For years climate scientists have warned that among the many perils posed by climate change would be the spread of disease. Our focus on extreme weather events and their impacts consigned the disease thing to the back pages. Suddenly it is all over the front page, everywhere.
The Tyee's Andrew Nikiforuk writes that the current pandemic may be the opening act in what he terms an "Age of Pandemics."
This particular biological invader springs from an ancient, large and diverse family of viruses hosted by a variety of wild animals, including bats and birds.
These species are particularly hard pressed by global economic forces now ruinously reducing biological diversity everywhere. As biological biodiversity declines, viruses will seek reliable hosts and jump from animals into people at any given opportunity. Peter Daszak, a pioneering disease ecologist, says we now live in Age of Pandemics.
SARS, a close relative of SARS-CoV-2, plugged up hospital systems and cost $50 billion to bring under control in 2003/2004. MERS, a coronavirus present in bats and camels, has burdened the care of patients with diabetes and heart disease in Middle Eastern hospitals for years now.
COVID-19 behaves a lot like its relatives. It targets the ill, smokers and the elderly. For 80 per cent of the infected, it appears as a cold-like nuisance; for 20 per cent, it is a life or death battle with hellish pneumonia (see sidebar). Judging by the escalating outbreaks in Australia, Spain, U.S., England and France, COVID-19 will trump the impacts of SARS or MERS by several orders of magnitude.
Still, at this point it seems COVID-19’s effect on the globe’s highly complex and fragile economy will likely be far more severe than its impact on public graveyards.Will cyclical pandemics bring us to our senses? Will the neoliberal order fall victim? If it does, it won't be a painless transition.
Viewed through the lens of climate crisis survival, the pandemic has produced some good news. Reduced economic activity in China, the world’s largest oil user, has already resulted in a 25 per cent drop in greenhouse gas emissions and blue skies. Container ship traffic across the Pacific has dropped by half to 100 sailings a month. Auto sales are down 80 per cent and exports have fallen off by nearly 20 per cent.
In this regard, the virus is readying us for what could be the new reality. To really address the climate emergency, we must slow down economic activity, reduce trade, re-localize economies and severely restrict travel.Out with the new, back in with the old. There's nothing radical in this.
Just in time, a business model pioneered by Toyota in the 1980s, now dominates the world economy — everything from grocery stores to hospital beds.
JIT thinking goes like this: Why waste money stocking up on supplies or making stuff locally, when you can order the cheapest stuff from a distant Chinese factory?
Or why waste money on inventory when a truck can act as moving storage room?
COVID-19 has punched several holes in such short-term thinking as Chinese factories, under quarantine orders, stopped making things. Supply chains have failed and transportation networks are now backlogged. Medical authorities have struggled to order masks, gloves and antibiotics just in time.The "global economy" is broken.
The virus, notes actuary Gail Tverberg, has revealed the “world economy has effectively put way too many eggs in one basket, and this basket is now not functioning as expected.”Getting ahead of the pandemic curve.
The fragility of just-in-time systems has been long foretold. According to decade-old reports by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office and BMO Nesbitt Burns, a severe pandemic with a 2.5-per-cent death rate will shock the economy and turn health care systems upside down. That rate sounds a lot like estimates for COVID-19, which, if it infects more than 100 million North Americans, could kill two million.
Experts now predict a terrible outbreak in the U.S., which has failed to test properly for the virus. A germaphobe president that could not be unseated by an impeachment hearing, may be undone by a chaotic and incompetent health response.
The U.S. has private and public hospital beds for less than one million people but even a minor pandemic would create at least five million infections needing hospitalization. ( - That's not a million 'surplus' beds. Most, if not all, of those beds are being used every day for some other form of care, often critical care. Many American hospitals already have plenty of patients in beds out in hallways, people who may never get to see the inside of a ward.)
The demand for mechanical ventilators for those with failing lungs will exceed supply. China, Iran and Italy have experienced that truth.
After this relatively modest pandemic, individual nations might adopt a new business model called planning ahead. Prudent societies will make sure they have extra supplies of metals, fuel, medicine and food on hand to keep things running when disruptions occur. Nations will untie many of the ropes of globalization and seek greater independence by consuming fewer resources.When Thatcher, Reagan and Mulroney implemented the age of neoliberal globalism they sold us down the river. Maybe they weren't bright enough to grasp what they were doing. Reagan certainly wasn't. Maybe they were just too inebriated with this new economic ideology to see what lurked behind the curtain. Whatever, that's water under the bridge now.
That does not excuse today's governing parties, Liberal or Conservative, from perpetuating this flawed, risky, even murderous economic model. We need to build a higher level of self-sufficiency. The price for playing on these margins is too high and it's likely to get worse. It's time for the public interest to prevail over the powerful narrow interests.
Government must reclaim the powers it abandoned to the corporate sector in the course of globalization. Teddy Roosevelt praised Lincoln for showing "the proper sense of proportion in his relative estimates of capital and labor, of human rights and property rights."
The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows.
At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth.
The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need to is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which it is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise.
No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar’s worth of service rendered-not gambling in stocks, but service rendered. The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means.
We need leaders of courage and vision. There's little to none of that on offer in the Tory ranks. If our current prime minister has either, this is his golden opportunity to reveal it.