Economic Ecology Part II: Opportunity 

click to enlarge GETTYIMAGES.CA - The COVID-19 pandemic has radically altered the world.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has radically altered the world.

In a previous column (Pique, March 19) I argued that the current pandemic, though proximally tied to environmental degradation, is more distally symptomatic of rabid globalization and economic hubris, leading most countries to adopt too-tentative measures for a threat they gambled wasn't the red-alert it seemed. A lack of foresight on both fronts has proved disastrous. But because every crisis also brings opportunity, are there potential positive upshots to these dual failings?

Disease outbreaks are a boomerang effect of the destruction of ecosystems. With their frequency increasing steadily (from 1980 to 2013, some 12,012 outbreaks comprising 44 million cases affected every country in the world), it's also worth listing the contributing trends that underlie this: turbocharged global travel and trade; high-density living; climate change; and the habitat and biodiversity loss linked to 31 per cent of outbreaks. As The Guardian rhetorically asked, "Is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?"

Absolutely. And if we don't change our consumptive course, this may only be the tip of the iceberg. China has shuttered its notorious "wet markets" where trade in endangered wildlife takes place, but the global community must take this opportunity to further stigmatize and criminalize this practice, while prioritizing maintenance of habitat and biodiversity; this could save many species from extinction—including humans.

Still, we knew it was coming. Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an epidemiologist you've seen and heard from plenty in the past few weeks, is blunt on this front: "We in the 'business' have been banging the drum of pandemic preparedness for years. We knew one would eventually overwhelm us—this is it."

Bogoch compares budgeting for pandemics to war and peace economies. "In peacetime it's hard to fund something that's not an immediate threat, so we throw money at cancer and cardio-vascular disease, and ignore outbreaks. We thought SARS would be the lesson and it wasn't because it was quickly contained. We thought H1N1 would be the lesson and it wasn't because in North America it wasn't much worse than a typical flu season. We thought the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak that killed 20,000 would be the lesson ... and it wasn't."

"So now we're back to old-school," he says, noting that social distancing is all we had to work with during the Spanish Flu—even the plague. "Our best tool right now is to avoid each other, but in 2020 we should have more at our disposal—like antivirals and vaccines. Funding for a coronavirus vaccine got a boost after SARS then fell by the wayside. The same thing happened with [Middle East Respiratory Syndrome]. If those efforts had carried through we wouldn't be scrambling from almost Square 1 now. SARS-CoV-2 will have significant socio-political implications and massive economic impact. Hopefully this is the wake-up call and instead of playing catch-up next time, we'll have proactive policies and funding."

That's one obvious public health outcome, but so, too, are pronounced changes in the way it's delivered—the exams and transactions now conducted online to avoid the risk of transmission in crowded waiting rooms will likely be permanent.

And the economy?

"For years we've talked about the economy as if it was alive: it's 'ailing,' it's 'recovering,' it's 'on the mend,'" climate activist Bill McKibben recently tweeted. "... Our leaders believe the world is a subset of the economy, not the other way around."

Nowhere has this upside-down philosophy caused more damage than in the U.S., where the "political worldview is so obscenely stunted by the worship of wealth it refuses to ... respect the common wealth of a healthy society." Summarizing the resulting dysfunctional healthcare system, the New York Times tweeted "large-scale testing of people ... did not happen because of technical flaws, regulatory hurdles, business-as-usual bureaucracies and lack of leadership at multiple levels."

So where do we go from here? As we've all seen, only during crises are governments able to enact necessary but painful systemic reform. Over decades, climate change hasn't been half the crisis SARS-CoV-2 has become in a few short weeks, but every economic shock leaves its mark, and this one might actually result in global cooperation to build economic resilience that can weather both climate and disease, and national makeovers incorporating aspects of a Green New Deal and universal basic incomes. Universities and schools will be better prepared to educate online. A revamped, more flexible travel and tourism sector could emerge. And tighter border controls, wider insurance coverage, and lasting changes to work, exercise, socializing, supply chains and shopping patterns will all endure long after the virus.

There is no denying this pandemic will—and should—radically change almost everything we do. Everyone wants things to go back to normal quickly, but we must understand one key thing: there will be no normal to go back to.

To read Part I go here


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