COVID-19: doing what science says we must

Warned about a human health threat, governments have responded quickly and decisively. Warned about a planetary threat they sat on their hands.

The minuscule COVID-19 virus – 50 million of them could fit on the head of a pin – is causing global mayhem on a scale we’ve not seen since the last world war.

With stock markets crashing, travel business virtually vanished, schools and shops and offices and borders closing, sporting and cultural events cancelled, jury trials postponed, it is already a big economic shock. Public life is shutting down.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson called the coronavirus pandemic “the worst public health crisis for a generation” in which “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”. His top medical science advisers estimated that actual infections in the UK numbered around 10 times the official figure for diagnosed cases. They said that the virus will eventually infect 80 per cent of the country’s population.

We haven’t heard that from our own leadership, but those rules of thumb applied to Australia would put current infections in this country already at several thousand and the total number of people eventually infected reaching 20 million. Not insubstantial.

Health authorities around the world have described simple measures to minimise our risk of infection, like no physical contact with others (waves and nods instead of handshakes or kisses) and regularly washing hands with soap (scrub hands all over for as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday”).

All good advice which we should heed, for our own wellbeing and the country’s. With our public hospitals already under strain, the last thing we need is a sudden surge in infections that would swamp medical services. We need the pandemic to unfold as slowly as possible.

The global response to this public health emergency has been mixed, with some governments dragging their heels, but the broad response has included such extraordinary measures such as shutting down public transport, banning public events, even complete population lockdowns.

Australia is yet to feel the full impact of social and economic disruption, but it is already enormous and getting bigger by the day. People are making remarkable efforts to get the word out about how you and I should respond, and governments have responded with exceptional measures.

This hasn’t always gone smoothly. On Friday Scott Morrison announced a ban on large gatherings starting yesterday, but NRL fixtures were allowed to go ahead as planned at the weekend. I heard one independent expert question the three-day delay and say it should have started immediately.

The PM’s personal example hasn’t always hit the mark. At the same COAG gathering he was videoed trying to shake hands with NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian; quite properly she rejected his hand and took his forearm.

And whatever the expert advice about whether he and other cabinet members should be tested for the virus after being in a meeting with infected home affairs minister Peter Dutton, it left a sense of unease to hear him say such a step was unnecessary.

But on the whole, our national and state governments have to their credit accepted that this event is not to be trifled with, demanding a full, thorough response which will necessarily involve a lot of inconvenience and genuine economic hardship.

Contrast that with the response of administrations around the globe to expert advice on another global emergency.

It may not seem so now, but climate change is immeasurably larger and more consequential than COVID-19. The pandemic will pass, but the climate crisis will not. The virus is a threat to human wellbeing but nothing else; climate change poses a current and future threat to every living thing.

That threat has been explained over and over again by those best placed to understand it, the scientific specialists who study its evolution and consequences. They include many of the same public health scientists whose expertise is now informing action to slow the present viral pandemic.

The warnings about climate change have been happening not for just a few months, as is the case with COVID-19, but for decades. They have grown louder as governments have continued to avoid taking effective action, Australia being among the most resistant to the experts’ advice.

In response to a disease crisis the government is willing – with very good reason – to shut down virtually everything at a moment’s notice. Yet after three decades of warning it still can’t find the wherewithal to restrict emissions of planet-warming gases.

But here’s a thing: those emissions are sure to decline in this pandemic year, and if economic recovery is slow may remain low for a while yet. There’s always a silver lining.

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