The new coronavirus is a public health catastrophe and a historic blow to the global economy, bringing life to a standstill for millions of people. But when we rebuild, should we be in a hurry to return to normal?
There’s nothing good about the new coronavirus. It’s insidiously mobile, highly contagious and can be fatal. It generates fear and anxiety wherever it spreads, and has already led to the deaths of thousands.
It’s also caused the global economy to tank – stocks seeing their steepest falls since 1987, oil prices plunging – and affects ordinary people in myriad ways, from school closures to citywide lockdowns and travel restrictions. Jobs are lost, lives put on hold, hospitals on high alert. Most importantly, loved ones are lost.
But are there any lessons we could learn? When the COVID-19 outbreak led to the extension of the Chinese New Year holiday, a quarter or more of the country’s CO2 emissions were wiped out for a four-week period. As coal consumption fell and coking plant operations were reduced, for once, Beijingers could enjoy breathing cleaner air.
Efforts to ramp up industrial practices afterwards could end up outweighing this dip in China – the country is planning to relax environmental regulations to allow factories to catch up again once they're back. But it's worth asking if there is not an opportunity to learn from these very disruptions and what it could mean for the future of the planet.
“Economists have a difficult time factoring in so-called ‘exogenous’ events like the current outbreak,” says Stephen Mihm, history professor at the University of Georgia and co-author, with Nouriel Roubini, of Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance.
“These are not part of the normal business cycle; they're not part of the customary ebb and flow of economic forces. So they are very difficult to model. As a consequence, they're viewed as anomalies. While there has been a little bit of research on how events like this affect the economy, there's almost nothing out there.”
Mihm and Roubini have argued that events such as the 2008 financial crisis should not be regarded as “black swans”. Rather, investors and central bankers should factor crises into all their equations and projections. But the market isn’t a very good student of history.
“At first glance, the current crisis looks different, given that the ostensible cause of the panic is a virus, not defaults on subprime debt, or some other conventional catalyst. And it's not really possible to model this into economic predictions.
When things like this happen, they tend to accelerate existing trends
“But what is getting swept under the rug right now is the degree to which the global economy is rather vulnerable for many of the same reasons it was vulnerable in 2008. Massive levels of debt and leverage; a belief that the market could only continue rising, despite growing evidence that the economic growth we were witnessing was fuelled by more debt, more speculation, and other less-than-stable forces. If we're headed into a crisis or a recession, the virus will have been the catalyst, not the cause, of that outcome.”
Mihm argues that crises are an opportunity as well as a challenge, in that radical reforms become reasonable propositions. COVID-19, he says, will likely speed up disruptive processes already affecting society..
“When things like this happen, they tend to accelerate existing trends, even if there's some return to normal. For example, this may well accelerate the decline of brick-and-mortar retailing; it may increase the popularity of online education; it may fuel the disintegration of the geopolitical order established by the United States in the twentieth century. But all of these trends were already visible and underway before the virus arrived.”
People fret about the demise of the high street and a shift to online living and working. But socially and environmentally, following Mihm’s rationale, such changes could be “white swans” i.e. good for us. The US-led world-view that dominated the 20th century brought us aggressive capitalism, proxy wars, oil-based societies, and a fixation with economic growth. Could radical change be an improvement? COVID-19 prompted the Chinese to ban the wild animal food trade; is everything we think of as “traditional” either good or worth protecting?
The Climate Scientist
Wuhan’s lockdown was widely reported using the familiar negative trope of a “ghost city”. But data collected from NASA and European Space Agency satellites, published at the beginning of March, show how nitrogen dioxide, a dangerous gas released by burning fuel, dissipated following the outbreak.
Nitrogen dioxide inflames airways, making it more difficult for people to breathe, and reacts with other chemicals to produce smog and acid rain. An international team of experts writing in the journal Cardiovascular Research claimed that air pollution kills more people than smoking and causes 8.8 million premature deaths worldwide annually.
Which raises the question: why do we panic when we’re told a few of us might die soon, but not when informed that many of us are already dying, and will die in large numbers in the future?
We need to have a revolution in our collective understanding of risks and how to prioritise them
“The coronavirus outbreak suggests we are currently unable to react in proportion to the actual risk posed by different things,” says Tim Lenton, Professor of Earth System Science and Chair in Climate Change at the University of Exeter.
