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The Coronavirus: Signs of Hope?

Written by Neil Levy

These are scary times. The death toll from Covid-19 raises hour by hour and in most countries the rate of new infections continues to grow. While most of us know that if we contract the virus the disease will likely be mild for us, we have friends and family who are at much higher risk. As society shuts down and our lives become more and more constrained, our anxiety rises along with it.

While there have been widespread reports of fights over toilet paper, of hoarding and of profiteering, the worst behavior comes from a tiny minority of people. There seem to many more people caremongering than there are profiteers. We might have feared very much worse. There is little sign of any social breakdown. Most of us are listening to the advice and practicing social distancing. This is encouraging, because the people who might most easily act selfishly – those with greatest mobility and the resources to hoard or profiteer – are those least at risk. We’re all making changes to our lives, in most cases big changes, and we’re doing it for other people rather than for ourselves.

There has been widespread criticism of the response of governments across the world. Obviously some of this criticism is justified (for the record, I think it is far too early to judge the performance of the UK government). Even assuming that most of the criticism is warranted, however, there is a stark contrast between the response to Covid-19 and climate change. Responsiveness to science has been dramatically better in the former case than the latter. Frankly, I expected very much worse and I’m happy to have my cynicism punctured to some degree. Rather than abandon the vulnerable, governments have not only shut down a great deal of economic activity, they have underwritten the costs of the shutdown. Who would have expected that a Conservative government would pay 80% of the salaries of those who lose their jobs due to the crisis, or that a Liberal government would double the jobseeker allowance?

The new responsiveness to science is the most hopeful feature of how we have reacted. Gone, for the moment at least, are the anti-vaxxers. Gone, for the moment at least, are those who dismiss modelling as inherently flawed. We understand, for the moment, that models are our best tools for predicting how complex systems unfold over time. Silenced, for the moment at least, are the voices of those who say we cannot afford to address our problems; that the economy must take precedence over human lives.

Perhaps this new responsiveness to science will flow into our response to climate change. Perhaps when we can begin to rebuild we will see that government intervention, on an enormous scale, is an appropriate response to enormous challenges, that money can be found and the predictions of scientists must be central to future planning. If that happens (a very, very, big if, I acknowledge) then perhaps the current crisis will enable a better future.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Alberto Giubilini

    As much as I appreciate your optimism, I think you have been too quick on “Gone, for the moment at least, are the anti-vaxxers”. Unfortunately, from what I read around the internet, the anti-vaxxers are alive and kicking. When we have a vaccine against Covid19, these people won’t want to vaccinate. Finding a vaccine against the virus is only the first step. Second step is to get people to use it. I don’t know which one is more difficult, honestly

    1. Interesting, Alberto. What I’m not seeing is their views being amplified by more mainstream sources, and I would bet that they’re having more trouble than usual in finding converts. I hope so, at any rate.

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