Coronavirus Outbreak: Four pivotal lessons for the world,from the unfolding pandemic

Mridula Ramesh

This is the concluding segment of a four-part explainer on the coronavirus outbreak. Read parts 1, 2 and 3.

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Over the past few weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has taught us four things about ourselves.

1. Governments are capable of strong, quick action. 2. The world remains unequal, with widening inequality. 3. The world has changed; China has changed. 4. Size does not matter. Time and communication does.

Strong, quick action

In January, China put 10+million people under lockdown. At that time, the world said, China is the only one who can do it.

The New York Times, on 22 January 2020, wrote:

"Scale of China's Wuhan Shutdown Is Believed to Be Without Precedent."

"In sealing off a city of 11 million people, China is trying to halt a coronavirus outbreak using a tactic with a complicated history of ethical concerns."

The same NYT, reported a day later that China was 'essentially penning in more than 35 million residents', bringing to mind lambs held for slaughter. It was thought that draconian lockdowns were the province of undemocratic countries.

Less than 50 days later, decidedly democratic Italy followed suit, trying to lock down its 60 million citizens in a bid to control the virus. And when that failed, calling the army in to enforce movement restrictions. Liberty, it seems, is not a given.

The Times headline on 15 March, showed how much mental space we had covered in 60 days.

"Spain, on Lockdown, Weighs Liberties Against Containing Coronavirus."

"Empty streets. Shuttered stores. Spain has joined the number of countries struggling to balance public health with freedoms especially prized in a relatively young democracy."

California €" the heart of liberalism in America €" went into lockdown mode in the middle of March. There were reports that the police department was using drones to enforce the ban, and convey information to the homeless. If you don't have a home, where do you stay locked down? New York and Illinois soon followed, asking over 70 million Americans to stay put in their homes. Within days, Britain, which had initially trumped down for herd immunity, changed tack, and locked down. By midnight on 24 March, India's 1.3 billion were under lockdown for 21 days. There were exceptions, but this scale of lockdown is unprecedented anywhere, ever.

We need no further proof that governments can take quick, strong action, when they perceive the need to be important. We are less than a month into lockdowns in some countries, and a day into lockdown mode in India. How long can we sustain it? These are uncharted waters, and, honestly, I have no clue. Look to the slums €" that may be the place unable to bear the strain, and may break first.

The lockdown is predicated on the existence of a vaccine. There is a global race to create a vaccine, with an American vaccine and a Chinese vaccine in Phase I clinical trials. Best estimates say a good candidate is about a year away. In the meantime, as the Northern Hemisphere heads into summer, the Southern Hemisphere is heading into winter, helping the virus spread.

Widening Inequality

This lockdown impacts different groups differently

Gainers €" Some 24-7 news channels, WhatsApp, Netflix, medical equipment/mask and other protective equipment/test-kit manufacturers (some of these are providing material/services at subsidised rates, and those cannot be considered gainers), short sellers.

Less impacted €" Many information-age companies can work from home. There is a disruption, sure, but work does get done, there is saving of office power bills and transportation expenses, and revenue can be billed (sometimes). The well-to-do are losing money on the stock markets, and in profit, yes. But, this group can afford to take up 'pursuits', and enjoy the fresh air.

Impacted €" Most of India. Retail. Manufacturing. Cinema. Schools. Religious services. The operators of these outfits are almost certainly looking at a loss this month, or maybe even this quarter. Highly leveraged players within each segment will face survival risk. Workers in this group have some job and wage security, for some time.

Wiped Out €" The informal sector, including daily wage earners, beggars. Many of them operate on days. The money lender is not renowned for his forbearance. One other group, that may not elicit much sympathy, is the imprisoned community. Do we set them free or let them be?

One additional point: Most people in India do not get piped water at home. If last year's data holds good, people, women, wait in lines to collect water. How will lockdown work here? As with climate change, this lockdown too, seems to be increasing inequality.

