‘Silver Linings’ in Pandemic Response Could Support Action on International Crises
Amid a worsening global pandemic, a couple of authors are taking a step back to look at how the coronavirus could (eventually) change the world for the better.
As the reality of the immediate crisis hits home, “the coronavirus emergency is going to manifest itself in these kinds of micro-details in our day-to-day lives—in bare shelves, anxious conversation with friends, and the trials of juggling life’s essential tasks and making ends meet when workplaces and schools are closed,” writes Thomas Homer-Dixon, chair of global systems at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario.
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“But we should also take some time to see the larger picture, because this global health crisis is revealing critical vulnerabilities in humanity’s planet-spanning economic, social, and technological systems,” he notes. “This larger picture is mostly painted in dark hues, but there are also some surprising silver linings around the coronavirus clouds swirling on our horizon.”
Homer-Dixon casts COVID-19 as a “vivid example of a global ‘tipping event,’ in which multiple social systems flip simultaneously to a distinctly new state.” They’re made more likely, he says, by the “unprecedented connectivity” and interdependence of the various global networks humanity has put in place, from food distribution to communication. The most recent tipping event was the 2008-2009 economic crash. And the science of complex systems “shows that until we manage this connectivity better—which could mean, among other changes, reducing our international travel, simplifying global supply chains, and bringing some production processes closer to home—we’re likely to experience more frequent tipping events of ever-higher destructive force.”
Homer-Dixon lists some of the factors that make this coronavirus an “especially powerful tipping agent”—including a relatively low lethality rate that makes it tougher to identify carriers, giving the virus itself more opportunity to spread, the regions of the world that are “literally blank spaces on the global coronavirus incidence map, because health agencies there often lack capacity to detect the disease,” and the harsh economic cost of the control measures that have necessarily been put in place in China and elsewhere.
“But cascading changes in our global social systems don’t always have to be so pernicious,” he writes. “Today’s emerging pandemic could help catalyze an urgently needed tipping event in humanity’s collective moral values, priorities, and sense of self and community. It could remind us of our common fate on a small, crowded planet with dwindling resources and fraying natural systems.”
That will mean rebuilding “our collective trust in scientists, the scientific method, and scientific findings,” recognizing that “we won’t address this challenge effectively if we retreat into our tribal identities and try to wall ourselves off from each other. COVID-19 is a collective problem that requires global collective action—just like climate change.”
Homer-Dixon adds that he’s placing his own hope “in the possibility of virtuous cascades of such positive, ‘normative’ change. The coronavirus emergency is already causing terrible human suffering. But it’s also just possible that it could put us, together, on a far better path into the future.”
In the Toronto Star, veteran journalist Tony Burman lists at least five possible positive outcomes from the current crisis—beginning with the end of Donald Trump’s reign in the White House. All five map back, one way or another, to a more robust response to the climate emergency.
“Politically, if not medically, the most prominent victim of the coronavirus will likely be Donald J. Trump,” Burman writes. “Trump’s mishandling of this outbreak has highlighted the utter incompetence of his administration at a time when the resurgent Democrats appear to be uniting behind Joe Biden. Trump’s presidency will soon be history.”
His four other points are less partisan. He points to the shockingly low coronavirus testing rate in the U.S.—11,000 in total as of last Friday, compared to 10,000 per day in South Korea—as a catalyst for the country to rebuild a deeply defunded public health system. He also predicts a new appreciation for the international systems that give countries some capacity to respond to problems that respect no borders.
“This global health crisis is being compared to the 2008 financial crisis in its profound and enduring potential impact,” he writes. “But in 2008, there was a far more international response, led by the United States. Trillions of dollars were spent to achieve financial security. But in this era of Trump—where an obsession about borders and narrow national interests dominates—there has been no global strategy. Eventually, the world will learn from that.”
As a result, Burman predicts, key international agencies like the World Health Organization will receive desperately-needed financial support that has been neglected in recent years, most notably by the U.S. And closer to home, he says the coronavirus crisis may remind more of us of the valuable role public servants play.
“Although political leaders have inevitably dominated the public debate about coronavirus in their respective countries, they often aren’t always listened to,” he writes. “The people the public wants to hear most from are the health and medical professionals. In matters of life and death, it is the truth, not the spin, that people want.”