A new sickness,
COVID-19 known as Coronavirus 2019,
has become one of the most worrying problems on the planet these days.
Certainly, it could be a serious thing in many aspects, especially for the
people who become infected and, consequently, for the health systems of many
countries if this number were to extend to large portions of the population.
Nonetheless, there are also positive aspects. As said by the proverb, every
cloud has a silver lining.
First of all, let me clarify that I do not wish sickness on anybody. Health problems are a misfortune. Any of us, including the writer of this article or some of our relatives or friends, might suffer with them, and we do not wish suffering or death on anybody. That said, let us view the circumstance from an objective sociological point of view, without taking individuals into account, and think about the changes that are being produced in the world owing to the rise of this coronavirus.
It is possibly too soon to arrive at conclusions concerning the consequences of the new sickness, but at present we see the great impact the topic is having on the mass media and how this is being transmitted into certain drastic decisions that affect the smooth functioning of our society, particularly the economy. We see a reduced production in Chinese industry, which has resulted in a huge drop in China's pollution. We also see that many international conferences, summits or events that concentrate thousands of individuals from different countries are being cancelled or made virtual because of the fear of extending the infection of coronavirus. This is happening in tech, business, science, and other sectors, even museums and Disneyland in several places in Asia. Venice, in the distant past a lovely town of canals, but converted in recent decades into a pathetic unpleasant attraction park with mass tourism of 20-30 million visits per year, is now deathly silent. What a respite for the Venetians! What good news for the ecologists and tourist-haters! This positively affects the reduction of CO2 emission and the whole wave the destruction associated with holiday and professional conference tourism. Possibly not so good for airline companies or travel agencies. It is certainly not very good for the economy in general, but it is fantastic for the environment.
For decades, we have witnessed the struggle between the expanding forces of the economy and the restoring forces of ecology. Conclusions that may be derived from observing this confrontation are that: 1) an ecological/green/sustainable capitalist economy is an oxymoron; that is, capitalism and sustainability are mutually exclusive ideas; and 2) the economy is winning almost all of the battles hands down. A very clear example of the failure to arrive at a green solution within the current model of our western-style societies in developed countries is illustrated in global warming conferences: a perfect example of hypocrisy in which climate scientists and many politicians, administrators and people living on the green lobbies behave as a "jet-set" among the highest ratio contaminators, while they exert their moral authority to demand that people in less privileged groups of our society, such as coal miners, teamsters working on oil pipelines, and mining-dependent workers sacrifice their own economic well-being to fight climate change. One of the latest failed attempts to find solutions came from the COP25 in Madrid of 2019 summit; another one in the long list of fruitless negotiations to try to stop or mitigate the negative effects of the global warming already knocking on our doors.
The implicit or explicit explanation for the long list of unsuccessful negotiations is always the same: "yes, yes, we see the problem, but... you know, we have the economy to think about, and many people will suffer if we significantly modify any of its parameters, so let us continue to live as usual, even increasing our consumption habits, and we will meet again at next summit to eat in good restaurants, enjoy tourism and take beer with colleagues to try to find a solution". Putting it bluntly, there is no solution, and we are damned to a disaster unless a miracle happens.
Suddenly, much to the surprise of the economic and political gurus, the solution is spontaneously arising in front of our very eyes: a virus. As in H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, a microscopic Earth lifeform has finally proved to reverse the victory in what has so far been a losing war to reduce the excesses of a crazy, self-destructive world. Neither Greenpeace, nor Greta Thunberg, nor any other individual or collective organization have achieved so much in favor of the health of the planet in such a short time. A miracle happened, and, suddenly, all the excuses to avoid a reduction of contamination have been shown to be spurious. In less than two months, worldwide organizations have shown us how it is indeed possible to close museums, shut down whole towns, including such top touristic destinations as Venice, reduce the number of flights, and cancel many of the most important conferences and summits, etc. And this is only the beginning.
When I said in a previous article that we should ban conferences or hugely reduce their numbers, I knew that almost nobody would take this advice seriously, but it now comes as a complete surprise that I am now witnessing the very thing I was recommending. Suddenly, we realize that all the excuses to avoid the reduction of contamination were just excuses, and that we can perfectly live in a world without conferences, a world of academicians and scientists without beer-drinking with colleagues and feeding the narcissism of some researchers, an expensive luxury that we should not be able to afford in these times of climate crisis.
"Yes, we can", said the slogan of a former US president. Certainly, we can, we can stop the world if necessary and keep the people alive and healthy and happy without an expanding and destructive economic system. But words are not enough to move the world, arguments are not enough in the midst of irrational systems. With beasts like human beings, which are moved by a more terrible and irrational monster such as Money, only fear works, and a sickness such as COVID-19 of moderate mortality (not so dangerous so far, it is not as mortal as the Ebola virus although it is more infectious) may be more effective than good arguments in pushing humanity in more sustainable directions.
Possibly, everything will be back to normal after few weeks or months, and our usual consumption habits will be restored. The possible future scenarios are between two extreme cases: 1) a world in which the sickness is almost eradicated, such as we see in the trend in China with negative second time derivative in the number of cases; 2) a global pandemic, with an average death ratio lower than 5%, and in which vaccines will possibly be soon available further reducing the mortality rate. It is not a minor issue: some studies predict between 15 and 68 million dead . Scenarios closer to this second possibility will have a much higher mortality ratio among old people in rich countries and for the general population in underdeveloped countries with worse health systems, which might lead in the worst-case scenario to a new self-regulation of some demographic disequilibria and reduce the migrations of populations.
Whatever happens in the coming months, one lesson may be learned for the future: yes, we can, when there is a fear of an immediate threat like an infectious virus spreading quickly; but it seems that we can't in the face of long-term issues such as global warming or other more important threats for the environment. My guess is that humanity will soon forget this lesson and continue on its former way: Business as usual.