Covid-19: time for a paradigm shift?

Dr Phil Webber, SGR, looks at some emerging implications from the Covid-19 crisis for policies related to health, social justice, science, economics, environment protection and security.

Responsible Science blog (2nd in Covid-19 series), 28 April 2020

The first blog in this series identified several implications for governments internationally and public policy. This article looks further at the impacts emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic and the implications for other global threats requiring urgent action.

Our society and support structures are weak

In a very short time, the crisis has revealed how dependent we are upon our health services and many of the lowest paid workers in society – cleaners, delivery drivers, shop workers, care staff, fruit and vegetable pickers – and we painfully discover that, even in wealthy countries, health services simply do not have anything like the capacity in terms of doctors, nurses and specialist medical or protective equipment to cope with those needing treatment despite ceasing all but essential emergency treatment.

In some countries – such as the UK and USA – funding for preparedness for pandemics had been cut, despite warnings that new infectious diseases would become more prevalent due to both climate change and as human populations encroach further on remaining wildlife refuges. In the UK, in 2016, a pandemic preparedness exercise ‘Cygnus’, found that the National Health Service would be quickly overwhelmed with many critical shortages. The findings were not made public. This was followed in 2018 by a biological security strategy – but it was not properly implemented. Resources to prevent and forecast the spread of disease by advanced testing and contact tracing were allowed to fall to a low level.

Wider political implications

UK Government ministers say that ‘we are all in this together’. In one sense of course we are. But this is a novel message from those that believe in competition between market forces to achieve maximum ‘efficiency’ and profit. And Covid-19 also exposes an uncomfortable truth. Some of us are very much more at risk than others. We are told that at risk groups include the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions. But the government and much of the media do not mention risk factors identified in the 2020 Marmot study which highlighted a startling rise in poor health in more deprived areas of the UK due to austerity policies. These funding cuts perversely created more pressure and costs for the National Health Service. Professor Marmot’s view is that the Covid-19 pandemic is amplifying existing disparities in income and life opportunities. For example, those with pre-existing medical conditions often grow up in poorer households where we already know that health outcomes are much worse. This finding may partly explain the data from the USA and UK, showing that people of colour are several times more likely to die than others. In the UK, we have seen that those living in care homes are extremely vulnerable. Many other low paid workers are more vulnerable simply because they are exposed much more because of their job – for example, a care worker or a bus driver. Covid-19 is amplifying these differences.

Unlike other urgent crises facing global society – for example, the need for swift action to combat climate change or the need to stop a new nuclear arms race  – the Covid-19 crisis has forced governments to take decisive action because it very visibly and identifiably kills people in a horrible prolonged illness, through attacking their lungs. To add to the sense of dread, those dying are often unable to be accompanied by family. Even funerals are heavily restricted.

The pandemic has also highlighted the considerable importance of international co-operation through, in this case, the World Health Organisation – and we are starting to see the costs when it breaks down. Perversely, President Trump has chosen this moment to stop WHO’s funding from US government funds. This is a dangerous move for all of us and for the USA itself. Most of WHO’s work supports weak health services in Africa and other parts of the developing world. This funding prevents novel deadly infections and diseases incubating in human populations – previous examples are Ebola and HIV-AIDS – which can then be spread world-wide. Imagine if Ebola had spread to a city like London or New York instead of having been contained within Africa.  

It has been clear for many years according to various organisations – including SGR – that international cooperation and agreements are needed to fight the climate emergency and to minimise the threat of nuclear war, but practical measures remain insufficient. It appears that political leaders and the wider public find it hard to support action to deal with a threat predicted in the future or a risk that is yet to materialise as an immediate threat to life. The impact of well-funded campaigns to deliberately mislead public opinion to deny human responsibility and agency for climate change must also be noted. Partly as a result, the wider public are largely unaware that global heating is already proving lethal to many of the world’s most vulnerable and causing real damage to economies and the natural environment on which we depend for food, clean air and clean water. But the impacts are either not easily ‘felt’ here in the UK – despite even the recent huge and repeated impacts of flooding – or a narrative blaming other countries such as China for emissions we do not control has become pervasive.

A dangerous lack of transparency

The UK government, famous for the statement that ‘the public are sick of experts’, now repeatedly says that it is ‘following the science’. But this phrase avoids responsibility for the political choices being made. As always in scientific work, there are a range of models and hypotheses based on incomplete data, and a range of more or less palatable policy options. Choosing between them remains a political decision.

On the defensive, the government now refuses to acknowledge that ‘herd immunity’ was the original strategy or that earlier actions to shut down large social gatherings or to organise testing facilities would have sharply reduced death rates. There is a noticeable lack of transparency in the scientific advice used as the basis of decision-making. For example, the government does not tell us who are the members of SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), does not publish its minutes, nor the specific advice given, nor the mathematical models considered. 

