We’ve been hearing the claim that the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything people alive today have ever encountered. This is largely true, but because we have intellectual resources to draw upon, namely those of history, science, and philosophy, we already know a great deal about the requirements of this moment. Moreover, we have experience with a simultaneous global emergency: climate change.
Watching the COVID-19 outbreak unfold is like watching a time lapse of the climate change crisis. .A.s. .w.ith climate change, our response to COVID-19 requires intellectual humility. We must take the warnings and recommendations of science seriously; in both cases lives depend upon informed responses. In both cases, disinformation and doomism go hand in hand. What we do now necessarily will mitigate or exacerbate both crises.
As with climate change, theoretical models have proven essential for anticipating what is likely to happen in the future. In the case of Coronavirus, the initial spread of this virus is occurring at an exponential rate as models predicted. This means we can anticipate that larger sums of people will become infected in the coming weeks. We know the majority of those infected by COVID-19 will experience mild or no symptoms while remaining highly contagious, and we know that for others, COVID-19 will create the need for ventilators and other emergency medical supports that we do not yet have in sufficient supply. It is worth emphasizing: The fact that most people will experience mild symptoms is irrelevant to a crisis, like COVID-19, which is grounded in the math of large numbers.
These baseline facts tell us enough to know that we should counter any distraction against decisive measures to social distance during the coming weeks and months. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson disregarded what the world’s scientists were telling us and instead opted (at least initially) for “herd immunity“—that is, largely letting the disease spread rampantly among the population, building collective resistance in the remaining population but needlessly sacrificing lives in the process. Having now not only contracted COVID-19 but likely spread it to others through irresponsible personal behavior, Johnson has become a poster child for the dangers of disregarding science.
Unfortunately, President Trump has again emerged as a leading source of disinformation. Having called COVID-19, as he previously did with climate change, a “hoax,” he now resorts to calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus.” In the case of both COVID-19 and climate change, he has outsourced policy decision-making to science deniers. In both cases he is as wrong as he is xenophobic—and in both cases his predictable disinformation endangers lives. This is a time to tune out President Trump and to focus on what health experts and responsible leaders are advising.
As with climate change, understanding the difference between recommendations based on good science and reckless opining or misinforming is critical, and as with climate change, taking appropriate action now will pay future dividends. Likewise, the necessary disruptions to everyday life and the status-quo might not seem so indispensable to those who aren’t directly experiencing the worst impacts of COVID-19 or of climate change. In both cases, however, the reality is that the slower we are to react, the higher the cost will be in death as well as economic loss.
The need for an organized, fair, and well-equipped response to concerns and crises such as those we now face is the very reason we have governments. The liberal democratic tradition is too often misconstrued as the celebration of private enterprise. In reality, the liberal social contract is premised upon diverse groups joining together for common public goods—for advantages that promote communal safety and mutual flourishing. Large scale crises such as COVID-19 and climate change remind us that our government has the obligation to protect the welfare of its citizens. In responding both to climate change and COVID-19, modern governments have the responsibility to soften the blow of economic disruptions with direct aid and functioning social safety nets readily available to struggling households, employers, and regions. They also have the responsibility to address an obvious crisis in healthcare access, in a binding and structural way.
None of this rules out the importance of individual ethical responsibility. Citizens have the responsibility to hold government accountable, any time government fails to uphold their end of our contract. In a democratic society, political action and individual moral decisions are linked. We need both to deal with problems such as COVID-19 and climate change.
If there is silver lining in this crisis, it is that it might be a societal teaching moment when it comes to an even greater crisis—the climate crisis—which, even as we battle the current pandemic, continues to play out, without abeyance, in the form of inundating seas and unprecedented heat, drought, floods and wildfire. There is a lesson for us in COVID-19 when it comes to the fragility of our expanding resource-hungry civilization, and our reliance on massive frail infrastructure for food, water, and space—on a finite planet with finite resources. That lifestyle may be a vital underlying factor favoring pandemics like the current one. Will the current crisis help us to see nature as a refuge rather than a resource for endless exploitation? Will it help us to take civic responsibility for the welfare of others seriously? And will we finally hold our politicians responsible for their failures at the voting booth?
Will we heed this warning from mother nature? Or will we return to our profligate ways? Only time will tell. The problem is that we haven’t any time left to waste. The time to act, whether it’s coronavirus or climate change, is upon us.
Lawrence Torcello is Associate Professor of Philosophy at New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology—his research spans issues of bioethics, science denialism, and liberal democracy.
Michael E. Mann is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book, with Tom Toles, is The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy (Columbia University Press, 2016).
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own.