As I have been thinking about the worldwide response to COVID-19, like many people I have been amazed that this pandemic would spur people to move out of a business-as-usual approach to life and into forms of action that will stop at nothing to achieve an important social goal. While I have complied very willingly with the advice of the epidemiologists, I do muse about why this crisis was the one that provoked such a healthy social immune response.
In recent years, millions of people have been raising alarm bells about the deadly climate crisis, the deadly crises of police violence and mass incarceration, the refugee and immigrant detention crises, and the deadly crisis of homelessness.
In recent years, millions of people have been raising alarm bells about the deadly climate crisis, the deadly crises of police violence and mass incarceration, the refugee and immigrant detention crises, and the deadly crisis of homelessness. Globally, the climate crisis already kills about 300,000 people annually and has led to a current count of 25 million climate refugees. Air pollution kills 5.5 million people around the world each year. At the present time, swarms of locusts are devastating crops and farmland in much of East Africa, endangering the lives of 25 million people. And the people of East Africa are partly experiencing this because of increases in CO2 in the atmosphere, 79 percent of which has been emitted by the countries of the Global North.
It isn’t that I wish COVID-19 received a less urgent and comprehensive response. It is that I wish those other crises were treated with the intensity of purpose they also deserve.
People in the climate justice movement have been arguing for years that actually dealing with the climate crisis would lead to better economic outcomes for our societies. And yet what is currently being invested to make those necessary changes is a fraction of what needs to be spent. In contrast, with the COVID-19 crisis, the general response has been that we need to do whatever it takes to slow the spread of the virus and come up with a vaccine and treatments, even at the cost of shutting down the world economy.
Part of the difference in the responses comes from how the different crises hit our human brains. The climate crisis has been hard to organize around because it is often perceived as something that will happen in the future, to other people, in a diffuse set of ways, caused by everything in society, and hurting “the environment” rather than us. We know all of those things to be untrue. People are dying, being displaced, having their homes and crops destroyed now. We know that the climate crisis can be solved by getting society to stop using fossil fuels and destroying forests. We know that all of the solutions are technically feasible, and that adopting them will make our lives better, not worse. Still it has been hard to keep that message clear.
We know that the climate crisis can be solved by getting society to stop using fossil fuels and destroying forests. We know that all of the solutions are technically feasible, and that adopting them will make our lives better, not worse. Still it has been hard to keep that message clear.
For those working on mass incarceration, police violence, homelessness, the refugee crisis, the crisis of migrant detentions, and global poverty, we know that at least part of the problem is that those impacted are not seen as having lives that truly matter to those with the power to change things. That’s why #BlackLivesMatter has had such a deep resonance.
Another reason for the different response is that COVID-19 is a medical emergency ready to impact everyone. AIDS received a tragically slow medical response in part because it hit a marginalized subset of the population. While COVID-19 is killing African Americans and low-income people disproportionately, it is closer than AIDS to being an equal opportunity killer. And we have mechanisms built into our political systems to deal with medical emergencies. In some places, departments of health are able to declare a health emergency, and they have statutory power to impose emergency rules. In many places, public health authorities are trusted to be operating in the interest of society as a whole and not for some corrupt special interest. And because COVID-19 can impact everyone, those public health mechanisms have been widely activated.
Those who would solve these other crises we face don’t have that sort of statutory power or consensus of trust behind their attempts. People working on those problems must engage with the slow grinding of political processes. And unlike many public health systems, our political systems are not run by experts acting in the interests of society as a whole. Rather, as I argue in my forthcoming book Challenging Power: Democracy and Accountability in a Fractured World, governments are contested sites where different interests fight for dominance. At the present moment, most governments are significantly influenced in their decision making by politicians who were elected with money from fossil fuel and deforestation interests, and the banks which profit from investments in those devastating industries.
Finally, another important difference is that the virus is a universally hated and feared enemy. Our other crises are muddied by causes which are more deeply woven into our social fabric: the fossil fuel industry, the banks and pension funds which support that industry, the companies that engage in deforestation, and the politicians who do their bidding, are not universally seen as responsible for the problems we face. Our enemies in many chronic intractable problems are the forms of discrimination and dehumanization that cause social systems to respond less urgently to the needs of people from marginalized groups. Finally, perhaps the biggest enemy is the belief that it is more important to protect the freedoms of those with capital to do what they want than it is to protect the freedom of the rest of us to have a functioning social fabric.
During this crisis, along with the horror and loss, many people are experiencing something really beautiful- a sense of solidarity and common purpose. Many of us have felt ourselves to be facing a common danger and we have felt good acting together to address it. Many people appreciate the courage and sacrifice of medical professionals, appreciate others for maintaining six feet of social distance, appreciate ways that neighborhoods have come together to support people who can’t go shopping. Governments have suddenly found ways to house homeless people, provide paid sick leave, and enact moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures. Many people have experienced the good feeling that comes from caring for the wellbeing of others and the social fabric that connects us.
Of course we have also seen plenty of the opposite: states that have used this as an opportunity to outlaw abortion as a non-necessary medical procedure, states that have not enacted shelter in place orders, unbelievable attempts at profiteering and lowering pollution standards. As Naomi Klein argues in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, when a crisis hits, the normal rules and ways of doing things are suspended and much that seemed impossible, both for our common good and for private gain, become more possible than before.
Because of the climate crisis, and the destruction of habitat for other species, we are entering a period where we will face an upsurge in disasters. The climate crisis directly causes fires, floods, hurricanes, war, displacement, and plagues of locusts. And, like COVID-19, those disasters will have the hardest impacts on those with the fewest resources to protect themselves or to recover. Further, as Sonia Shah argues in Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, because of worldwide habitat destruction, we are likely in the coming period to experience more pandemics along the lines of COVID-19, AIDS, EBOLA and SARS-CoV-1.
Once we have dealt well with the enemy that is the virus, we need to focus that same level of healthy social immune response onto our work facing those other crises. We need to get better at dealing with our wide range of chronic and acute social disasters.
When there is no mechanism for swift automatic reaction to protect the public good, then it is up to social movements to force action. As we prepare to come back from the pause of the economic machines that drive our societies, we can use some of what we have learned from the strong social immune reaction to COVID-19 to address our other crises.
The scientists have told us with crystal clarity that we need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030. When those with power say it is too expensive to do that, we know with the clarity of lived experience that what they mean is it is not important enough to them to do what it takes. We know that their reaction is a choice rather than a fixed reality.
We have also learned by looking at the differences between South Korea and Taiwan on the one hand, and the US, on the other, that better and more competent government is better than a worse and incompetent government. And we are all reminded of how much elections matter.
As we prepare to bring our economies back from their pause, it is time to work hard for a just and green recovery. We have the resources, the scientific and technical knowledge, and the proven policies for all of us to live well. We need to work as hard as we can for a healthy social immune response against the things that harm our common good.