The COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us what happens when you try to face a global emergency without preparation or global cooperation.
Wuhan Communist party officials started off being in denial of any problem, which gave the virus a chance to spread. Most nations responded too slowly, although few were as much in denial as Donald Trump who said “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” His White House continues to downplay the threat, leaving US city mayors to fight the spreading virus as best they can. The world lacks enough personal protection equipment for medics who are having to deal with infected people. And central banks all over the world are promising to spend billions to compensate for the adverse consequences of widespread lockdowns of cities.
But within a couple of years, once a vaccine has been developed and tested, the virus will be defeated and the world will get back to normal, leaving a death toll of perhaps 70 million and national debts increased by a few trillion.
So will national leaders and their populations have learnt the obvious lesson: that the world needs to plan for emergencies, especially ones that it can see coming?
And it seems clear that a problem far greater than COVID-19 is coming very soon.
Climate change will lead to many cities being flooded, much fertile land becoming desert, many forests destroyed, diseases migrating towards the poles, mass movements of people, wars over vanishing water supplies and fertile land, large numbers of deaths from starvation on the dwindling arable land and many other problems that make the single problem of COVID-19 seem trivial by comparison.
To cope with these huge problems and prevent civilization collapsing into chaos will require far greater investment and planning than COVID-19. Nations will have to have plans in place for how they are going to work and together. Will they be ready?
Almost certainly not. Our leaders only respond to emergencies when the threat is immediate, when a disease starts killing their people or a hostile army is standing on their border. Otherwise they are quite happy to say “Just stay calm. It will go away”. Politicians’ eyes are focussed on the next election. Anything more than five years ahead is beyond their horizon. They seem incapable of taking the drastic action needed to avoid a disaster which looms 30 years away.
And I’m sorry to say I don’t think that they are going to learn anything from this experience. As we have pointed out elsewhere, we should be spending at least a billion dollars a day for the next 30 years building green electricity generation plants just to replace our current fossil fuel power stations. The bill will be at least 100 trillion dollars. It will make the COVID-19 bill look like small change. And that’s just a tiny part of what needs to be done.
No, our leaders will wait until people start dying from fires, droughts and wars before they take any serious action. And, of course, by then it will be too late.
But for those of us who are luck enough to be able to vote for our leaders, the power to change this is in our hands. Politicians lack the vision to change things, so we must change our politicians. However, that will require that the citizens have a better understanding of the real problem facing them than their leaders do, leaders who are supposed to be there to anticipate problems and forestall them.
Unfortunately most of us have even smaller horizons than our politicians. We are worried about how to feed our families tomorrow, or how to save up for our next holiday. Few of us think about next year, let alone five years from now. That’s what we pay our politicians to do.
But there is hope in our children. They have already shown they are passionate about climate change. Most of them want governments to deal with the issue seriously, so perhaps, when they grow up, they will vote for politicians who promise to do that. And children can also influence their parents to change their behaviour and perhaps change their votes. We must keep on encouraging and supporting the young. It is they who will have to face the consequences if we fail.