China

Wuhan is a prosperous Chinese city of 11 million. One reason for how the virus spread across national borders is when tourists from Wuhan visited other countries. China is now buying, not just selling €" it's harder to keep people buying one's wares and services out. Some of you might remember the Will Smith movie, Independence Day, when America gloriously takes the lead against the aliens invading Earth. America has been too busy to playing catch-up to the virus at home to have much time to help others. They did, however, extend aid to Pakistan.

China did extend aid €" officially and unofficially. There were planes of medical supplies and expertise to Italy. Then there was Jack Ma, who has been acting as China's Unofficial-Ambassador-at-Large, donating and shipping out millions of masks to Africa, Latin America, Europe and South Asia. Interestingly, when pretty much every other country in South Asia was covered, India, reportedly, was not. He tweeted, 'Go Asia! We will donate emergency supplies (1.8M masks, 210K test kits, 36K protective suits, plus ventilators & thermometers) to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan & Sri Lanka. Delivering fast is not easy, but we'll get it done!'. Ironically, the Ali Baba foundation tweeted, 'Through a donation of 500,000 testing kits and 1 million masks, we join hands with Americans in these difficult times.'

Jet Li was saving Will Smith from the aliens! This is an interesting dynamic to watch in the coming days.

There is one more. Two coronavirus epidemics, the SARS epidemic in 2002/2003 and this one, began in earnest in China €" both probably from a wet market. Both of these epidemics are caused by RNA viruses. There are about 180 known types of RNA viruses which infect humans, with about two new species added every year. Most RNA viruses are zoonotic €" i.e., they came from an animal host. This just means one thing; epidemics like these will recur. The Chinese preference for fresh exotic meat may carry too high a price for the world, in many ways.

Size does not matter, time and clear communication does.

The economic damage from this virus, and from the lockdowns to prevent the virus spread, will be vast. The UN estimated a $1 trillion blow. Stock markets reportedly lost $26 trillion from their February peak. These are big numbers, and every government stands ready to throw fiscal rectitude to the winds when stimulating their economies.

However.

Climate change is a far bigger threat economically, over time. It is expected to shave off trillions from the world's GDP by 2050, while extreme events cost just the US $312.7 billion in 2017 and $91 billion in 2018. In 2019, weather-related disasters, a fingerprint of a warming climate, cost the world $229 billion in damages alone. In half a decade, using the UN estimate, a warming climate will easily cost the world more in dollars and lives than COVID-19. Yet, governments have not taken action. Worse, many act in the opposite direction, with the IMF estimating that the subsidies for fossil fuels extends to $5.2 trillion in 2017.

Let's leave morals and compassion aside €" hard to do, since hundreds of millions are affected today. But leave them aside. On economics alone, discounting costs, depending, of course, on the discount rate, acting on climate change makes sense. Yet we haven't. While we have taken expensive, draconian action to limit the spread of a virus with an average fatality rate of < 1.5 percent for people aged less than 60. Given low testing levels, and the fact that the disease is asymptomatic in so many people, the fatality rate could be even lower.

Why is that?

One possibility is that the slow burn of climate change is psychologically different from the quick blow of the virus. Think of the proverbial frogs in the pot of water set to boil. Time matters.

Another possibility is that there is a clear villain, who everyone hates €" the SARS-CoV-2 €" in this pandemic. There is overwhelming evidence than burning fossil fuels are the villain in climate change. But not everyone hates them.

Yet another possibility is that the people leading the cry for action are doctors, who are comfortable making clear and compelling disease trajectory predictions, with fatality rates, based on limited data. Compare that with the hedged, unclear calls-for-action in climate change. Enough said.

The writer is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, cleantech angel investor and author of The Climate Solution €" India's Climate Crisis and What We Can Do About It published by Hachette. Follow her work on her website; on Twitter; or write to her at cc@climaction.net.

Also See: Newspapers don't transmit coronavirus, finds study; ‘sterility of ink and paper processes’ make newsprints safe

Coronavirus Outbreak: Aggressive testing, containment in small pockets — what India really needs to combat COVID-19

Coronavirus Outbreak: How effectively will policies of travel restrictions and social distancing control the spread?

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