The current COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the ability of governments to act with speed and efficiency in times of crisis. Whilst no global response has been ideal, and many are not as comprehensive as desired, international governments have still managed to pass and enforce new laws to limit the immediate spread of the virus. This is often the case in times of crisis; governments will react to an immediate event and create policies (whether effective or not) to mitigate the negative implications of said event.
This governmental efficiency in times of immediate crisis is impressive. Yet this is completely unmatched in times of slow-moving, or impending crises. For years, there has been conjecture as to how the world would respond in the case of pandemic, whether in response to the 100th anniversary of the Spanish flu, or as part of a prescient report by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) in September 2019. In 2018, an editorial in The Lancet Infectious Diseases warned that “We should not find ourselves unprepared [for a pandemic]- to be so would cost millions of lives.” Yet, the 2019 GPMB report still found that “the world is not prepared.” At this stage, however, the event of a global pandemic was purely hypothetical so, to paraphrase a Foreign Policy article, nobody was interested in doing anything about it.
Even when the first news of a new pneumonia-like coronavirus came out of China, then was transported to other countries and the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced “a Public Health Emergency of International Concern,” many countries were slow to act. Italy, one of the worst hit countries, called their national lockdown on the 9th March, more than a month after the WHO announcement (local measures were implemented earlier, but the number of cases had still risen to 9,172 at this point according to Axios). Australia has been praised internationally for its prompt and effective action, yet it only called a nationwide shutdown four days later, and severely misjudged impacts such as allowing those from the Ruby Princess cruise ship to alight in New South Wales. In the US, responses to the pandemic have been ad hoc and mostly ineffectual; although President Trump made a recommendation for social distancing in mid-March, not all states have upheld the recommendations (and Trump has contradicted his own recommendations). The U.K. called a lockdown disastrously late, leading to their high fatality rate, and they still lack any policy calling for the quarantine of travelers into the country. The nations who have best responded to the crisis are those who have listened to experts in the field, or have leaders with some level of expertise, as in the case of Germany. This begs the question as to why the experts predicting the crisis were ignored only weeks, or sometimes months, earlier.
The lack of response to COVID-19 before it became an immediate crisis, and the level of denial even after it reached that point (especially, but not limited to the U.S.A.) creates an obvious parallel with climate change. Scientists have theorized about alterations in the earth’s atmosphere due to greenhouse gas emissions for over a century. In 1956, an interesting New York Times article announced to readers that “Warmer Climate on the Earth May Be Due To More Carbon Dioxide in the Air.” According to National Geographic, “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in late 1988, after a variety of factors had pushed the greenhouse effect into the spotlight.” Yet despite the scientific proof, international organisations and agreements, and the overwhelming public acknowledgement of climate change as a major international issue, many politicians and states have not formulated effective policies to combat climate change and its effects. Even major crises caused by climate change are treated as individual events, before politicians and the public move on. For example, Australia was struck by an appalling bushfire season at the beginning of 2020. As described in an article in The Guardian, “the climate crisis” has meant that “In Australia, the conditions for severe bushfires are occurring far more regularly.” Yet the conservative Australian politicians in power created policy which would merely combat the bushfires themselves, rather than the underlying causes. Some politicians (most notably Craig Kelly) outwardly denied any connection between climate change and the bushfires. Others merely stated that those drawing a link between the two were politicizing tragedy. This combination of denial and willful ignorance prevents action on an impending crisis. By the time climate change affects international daily life in the same way as the pandemic, any action will be too late, yet (just like in the case of the pandemic) too many of us are ignoring the warning signs. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the risks of disregarding the warnings of experts; one can only hope it will engender greater trust in scientists before other issues (such as climate change) become more severe.
To maintain a fully functional and peaceful society, politicians must be proactive. Rather than responding merely at the point when an issue becomes an immediate crisis, they must create forward-thinking policies. In some cases, these policies may be found unnecessary with hindsight, however I think we can all agree that early policies enforcing a pandemic response and a better prepared hospital system would have been preferable to the current state of lockdown in many parts of the world and the prevalence of illness and death. Similarly, we must act on saving the environment from further destruction before it is too late.