had our heads in the sand. Between 2011 and 2018 the WHO tracked 1,483 epidemics. And WHO already identifies climate change as “a major cause of emerging infectious diseases.” Global heating, including shorter winters, will spread infections from insects and fungus, while anti-microbial resistance is on the upswing.
Animal viruses are spreading. There was HIV in the 1980s, originally from chimpanzees; SARS in 2003 from civet cats; H1N1 or Swine flu in 2009 from pigs; MERS in 2012 from camels; Ebola in 2016 from fruit bats. And now Covid-19, perhaps from an endangered species, the pangolin, or a bat.
As wilderness and biodiversity is drastically affected by global heating and human incursion, and, if global travel continues expanding, pandemics seem bound to grow. We, of course, hope for a vaccine. However, if we return to the global status quo, we’ll go back into the cycle of neglect and then panic.
Corporate-driven economic globalization has made us all more interdependent, with energy-intensive supply chains and exotic tourist destinations that traverse the planet. Local economies, regional food security and traditional industries have taken huge hits. There is ultra-nationalistic, populist blowback, reflected in Trump, Brexit and, yes, Wexit. But, from this, we mostly get scapegoating, rather than insight. We urgently need integrative, not dualistic or polarized approaches.
We are more dependent on international institutions that nurture peace, security and climate action. Public healthcare is a must; so is sick leave. A living wage and guaranteed annual income could stabilize economies. More regional self-reliance makes sense. The only obvious upside of this pandemic will be an expected drop in global carbon emissions, which simply must happen by 2030. Perhaps global tourism will start to decline.
There will be a cultural dimension to this transformation. Perhaps we can learn something from China, other than that it is not a good idea to have open wild meat markets?
Philosopher, Lao Tzu (350 B.C.E.) was a critic of Confucius, who promoted patriarchal, human-centric ethics to address the contemporary crisis of self and society. Confucius was not very concerned about the status of the natural world. Lao Tzu advised, “Stop leaving and you will arrive. Stop searching and you will see. Stop running away and you will be found.”
We may already be learning some of this, a less self-centred lifestyle, while becoming more compassionate for the dislocated, homeless and quarantined, everywhere, as we regroup to protect each other, while riding the wave of this virulent virus.
Activist-author Jim Harding is a retired professor of environmental and justice studies and a founding director of the Qu’Appelle Valley Environmental Association (QVEA). He has several books, including Social Policy and Social Justice, Canada’s Deadly Secret and After Iraq.