When England drops nearly all of Covid-19 restrictions on July 19, the pandemic will not end. It may not even be the beginning of the end. But that’s kind of a suggestion of the end. One day, the rich countries will emerge from Covid-19, while the poor will remain stuck there. And that’s not the only pandemic scenario. It is probably also a prediction of the climate crisis.
The two crises dominated us in a similar way, comments Canadian epidemiologist David Fisman, a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for Covid-19 in Ontario. There is an exponential growth (infections, carbon emissions), but initially without visible damage. Life goes on happily, weeks in the case of Covid, decades for carbon. When we finally act, we are already late.
Thus, each country almost entirely decides for itself what to do. Should we close schools, build wind farms? Global problems require global cooperation, but “world government” has become a political expletive, like “foreign aid” or “technocracy”.
Expert advice doesn’t reach the ignorant, stressed-out leaders who dread the headlines of the day. Meanwhile, the misinformation stories – “It’s just the flu! “,” The weather is always changing! – continue to deceive a large minority as the crisis strikes. Many people today agree to give their lives to the war of cultures: in some rich countries, deaths from Covid-19 are concentrated in people against vaccination.
We are a creative species, and in an emergency, rich people and places will be saved through technical and other solutions. There is no vaccine for climate change, but when the flooding worsens, New York and London will strengthen their protective barriers.
Americans will begin to leave dry California and doomed Miami with colder regions, just as their ancestors went west. More drastically, the Dutch could end up largely abandoning their low country. The joke among Dutch water experts is: “Let’s all go to Germany and learn German.”
Fortunately for the Dutch, it is not impossible. But poor countries do not have the means to escape climate change or Covid-19. “High-income countries applied almost 44% of global doses [de vacinas]. Low-income people have only 0.4%, “World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in June. Frustratingly, he added, statistics no hadn’t changed in months.
Covid-19 is therefore becoming a problem in the poor world. England celebrates Freedom Day, rich countries immunize adolescents, and Israel offers third doses to people with weakened immune systems. Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, the military is patrolling the streets to impose ultimate lockdown, as children miss 15 months of school. The Tunisian government has said its health system “has collapsed” with a new wave of infections.
At the beginning of June, the Covid-19 already seemed to have killed more people in the world than during the whole of 2020. But the death of the poor is nothing new. In practice, the value of a human life depends on its nationality.
It’s a repeat of the HIV crisis. When new drugs started saving wealthy Westerners in the 1990s, the West moved on as Africans continued to die. The global number of deaths from HIV is now around 32 million.
With Covid-19, many NGOs are rightly saying that it is not in the best interests of the rich world to help immunize the poor. Delta will not be the last variant of the vaccine-defying virus to emerge in a poor country and attack the rich. No one is safe until everyone is safe, that is the mantra.
The same goes for the environment: the destruction of the Amazon is the climate variant of the delta. When the Brazilian rainforest shrinks, rich countries heat up too.
The rich world is now making light attempts to save the Amazon and send vaccines to poor countries. But your plan A is simpler: save ourselves and then isolate the poor. Traveling to Fortress Europe from the mostly poor Red List countries is almost impossible, except for the very rich. Britain has considered deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda.
It’s brutal, but this is how nation state democracy has worked: Politicians care about their own constituents. That’s why Britain cut its foreign aid in the year that global poverty rose for the first time since 1998. Covid-19 has fueled the self-pity of the rich world.
All of this is a prediction of the climate crisis, when poor countries destroyed by desertification or rising oceans will be isolated – wiped off the world map, in fact. All we want from them are raw materials. The model is the relationship that rich countries have with the Democratic Republic of Congo: it is valued almost solely as a supplier of minerals, like cobalt, which allows us to power equipment and electric cars.
If the only hope today is a moral awakening, then there is no hope. Based on what we have learned from Covid-19, our best chance of averting a climate catastrophe is a technical solution developed in a wealthy country for its own sake that would save the world at a modest additional cost. I have been told that perhaps sucking carbon from the atmosphere at the necessary scale is not entirely impossible.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves