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Our view

Pandemic lessons

by Sabine Balk


Selling essential goods in Sylhet, Bangladesh in early 2020.

Selling essential goods in Sylhet, Bangladesh in early 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic was an unprecedented global emergency. Hardly anyone had believed that anything like this could happen. Only a few, farsighted scientists had warned that the zoonotic diseases which are transmitted from animals to humans, are becoming more common and might develop rather dangerous strains.

Members of our species tend to not pay much attention to gloomy predictions, even if those predictions are based on science. The common pattern is that we simply hope the worst will not come to pass. Indeed, we tend to underestimate impacts of global heating too, in spite of the science. The climate crisis requires similarly stringent action as the pandemic did, but so far, precious few governments dare to act with the needed determination.

The full truth is that climate change and Covid-19 are interrelated phenomena in several ways. Global heating is making zoonotic diseases more likely (see my contribution on www.dandc.eu). As local climates are changing, animal species are shifting their habitats to cooler places, bringing along germs and viruses. When those pathogens infect local species, mutations may be the result – with potentially devastating impacts on the health of both animals and humans.

On the other hand, there was reason to hope that limited mobility during the pandemic would make people reconsider travelling habits, with traffic-induced emissions declining long-term. Three years after the pandemic started, we now see that this was an illusion. Yes, energy use and carbon emissions did drop briefly during lockdowns. There was, however, no dent in the long-term trend.

Missed opportunities

It is even more sobering that billions of euros worth of stimulus programs were hardly used for the environmental transformation humanity needs. Policymakers could have done more to promote renewable energy, sustainable transport and energy efficiency. According to Global Recovery Observatory, only three percent of the stimulus measures had a positive impact on natural resources, while 17 % contributed to their depletion. In regard to carbon emissions, the negative and positive impacts were about equal. Important opportunities to make our economies more sustainable were thus missed.

Another undeniable insert is that countries with strong infrastructure coped better with the new disease than those with poor infrastructure. In this context, infrastructure includes health care facilities, educational institutions and various social services.

In most countries, people now think the corona crisis is over. Broad-based vaccination campaigns have led to fewer infections and – what is even more important – fewer severe coronavirus cases as well as fewer deaths. Some political leaders, prominently including US President Joe Biden, have declared the pandemic to be over. We must hope that is true, given that, at least in theory, further mutations may yet cause dreadful suffering.

Heed these lessons

What the pandemic has certainly taught us, however, is that we must be prepared and that determined action is feasible. At the same time, global coordination was far from perfect. The international community must heed these lessons and apply them to climate change. The global common good is far more important than nationalist aspirations. As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated many problems, it actually amounts to a war on humankind as a whole (see Hans Dembowski on www.dandc.eu).

Sabine Balk is a member of the editorial team of D+C Development and Cooperation / E+Z Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit.