I don’t want to minimize the human suffering caused by the pandemic. Rather, I think taking a bigger view of it might help us alleviate a much wider occurrence of human suffering in the future.
Step back a moment and consider the pandemic as a huge scientific experiment. Maybe it’s nature’s way of opening our eyes to some things that would have been more obvious if we didn’t have our noses to the grindstone most of our lives.
For example: there has been much debate over whether climate change is real, about whether human activity contributes to global warming, sea level rise, climate change, etc., and a question about whether changing our behavior could ever have any real effect.
The answers to these three questions are pretty clear now. Of course, the climate has changed—and new disease vectors (like a pandemic outbreak of a new virus) were a predicted result of that change. Just a couple of months of severely curtailed economic activity has made the Himalayas visible in India—some people hadn’t seen them for decades because of air pollution. Worldwide carbon emissions have dropped dramatically. The fiercely polluted waters of Venice’s lagoons have become cleaner—marine life is returning. All this shows that as far as the second two questions go, human activity has huge impacts and also that we could address climate change through coordinated public policy… if only we took the health of our whole planet as seriously as the pandemic.
No government or research body in the world could have conducted this kind of planetary-wide test. Only history could do that. It might be worth now to compare the damage done in terms of the worldwide health costs of our previous way of life to the effect of the pandemic. I don’t have the data, but I imagine that environmental degradation of all kinds has even greater annual impacts on public health than the horrific, but so far short-term, toll of the coronavirus.
A deeply related point is this: if we close the economy to the point where only “essential services” are offered, and we find that 25-30% of our workforce is actually dispensable, then we must ask ourselves, “These people may be gainfully employed if we live extravagantly, but are they truly meaningfully employed? Are they sustainably employed?” If the answers to these two questions are “no,” then maybe we need to re-think our whole way of life.
In fact, individuals who suddenly face an unexpected health crisis often do reassess their lifestyle and their ideas about what life is really all about. That is often a very fruitful experience. It often leads not onlyto better health but is actually what many thought leaders have been urging us to do for years (like most of the great prophets and sages of humanity who generally urged us to live reasonably, think about others and not over-indulge ourselves).
So we should think about this as a revealing health crisis for the whole planet as well as ourselves. A key to a solution is rethinking our economy. Today, people struggle for years to afford to be able to retire. Then, in retirement, many of them contribute thousands of hours to civic-minded public service volunteer work. That’s nice, but it also basically eliminates a job that could pay someone… Why not just pay people to do that kind of work during their working lives?
The basic insight of ecology is that everything is interconnected. The economy is like the snake eating its own tail. It all comes around again. But we forget that. In the end we all pay for everything. We have reached a point where our technology and industry allow a few million people to produce everything needed by hundreds of millions. Still, we persist in trying to force all those “excess” people to work for subsistence wages. Futurists used to describe the utopia that science and technology would create. Today, capitalism insists on robbing us of the promised benefits. We have the technology to make a better, more stable world. What is lacking is the needed changes in mind-sets and the political will to find a way to distribute wealth more fairly.
In ancient times, royalty had palaces. That is because they were heads of state—the glory of the palace reflected on the whole country. Today celebrities have mansions of 50 or more rooms—while millions are homeless. Our democratic tendencies (which are good) have been hijacked by consumerism and conspicuous consumption. The point of democracy and a more egalitarian approach to politics wasn’t that we should all live like royalty, but rather that royalty should tone down its pretentious lifestyles.
We knew millions of Americans had almost no savings and that they lived paycheck to paycheck. Why are we surprised that our supposedly “great economy” could be so badly derailed by a predictable crisis like the current covid-19 pandemic?