The coronavirus pandemic has been the most disruptive event globally for decades. The official death toll is around 5 million, but the final tally will certainly be much higher. We will face the side effects of this suffering for decades to come.
But that’s not the whole story. The fight against COVID-19 has also demonstrated once again that humanity is capable of great things when motivated enough. The pandemic has reminded us that political capacity is not set in stone. This gave us a model for the necessary scale of climate policy.
Vaccines are arguably the most impressive achievement of the pandemic. All previous vaccines have taken at least several years to go from conception to production in studies demonstrating their effectiveness. Most took more than a decade. The first COVID-19 inoculations were designed within days or hours – and approved for administration around 11 months later – using near-miraculous mRNA technology that shows great promise in stopping other diseases.
This success is due in large part to government action in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Europe. The Trump administration and a divided Congress have devoted virtually unlimited resources to anyone who could make a safe and effective vaccine. Additionally, mRNA technology had been significantly advanced thanks to decades of National Science Foundation grants and the work of scientists from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). An NIH scientist – a government employee – designed the Moderna vaccine core in a single weekend.
However, Big Pharma must also receive its due. Moderna may be essentially an unlabeled government department, but Pfizer and BioNTech (a German company heavily subsidized by their government), Novavax, and Johnson & Johnson have spent considerable sums on initial research and efficacy studies in the event of accident. In normal times, drug companies spend more on advertising than research – and the research they fund is often aimed at finding minor modifications to an existing drug so they can extend the patent and continue to charge mind-blowing mark-ups. Yet these companies are made up of thousands of the best scientists on the planet, and it turns out that if you can just point them in the right direction, they can work magic.
The vaccine rollout was no less astounding. So far more Seven billion doses have been administered – enough to completely immunize approximately 45 percent of the world’s population. Rich countries got the top prizes, unsurprisingly, but India and China together account for nearly half of the world total. After some delays, most of the countries of Southeast Asia and Central Asia as well as Latin America are catching up with the rich countries. Only Africa remains largely unvaccinated, although even there progress is being made. All in all, this is by far the largest and fastest vaccine deployment in history.
The second most impressive aspect of the pandemic has been the direct political response. When the virus first hit, almost every country in the world mounted panicked shutdown efforts to slow the spread. State-owned businesses have closed, people have stayed at home, and most governments have set up test-trace-isolate systems to contain the infection.
Most of the western countries have had average to poor results in controlling the spread (the United States has been a dismal failure, while Norway and Finland have had great success), but eastern countries like China and Vietnam were so successful in quelling the initial outbreak that they were able to cautiously eliminate most of their controls by mid-2020. To date, China – the largest country in the world, with many incredibly dense and strongly connected megalopolises – has managed to bring the virus under control after the initial surge, even granting some falsification of the numbers (if there was a out- of control, it would be impossible to hide it). The much more contagious Delta variant is spreading there, but with more than 80% vaccination, the worst of the danger is probably over. (Sadly, this summer, before the mass vaccination, Vietnam suffered a Delta epidemic that got out of hand and caused thousands of deaths.)
Elsewhere, governments have undertaken frantic interventions to support the economy. In rich countries in particular, consumer spending represents such a huge proportion of the economy that there was no choice but to offer huge bailouts to prevent a self-sustaining cycle of economic growth. bankruptcies and misery. To my surprise, the US economic response has turned out to be one of the most aggressive in the world. As usual, he wasn’t particularly knowledgeable, but it was really huge – arguably the most important social support legislation since the New Deal, and certainly the most generous ever given to workers with the lowest incomes. Poverty fell dramatically and incomes rose at the bottom of society during the most severe economic contraction in American history. This is the opposite of what happened in every previous recession.
Amidst all of these victories, there have been a ton of failures, mistakes, and sheer willful stupidity over the past year and a half. The biggest failure so far – leaving Africa unvaccinated – is not the result of deliberate malice on the part of wealthy governments, but of their failure to follow the logic of self-interest until its conclusion. It is frightfully dangerous to all country to leave all unvaccinated countries, as new variants could arise to bypass vaccines. We’ve seen this danger before with the Delta variant, and this obvious risk is undoubtedly motivating rich countries to (reluctantly and belatedly) start contributing more to the international vaccine supply.
Beyond this deadline, public officials in the United States, Brazil, Sweden, the United Kingdom and elsewhere have chosen, at least temporarily, to let the pandemic devastate the population, with devastating results. And America is so politically rotten that after President Biden won the election Republicans quickly became vaccine skeptics due to a combination of cynical cruelty, oppositional disorder and rot. brain-induced propaganda.
But it’s always worth taking a step back to consider our achievements since March 2020. If you had told me then, as the pandemic was setting in, that within 11 months we would have several safe and effective vaccines, about a year later we would have vaccinated half of the Earth’s population, and the EU and US would spend trillions to stabilize their economies, I couldn’t believe you. It’s amazing to consider even now.
It’s an instructive lesson for climate hawks. Before COVID-19, disease experts had warned for years that a pandemic would strike sooner or later. They weren’t taken into account until the emergency was already upon us, at which point all the previously firm political rules were gone, and governments threw resources into the civilization scale. on the problem.
This is exactly what we need for climate policy too. The task at hand, if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, is to create that same political emergency. before the crisis is there.