It’s the first time we’ve ever experienced anything like this but pandemics have happened before and they’ll happen again. Only last year the World Economic Forum (WEF) wrote a report suggesting how vulnerable and ill-prepared the world was for a pandemic. The WEF suggested pandemics are as large an economic threat as climate change. If the risks of not preparing were so large, why did we do nothing until it was too late? It all comes down to how we deal with problems. We’re brilliant at reacting to problems but terrible at preparing and preventing them from occurring in the first place. Our problem-solving skills don’t bode well for the future.
Think about a fire drill. Everyone’s been a part of one, and the general feeling is its all a waste of time. An inconvenience taking up valuable space in a day. Until there’s a fire of course. Then people panic because they weren’t paying attention during the fire drill. If we know the fire drill serves a vital function why’s everyone so blasé about making sure they pay attention when there’s no threat? It’s because we don’t feel at risk. When there’s a real fire we all sense impending danger.
We associate the fire with a risk to our lives leading to a ‘fight or flight’ response kicking in. Fight or flight’s a human survival mechanism allowing for quick responses to life-threatening situations. A mechanism the Harvard Medical School argue is vital for survival.
A killer pandemic
Our response mechanisms mean we’re naturally predisposed to reacting to immediate threats. But the downside to our biology is we’re bad at dealing with problems before the problem arises.
Covid-19 is a perfect illustration of our inability to prepare for likely eventualities. It’s not like we weren’t warned. The 2003 SARS outbreak killed 800 people, the 2014 Ebola epidemic killed 11,300 people. On each occasion, we prevented a pandemic.
What happened this time?
The Coronavirus had already spread globally when China announced a lockdown in Wuhan on 23rd January. At the time Dali Yang a professor of political science focusing on China told The Guardian “in many ways the local leadership and the population are definitely not prepared.” What’s now clear is how unprepared any country was for this outbreak.
What’s striking is the lack of a coordinated global response. There was no plan of action when a pandemic arrived. This is plain to see from the varying reactions of countries to the outbreak.
An un-coordinated response
China implemented the largest quarantine in human history, locking down 16 cities. Jordan announced an indefinite lockdown on 21st March. With people facing a year in prison if caught outside.
Jordan’s approach may well seem harsh, but actually they’ve been proactive in enforcing an appropriate measure before the problem became one. Their actions will have saved lives.
Britain, on the other hand, stuttered to a decision on 23rd March. With Boris Johnson announcing people should only go out when its “absolutely necessary” to do so. The measures put in place in Britain are lukewarm at best. The powers of the police to fine or disperse groups of over two people isn’t strong enough. The threat requires concrete policies deterring people from going outside.
The picture’s even worse in the United States. The country has the largest number of confirmed cases but Donald Trump proclaimed the US would be back to work by Easter. Business-as-usual seems unlikely given Easter is two weeks away. What’s even more alarming is this ridiculous statement will give people the impression the threat isn’t as serious as it actually is.
The US and UK’s slow reaction to the outbreak reflects an unwillingness to stop the wheels of the economy turning. The fact Boris Johnson stated he was “shaking hands with everyone” (before contracting the virus himself) demonstrates a desire to dampen the threat posed by the virus. The US and UK seem more focused on protecting the fabric of the economy than peoples lives.
Adopting the precautionary principle
If countries had been guided by the precautionary principle, the virus may not have spread so aggressively. At the heart of the precautionary principle is a ‘better to be safe than sorry’ ethos. Unfortunately, the principle wasn’t adopted in implementing appropriate measures.
By the time China placed Wuhan on lockdown, it was already a global problem — it just didn’t feel like one yet. So governments were wary of being too steadfast in introducing policies limiting the outbreak. Knowing a draconian measure such as lockdown would debilitate the economy, they left it as late as possible to react. Unfortunately, it looks like this desire to protect the economy has meant the reaction came too late.
If anything the UK and US governments adopted the precautionary principle to protect the economy, rather than peoples lives. Leaving it until the last moment to enact necessary policies in fear of debilitating the economy. The outcome of this inaction will be the loss of more lives.
Yes, it would have damaged the economy to implement the precautionary principle and thwart the threat. But the damage caused by inaction is going to be far larger.
A bigger problem is on the horizon
What’s worrying about how we’ve managed the Coronavirus outbreak is we’re facing a far larger problem than a global pandemic. The climate crisis hasn’t gone away, the problem is still on our doorstep. But our reaction remains consistent with how we deal with problems.
The climate crisis doesn’t feel like a crisis, and so it doesn’t trigger our natural response mechanisms like an impending threat does. We know it will become a problem, but there’s no desire or inclination to do anything about it now.
Unlike the risk of a global pandemic, we know with a high degree of certainty the climate crisis is going to get much worse. But changes to the climate happen slowly. Knowing the climate will be destabilised in 2100 doesn’t evoke the same emotional reaction an impending threat does.
If it doesn’t feel like a threat we don’t react like it’s one. Exacerbating this is an unwillingness to transform our economy away from our current path. There are too many vested interests in our current way of doing things. The reaction to the Coronavirus demonstrates how crucial the economy is to decision making. As its the structure of our economy that’s leading to the climate crisis, you can see the dilemma we face.
To add another layer of complexity the climate crisis is a global problem. A united, coordinated effort is required to limit the impacts of a changing climate. As our reaction to the Coronavirus has shown (and countless climate talks prove) it’s incredibly difficult to get countries to cooperate and agree on a coordinated response to a shared challenge. Each country prioritises its own self-interests.
These challenges are only made worse by our natural fight or flight mechanism. Which is disabled when it comes to dealing with the climate crisis. Unfortunately, the climate crisis won’t be one we can solve when it actually becomes a problem. When the crisis feels like a crisis it will cripple and overwhelm us. Our natural survival instinct, honed over hundreds of thousands of years might be the thing leading to our destruction.