Coronavirus Lessons

By: Julia Fonteles

“Just how completely the world below our feet will become unknown to us is not yet clear, and how we register its transformation remains an open question.”     

David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth

In recent years, international stakeholders have finally started to take climate change seriously. When evaluated quantitatively, however, the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is still beyond the world’s carrying capacity. In The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells presents this truth as a true horror movie. In chapters titled ‘hunger,’ ‘heat,’ ‘drowning,’ ‘dying oceans’ and ‘economic collapse,’ Wells highlights the human tendency to return to the truest and sometimes most primitive self in times of crisis. The unfolding coronavirus crisis is teaching us a more immediate lesson about how these selves choose to behave and adapt. 

With the sudden onset of this global pandemic, it seems strange to talk or write about anything else. With much of the world locked in quarantine, it’s impossible not to think about the long-term threats to society as we know it. Looking over my window in a rented apartment of an empty street in Via Solferino in Bologna, the world truly seems uninhabitable. 

Ironically enough, pollution has dramatically contracted as a direct consequence of containment measures. The sharp reduction in flights saved the world millions of tons on emissions. The waters of Venice have become crystal clear. In Bologna, the streets are cleaner. Having grown up in a superstitious family, my gut says the world is sending us a sign. How can it be that when most of the world population is in isolation, fearing for their loved ones, and in confinement, nature is running free, cleaner and better? Rationally, it means one thing: that humans have created an inverse relationship with nature. Our growth is dependent on its debacle and vice versa. 

The COVID-19 pandemic challenges three widely accepted assumptions which also stand in the way of confronting climate change. The first is the perception that technology works as a panacea. Second is that markets can take care of it all. Third is preventative measures are not worth the investment. Like climate change, coronavirus is, at a shorter-time frame, exposing the fragility of these assumptions and forcing society to rethink beliefs and behaviors.   

Technology 

The coronavirus crisis is making people reevaluate the limits of technology. As we increasingly realize how central technology is to our daily tasks, the idea that it will save us in times of despair is commonplace. We often mistakes technologies ability to “act” as independence of thought; a bias created by pre-existing codes created by humans. However, technology in itself does not hold a moral compass or independence of thought. What technology is and what it does are defined by society and should better align with our core values. It is neutral and to accept its neutrality helps us understand our roles as moral providers and redirect our efforts to save lives. 

It should not go unsaid that most jobs, schools and interactions are possible and available during the pandemic because of IT technology and the human necessity of staying connected. Even with its limitations, IT has allowed the world to maintain our lives as close to normal as possible during a worldwide recession. But, no amount of FaceTime or Zoom classes can replace a proper Sunday lunch with a grandparent, a parent watching their child’s first ballet recital or the collective euphoria of a graduating class. Virtual meetings are the closest substitutes we have, but they don’t quite fulfill the human need for interaction and affection. What we need is a cure for the virus and until we have it, Corona is beating us.  

Before the pandemic, technology seemed limitless and by (false) attribution, humans thought of themselves as limitless. The rapid spread of the virus revealed our limits. Hardly any health system in the world is able to accommodate the exponential growth in the number of infected. The absence of space in hospitals and practitioners to care for the sick is making more people sick and the technology available is expensive and inaccessible. The few knowns to stop the spread of the disease are that people should practice social isolation and wash hands frequently. This contradicts our egos and, just like climate change, requires us to refocus our priorities. 

The investment in new technologies should focus more on health, education and carbon-free technologies that will improve our quality of life. Societies have the responsibility to redirect the source of our concern and use technology to find a solution for the virus soon. The increasing demand for a vaccine is likely to accelerate funds and human capital. It is of global interest to restore economies, lives and routines. In the meantime however, it is important to accept our limitations and trust the knowns available to alleviate suffering. No matter how small it makes us feel.

Neoliberalism

The second widely accepted human dogma is markets are the answer to everything. My American degree in Economics forces me to preface this paragraph by saying that capitalism has improved standards of living worldwide. Although at an unequal rate, it has increased world output and contributed to innovation and development. However, it is unrealistic to attribute the responsibility of resolving the coronavirus crisis to the private sector. It is not within their financial means or part of their business models. Simple logic of supply and demand reveals how the practice of laissez-faire can lead people to fight over banal things like toilet paper. In times of crisis, neoliberalism fails to deliver what society needs. Greater government intervention is necessary to align incentives and save lives. 

Governments still hold the greatest amount of capital in world. Not only do they have the means to control the supply of money, they also have the power to enact laws, increase budget spending and control the military. In matter of days, South Korea tested over 300,000 people for coronavirus, set up over 600 testing centers, traced back the patients who tested positive, isolated people quickly into strict quarantine. Previously considered the second country with the highest number of infected, reaching 10,284 confirmed cases, the government contained the outbreak, limiting deaths to 186. Currently, South Korea is not even among the 10 countries with most infected cases. 

The United States, home to neoliberalist idealist Milton Friedman, is struggling to keep up with the effects of coronavirus without offering help to the invisible hand. After belatedly acknowledging the seriousness of the disease, president Donald Trump declared “war against coronavirus”. A businessman himself, Mr. Trump was coerced into setting aside his controversial convictions in lieu of saving the lives of the American people. Congress accelerated federal rescue relief bill of over 2 trillion dollars to alleviate the economic burden of the most affected.  In the third week of the outbreak, the government called on the military to build emergency hospitals. On April 3rd, over 6 million Americans filed for unemployment, representing a remarkable contrast to its lowest rate of 3.5% registered in January. With 589,048 confirmed cases and 25,163 deaths, the country surpassed the number of infected in China and is bracing for one of the worst economic recessions in the history of the modern world. 

Prevention Versus Intervention Behavior 

The third issue challenged by the coronavirus crisis is the absence of investment in preventative measures. How many times have we chosen not to purchase insurance for a television or a computer? Innumerous. We are used to thinking that when the time comes, we will be able to deal with the loss.  When applied to a larger scale like an infectious disease, this behavior threatens thousands of lives. On a Ted Talk hosted in 2015, Bill Gates warned us about the danger of a widespread pandemic to the world and how we were not ready for it. He was right. 

To clarify, it probably would not be economically viable to prepare any health system for the severity of this crisis, considering the number of equipment and healthcare personnel that would be on standby. What governments could have done instead was to invest in a trained response team to minimize the speed of the spread. The availability of massive testing could also have been prioritized along with faster resources to contain areas of isolation. To attend the majority of the population, a public and functioning healthcare system would encourage people to seek testing facilities, which would have benefited countries like the United States in identifying greater number of cases earlier in the pandemic. 

The coronavirus outbreak serves as an important lesson to prove that preventative measures cost less than interventionist ones. Similar to climate change, it is paramount to invest in preventative action that will curb and mitigate the effects of an increase in global temperatures. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report shows that if the world carries on as business as usual all of the same problems we are observing will happen again. Only the reduction of greenhouse gases emissions will mitigate its devasting consequences. 

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It is hard to know for certain if the predictions Wells made about climate change will become true. What the coronavirus is teaching us is that we are not very comfortable in dealing with the unknown. It exposes our vulnerability, our mortality and shows how small we are when faced with things outside our control. On the positive side, corona virus shows society is capable of changing our lives and customs to save each other. In an ideal world, humans would register the transformation brought by corona and do everything in their power to act against a similar threat. We are capable of saving ourselves, but only if we take our limits seriously and better understand our role in the world.