We're lucky that the scientific community is so well aware of the need to disseminate their research, pass along their knowledge, to the wider public in language that even the scientifically-illiterate (yeah, me) can understand, albeit sometimes with a bit of effort required. They know they're in a constant struggle with denialists and the segment of the population that simply doesn't want to know.
The climate breakdown is going to bring change to our lives. Some of it will be jarring. Some will require giving up ways that have, for generations, been familiar. With every passing month we are sailing further and further into uncharted waters.
We've not been served well by our political caste. In many ways they have politicized what is a matter of science and transformed it into an issue where political considerations often prevail to the point where they obstruct progress.
Government doesn't transition easily from normal to emergency mode. Democratic government, we're told is the art of the possible. Governments make compromises while seeking to "do their best." Churchill taught us that there are times when the art of the possible must give way to a more directed approach when he said, "Sometimes it is not enough that we do our best. Sometimes we must do what is required."
Most governments are empowered to act in an emergency to "do what is required." Canada has the "Emergencies Act" for this purpose. Yet governments, especially minority governments without a strong popular mandate, may be reluctant to use emergency powers, preferring to stay within the bounds of consensus.
Now we have another urgent but, by comparison, relatively modest crisis on our hands, a coronavirus. Again what should primarily be a medical issue is dominated by political considerations such as the stock markets, the economy and, in the States, the looming November elections. How does what is in the best interests of the American people compete when vying against what is in the best interests of Donald J. Trump and his election fortunes?
There is another Achilles Heel common to both the viral pandemic and climate breakdown - fear. People are afraid, insecure. That makes them easy pickings for those who prey on their fears. Today that means the neo-nationalist Right.
In many ways, the pandemic fits most neatly into nationalist narratives: there are few more powerful or reactionary forces in politics than fear, and this is surely the pandemic’s most viral emotion. The outbreak of xenophobia accompanying the fear of infection has been well documented since coronavirus emerged. The disease was first portrayed as a distinctly “Chinese virus”, originating in Wuhan, and people perceived as Asian were subjected to racist attacks around the world. Yet there seems less acknowledgment that this divisive, hostile symptom of the outbreak will likely outlive the disease. In China, for example, where cases of infection have sharply declined, black people are being subjected to random testing and evicted from their homes over anxieties about “imported coronavirus”. Everywhere you look, as Susan Sontag observed in Aids and Its Metaphors, there is the same need “to make a dreaded disease foreign”.
The link between “germophobia” and xenophobia is a recurring theme in politics. The left has not been immune from this trope. In 1958, for example, when tuberculosis was the disease-du-jour, the Trades Union Council warned the Ministry of Labour against Indian and Pakistani immigration, drawing on classic xenophobic anxieties. Key among their concerns were “the poor health of these immigrants and the belief that many of them are carriers of contagious and infectious diseases”.
But a wealth of research suggests that not only is the fear of infection more pronounced on the right, but also – more worryingly – that political attitudes become more conservative and reactionary as fears of infection rise. Indeed, one of the primary causes of “germophobia” is living in cultures that stress hygienic practices (for good reason, that accounts for much of the world right now).
The grim frequency with which dirt and disease are associated with “dangerous” outsiders speaks to the emotional force of this narrative. From portraying minorities as “vermin” to casting concerns about immigration as concerns about public health, the political expedience of this conflation has been affirmed again and again. According to a recently published working paper, the Republican party’s weaponisation of the Ebola crisis in 2014 – stoking paranoia and blaming immigration – played an important role in their resounding victory in that year’s midterm elections.Canada, it seems lucked out, by having a Conservative opposition in disarray with a placeholder leader who inspires almost no one, within his party and without. The most powerful Tory, Jason Kenney, is sidelined, presiding over an economy in flames.
None of this bodes well for our situation, where the fear of infection is already being mobilised to reactionary ends in countries such as Hungary, India, Israel and Algeria. “We are fighting a two-front war,” Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán declared last month, shortly before imposing coronavirus laws that amount to a de facto dictatorship. “One front is called migration and the other one belongs to the coronavirus. There is a logical connection between the two as both spread with movement.”
I sense from those I speak with a certain feeling of having been "sucker punched" by the Covid-19 contagion. People seem to feel they were caught unawares, ill-prepared, and now society is reeling, the economy shuttered, communities locked down. It is, in a way, a bit like being under house arrest. We don't know how this is going to play out. We don't know if anyone close to us will die. It might be us. Who can tell? The Sword of Damocles...