“After all, the World Health Organisation estimates around 300,000-600,000 influenza deaths every year and it usually gets no coverage. The perception of something new, spreading at an accelerating rate, appears to engender a hugely disproportionate response. While we ignore the much greater mortality already associated with climate change and its drivers – including the air pollution created.
“Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow has done a good job of explaining we are like this. But we need to transcend how we are evolved, and need to have a revolution in our collective understanding of risks and how to prioritise them.”
This does not mean to downplay the seriousness of the spread of a novel disease with no available vaccine. Rather, Lenton, who champions an upgrade of the famous Gaia hypothesis – that living organisms and their inorganic surroundings evolved together as a single, self-regulating system that keeps the planet habitable for life – hopes COVID-19 compels us to reassess our most basic ideas about connectedness.
“I do think it is good [if the coronavirus] leads us to question our travelling habits and their consequences. Hardly anyone questions the idea that a more connected human world is a good thing. But there are different ways to interconnect.
“If this episode helps shift the balance to more virtual interconnection and less travel that could have multiple benefits in terms of more time to connect with people – including family and nature near our homes, as well as the obvious benefits for the climate.”
Fewer cars on the road, planes in the sky, ships at sea would reduce carbon emissions, not only because people would be making fewer journeys but because the production of these would diminish. A shift away from suburb-city commuting would ease stresses on urban environments, and reduce hazardous particulates and noxious gases, including nitrogen dioxide.
COVID-19 has already led to the postponement and/or cancellation of business meetings, conferences and expos; business class sections of flights have been emptied. Could this perhaps become a new normal?
Our connectedness, Lenton argues, comes at a price: not only the risk of pandemics, but also in distracting us from what he calls “self-awareness”. Scientists call ours the Anthropocene era, with everyday actions affecting the environment. We need to wake up to the impacts we make, collectively and personally.
“This could represent a step towards ‘Gaia 2.0’ if we concentrate on exchange of information rather than movement of ourselves.
“It might bring humans-tightly-packed-with-domestic-animals issues to the fore, as that has been the root of several new types of flu now. That might give an additional reason to question the still globally growing insatiable appetite for more meat in the average diet.”
Livestock generate as much as 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and farming them causes widespread deforestation in places like the Amazon basin. In its 2019 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that by 2050, dietary changes – including a move away from red meat and dairy– could free up several million square kilometres of land, and reduce CO2 emissions by up to eight billion tonnes per year.
In his recently published – and extraordinarily timely – book, The Rules of Contagion, Adam Kucharski, a professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, tells his readers that epidemiologists have a saying, “If you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen… one pandemic.”
Thus, while certain broad principles – the mass movement of people, urban density – underpin most modern outbreaks of infectious disease, we mustn’t forget that COVID-19 crisis is entirely new.
“In recent decades, there has been a dramatic increase in connectivity between different countries, so a local outbreak can quickly become a global problem. Even in comparison to 2003, when SARS caused outbreaks, there are many more flight routes and passengers travelling.
“Early on, we saw signals that COVID-19 had an ability to transmit easily and cause severe disease. Our hope was this would be like other coronaviruses like SARS or MERS, and be easily controllable despite some severe cases, but that's clearly not the case.”
We might come out of the crisis better - as individuals, and as a society
This novel character of the outbreak inevitably places untold stresses on health systems.
“The challenge is balancing what's required to provide good routine healthcare while also dealing with an unprecedented outbreak like the one we're currently seeing.
“Across many countries, health agencies are well equipped to deal with small numbers of imported cases – as happened with Ebola in Europe and the US – but the current situation inevitably places unique demands on the current system. As we learn more about COVID-19, the hope is that new solutions will emerge for testing, treatment and prevention.”
As data scientists – Kucharski’s specialism is mathematical modelling – many epidemiologists are in the vanguard when it comes to using smart tech to measure and analyse disease. But The Rules of Contagion explores the parallels between infectious diseases and marketing crazes, internet bugs and financial crashes. The technology used to monitor patients can always be brought down by… a computer virus.
As the prospect of living with COVID-19 for up to a year dawns on all of us, hope might not be the obvious or immediate emotion. But if the novel coronavirus can prompt new, and better, approaches to health and economics, work and travel, technology and society, then it might not be all doom and gloom after all. At the very least it will ensure we avoid a comparable global disease outbreak in years to come. At best, we might come out of the crisis better - as individuals, and as a society.