How Can We Learn From COVID-19 To Mitigate Our Next Crisis: Climate Change

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by Ankit Mishra

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has now touched nearly all parts of the world. For most of us, our daily lives have changed, and the downturn in the economy has left many unemployed. Since the first lockdown on January 22 in Wuhan, China, the number of positive cases has rapidly increased from 580 to over 2 million as of April 15. Although the global stock markets have somewhat recovered, the shock to the economy is expected to last several months. The IMF projects the global economy will contract by 3% this year with all major advanced economies expected to be in recession. 

As this crisis unfolds, it highlights the importance of risk mitigation and the real cost of lives around the world when action is either half measured or poorly implemented. In the coming months, we may be able to overcome COVID-19, either through strict containment measures or a vaccine, but given our dependence on fossil fuels, it will not be possible to ignore a more significant crisis that lies ahead – climate change. As a result, we must learn from COVID-19  and align on climate change to implement much-needed solutions in the coming years. From COVID-19, there are three key lessons that we can take to mitigate the impact of climate change.

1) Scientific facts matter and have to be taken seriously 

The initial outbreak of COVID-19 began in late 2019 in Wuhan, China. During the early days of the epidemic, Dr Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor who later died from COVID-19 in February 2020, was reprimanded by police for “spreading rumours” when he tried to raise the alarm about the disease to the local authorities. Soon after Dr Li Wenliang’s assessment, the Chinese authorities began to implement lockdown measures across China’s Hubei province in an attempt to control the spread of COVID-19. By trying to conceal critical information about the virus, the Chinese authorities failed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and allowed the transmission of the virus to strengthen in the country. Unfortunately, China is not alone when it comes to wasting precious time early in the outbreak to fight reality rather than the virus itself. Last month, the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonarodownplayed the coronavirus as “a little cold”. Around the same time, U.S. President Donald Trump insisted most of America could start going back to workby Easter. Since their comments, both these countries have seen the number of positive cases surge in the past few weeks. Undermining or downplaying the threat of COVID-19 has usually led to an exponential growth of infections, and this brings us back to climate change. We have seen similar rhetoric from climate change deniers even though there is clear evidence to indicate rising temperaturesand the consequences of inaction. The global community needs to take a cue from the COVID-19 pandemic and align on the scientific facts of climate change.

2) Delayed response costs lives and hurts the economy

On January 20, 2020, the World Health Organization’s situation reportconfirmed the first cases outside China in neighbouring Japan, South Korea and Thailand. Not long after, Iran, the United States and several European countries began reporting new cases of the novel coronavirus. Countries around the world attempted to slow down the disease’s outbreak and flatten the curve to reduce overall infections and keep cases at a number the healthcare system can manage. For example, South Korea took immediate action to slow the spread of the outbreak. The government used a model of open information, public participation and widespread testing to contain the epidemic, which has widely been hailed a success. However, not all countries were as quick to respond. Italy, Spain, Iran and the United States saw a sharp rise in the number of cases with their healthcare system quickly becoming overwhelmed. Early and proactive measures have helped countries like South Korea mitigate the economic downfall as well. The Washington Post reports that South Korea intends to reopen parts of its economy in the coming weeks. However, the situation is vastly different in the United States, which reported its first case on the same day as South Korea. The latest U.S. Labour Department report showed 16.8 million Americans have lost their jobs since the virus outbreak, and with a growing infection trend, the lockdown is likely to remain in place for the moment. By acting early, South Korea, as an example, was able to save lives and mitigate the damage to the economy. The same concept would apply to climate change. A delayed response will cost massive social and economic harm with studies projecting that global incomes will fall 23% by the end of the century. For this reason, governments need to ensure that they are meeting their targets for the Paris Agreement because a delayed response will only make the situation worse and hinder our ability to address the issue in the future.

3) Globally coordinated policy measures are required

As of April 15, COVID-19  has affected 210 countries and territories around the world. Due to the large scale of the pandemic, the international efforts to prevent, detect and respond to the epidemic have been unprecedented. Over the last few months, major international organisations have been leading initiatives to coordinate the distribution of essential supplies and support the preparedness and response efforts of governments. At the regional level, the European Union has adopted the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative, which will give member states access to €37 billion. EU members can use the funds to strengthen their healthcare systems, as well as support small and medium-sized enterprises, short-term working schemes, and community-based services.

Meanwhile, in North America, Canada and the United States have undertaken similar measures to support their economies and health care systems. This coordinated approach by various international bodies has helped countries to align on policy, economic stimulus packages, health care recommendations and social distancing. However, on climate change, this level of coordination is often lacking with inaccurate messaging. Given the progress needed to address climate change, further collaboration and dialogue among countries will be required to align on evidence and policies to execute on the Paris Agreement. 

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