The economic impact

In a few weeks, to combat the spread of the virus, economic activity has been reduced to very low levels across the globe. In the UK, huge financial resources have been allocated to support people’s incomes for at least three months. In Spain, a universal basic income has been brought in. A deep, worldwide recession is forecast, much bigger than the financial crash of 2007/08.

The response to the crisis has also exposed what is vitally important for day-to-day living and what is not. The result is that major sectors and activities of the UK economy: air travel, business meetings, hotels, restaurants, bars, theatres, and travel and whole service industry sectors are closed. In many sectors, the ‘market model’ is shown to have very little resilience.  Major companies, for example, in the airline industry, who normally make large profits, are now seeking very large bail-outs by government. Yet some of the same companies – even during the crisis – have still made payments to shareholders (dividends) and in some cases multi-million payments to their owners. Clearly, they had not built up sufficient reserves to carry them through even a few months of no income. This contrasts sharply with – for example – the charitable sector where charities are advised to have reserve policies enabling them to keep functioning for period ideally of 6 months if income should dry up and to have an exit strategy in that case.

All talk of ‘no magic money trees’ has been quietly dropped – as has any mention of the ten-year policy of austerity.

This in turn has revealed another fact. Governments can mobilise huge financial resources when they choose to do so. Within a few days of the virus crisis, the UK government felt impelled to find hundreds of billions in loans and grants to support every day incomes and businesses. The US bailout is being measured in the trillions. The EU is enacting financial rescue packages on a similar scale. The Bank of England also unusually agreed direct funding of the UK government of the order of £200bn to avoid a cash flow crisis. As large numbers of UK businesses collapse, the government has allocated more financial resources – mainly loans but also grants. A glaring exception is government support for those now forced to go on universal credit or very low levels of sick pay (£94/week).

Acting on climate change would be easier than tackling Covid-19

Clearly governments could have already acted to deal with a range of other very serious international challenges. An obvious one, which had been rapidly climbing the international political agenda before Covid-19, was the need for urgent action to move the global economy to zero-carbon emissions within a few decades. Most experts agree that insufficient action has been taken. The political arguments instead – rather pointlessly – have focused on what the target year for zero emissions should be rather than actually allocating sufficient resources to bring down emissions by at least 7% per year for ten years or more.  

But actions to combat climate change and to move to a zero-carbon economy would often pay for themselves. For example, a recent detailed study of home insulation and renewable energy technology installation across the UK found that spending of £90bn up to 2035 would result in benefits slightly exceeding that amount. This was the case even while sticking to the Government’s own financial guidelines.

In any case, the economic, human and ecological impacts of not taking action to combat climate change including major sea level rises, extreme weather, crop failures, in the longer term (2050 – 2100) cannot easily be converted into £ or $ ‘cost’ terms. But even narrow economic estimates suggest a cost range of 5-20% of GDP, far exceeding the ‘cost’ of allocating large resources now to transition to a zero-carbon economy of around 2% of GDP/ year over the next decade.

International cooperation and action

The early impacts of the Covid-19 virus have made it very clear that worldwide action is needed to minimise deaths and economic disruption.

The virus threat will have been dealt with – hopefully – within 18 months once a vaccine is found, although the risk will remain of the virus mutating and causing successive rounds of infection. The other huge threats to the safety of our world and our health remain. Dealing with dangerous climate heating requires a huge financial effort comparable to that needed to deal with coronavirus, lasting at least ten years. Eliminating the risk of nuclear annihilation requires the political will to cooperate to reduce and dismantle thousands of nuclear weapons capable of killing hundreds of millions of people within hours and potentially billions within in years.

Covid-19 has shown us how we can cooperate, or at least act together independently, unilaterally, towards a common goal. It shows how we must act to protect, ‘sanitise’, our everyday lives with well-funded, strong health systems. In the same way we need well-funded climate protection programmes - like a public health programme only for the climate - which would create large numbers of worthwhile jobs, get the economy moving again sustainably and improve health and reduce poverty. This would be popular too. A recent survey found that the public by a large margin want governments to respond "with the same urgency to climate change as it has with Covid-19".

To deal with nuclear weapons we need international political agreements to avoid nuclear catastrophe by mistake, equipment failure, cyber-attack or a foolish or warlike leader. As a result, 122 nations have developed a new approach – the UN nuclear ban treaty – to gradually sanitise the globe of the nuclear danger.

SGR urges the nations of the world to learn the lessons of Covid-19 and to act positively to protect us all against the coming disaster of climate heating - including huge sea level rises and violent weather – and the pent up unimaginable risk posed by 14,000 nuclear weapons with 1,800 currently ready to fire within minutes – which would effectively end human civilisation. We need many more nations – not least the UK – to step up and show leadership against disaster.

Dr Philip Webber is Chair of Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR).

Thanks to Stuart Parkinson for editorial input.

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