Hope in the time of Corona

Source: Greennews.ie

March 24th, 2020

Could the frightening pandemic now raging be a catalyst initiating the behavioural and economic changes necessary to offset the profound danger to humanity which climate and ecological disruption threatens?

This is a question that I have been asking myself from the frontline of this crisis alongside my colleagues in the health service.

I genuinely believe it is
possible that, in the wake of Covid-19, humanity will see more clearly what is
necessary to save the only known space in the universe which can sustain human
life. We are already witnessing an
empowering collectivism like no other. There are decades when nothing happens,
and weeks when decades happen.

Before Covid-19 struck,
everyone knew that monumental behavioural and economic changes were needed to
prevent runaway climate change but action to date is very clearly insufficient.

Today’s new social spirit is forcing a rapid reassertion of humanity’s core priorities; it is now accepted that the preservation of life is more important than economic growth. Will the existential threat of climate crisis now be perceived in terms similar to the current pandemic? 

Microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Photo: NIAID-RML

Glaring contrast

There is a glaring contrast between the respect
accorded to science in guiding us through this COVID-19 crisis and the general
disregard that over 30 years of climate science has endured. 

The approaching massive economic contraction is an
opportunity and a danger. We will need to challenge the historical tendency to
fixate on rapid return to growth at all costs. Economies have always recovered
from recessions in more carbon intensive forms.

It is likely that massive Keynesian state intervention
will be employed to rebuild economies. This likelihood prompts the question – why
can’t we intervene to mitigate the climate and ecological emergency? Why can’t
we make the return to growth low carbon?

Neoliberalism’s failings were already exposed before COVID-19
and this process will probably be accelerated now. Widely accepted political stances of recent times, such as the
rejection of multilateralism, suddenly seem trite and naive. The truth of an
old wisdom has come back into focus – if we do not hang together, we will
certainly hang separately.

Naomi Klein notes that moments of shock are extremely
volatile, we both lose a lot of ground and get fleeced by elites or we win
progressive victories. It depends on the mood at the time. I believe the global
sentiment today is different from that during the 2008 economic crisis. We are
already beginning to witness a big battle of ideas. 

The necessity of a society where public healthcare and
social safety nets exist has never been more evident. It is possible this time that
the financial cost of the crisis will not be dumped on the poor. However, it
may be more difficult to ensure the trillions spent to stimulate recovering
economies have crucial environmental considerations at their core. 

The last year saw a vital shift in public awareness and anxiety about the climate crisis. This led to increased engagement and commitments by business and government. There will be an inevitable temptation by vested interests to disengage and renege on promises made as the world reels in shock. The challenge for green forces is to ensure that momentum and progress on climate is not just maintained but accelerated.

Nature encroachment and COVID19

Many people now feel that the assault on the natural
world and the Corona crisis are not entirely unrelated. Shrinking wilderness,
annihilation of ecosystems and the relentless encroachment of mankind on nature
are not without their consequences. Transmission of viruses from animals to
humans has always occurred.

However, some scientists believe habitat and
biodiversity loss coupled with population growth means that we are creating
conditions where disease transmission is more likely. This will warrant serious
reflection post-Corona as the emerging discipline of planetary health
highlights the many way in which the health of ecosystems and humans are

One must exercise caution in
reaching conclusions about the trajectory of this pandemic and novel
coronavirus. I suspect the horrors we’re witnessing in northern Italy will soon
be repeated elsewhere. As health workers scramble to save lives we can see that
positivity is a crucial driving force in crisis.

The effects of Asian public
health policy are encouraging. It is clear the world will be vastly more
prepared for future pandemics. Vaccinations will be developed enabling what epidemiologists
call herd immunity. But one thing is certain, when the current crisis passes,
the world will be a changed place. The battle to shape that change cannot be

The concern now is to protect our population from unnecessary deaths. Embracing the advice of the WHO and their values of cooperation and openness is crucial and will preserve life. Inaction kills.

But once the virus is controlled the question will be whether the new global social consciousness can be employed to halt the environmental apocalypse we can already see on the horizon.

By Patrick Earls

Earls is a frontline doctor currently working in an acute hospital. He is
longstanding activist with Greenpeace UK and more recently XR and Irish Doctors
for the Environment. 

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