Governments must act to stop the coronavirus – but we can’t return to business as usual

Call for action by OpenDemocracy, 12 March 2020 – accessible here

For the first time in eleven years, the World Health Organization has declared a pandemic. At the time of writing the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has spread to at least 114 countries and killed more than 4,000 people.

Around the world businesses have been shut down, events have been cancelled, and economic activity has ground to a halt. Some countries have placed entire populations under quarantine, while others have advised people to stay at home and ‘self-isolate’.

The pandemic poses a number of challenges for the global economy. Without access to adequate healthcare or sick pay, many people have little choice but to put others at risk or face economic hardship. Declining revenues risk creating potentially fatal cashflow problems for small and medium sized businesses. As with all crises, it will be those who can afford it least who will suffer the most.

But the pandemic is also causing a headache for global capital: trillions of dollars have been wiped off global stock markets, as fears a global recession grow. The IMF recently predicted that a recession half as severe as the global financial crisis would leave $19tn of corporate debt – nearly 40% of all corporate debt in major economies – at risk of default. This could trigger a potentially destabilising cycle of events in the global banking system – a system that is still on life support from the global financial crisis.

In response, governments and central banks have slashed interest rates and increased government spending in an attempt to mitigate the economic slowdown. Additional measures, such as debt repayment holidays, support for cash-strapped businesses and even ‘helicopter money’, are also being considered.

These measures all share a common goal: to stave off a recession and return the global economy to normality as quickly as possible. At this critical juncture, we must ask if this is really the right objective.

The cost of business as usual

A few weeks ago, NASA published striking satellite images showing how the fall in economic activity in China following the coronavirus outbreak dramatically reduced air pollution in the country. Based on this data, a group of US academics have estimated that this fall in air pollution may save over 50,000 lives – a figure that dwarfs the 3,100 lives that have been lost to the coronavirus in China. This suggests that the coronavirus may have saved more lives than the disease has taken in China.

If this sounds farfetched, consider that Chinese air pollution is estimatedto cause around 1.6 million premature deaths each year. This isn’t just a problem for China. Most of the goods produced in Chinese factories are exported and consumed in Europe and North America. In recent decades, rich countries have effectively outsourced their pollution – along with its human and environmental cost – to China and other countries. Whether we realise it or not, we tolerate these deaths as a price worth paying to get cheaper goods.

Air pollution is not the only indicator that has improved since the outbreak. Carbon emissions in China have also fallen by a quarter, mainly thanks to declining industrial production and energy demand. If this trend continues elsewhere, analysts say it is possible this will lead to the first fall in global emissions since the 2008-09 financial crisis.

None of this means that pandemics are in some way desirable, or that we shouldn’t act. On the contrary, it’s essential that governments take swift and urgent action to contain the outbreak, save lives and mitigate any short-term economic instability.

But once the outbreak subsides, attention will inevitably turn to how the global economy can be rebooted. Before we rush to reinstate ‘business as usual’, we should pause to consider the impact this might have on human and environmental health.

Since humans first set foot on the moon in 1969, a third of arable land across the world has been lost to erosion or pollution. The populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians have declined by 60% on average. We are living through the sixth mass extinction, the last being that which saw the end of the dinosaurs. Over half the world’s tropic forests have been destroyed, and more than a third of all summer Arctic ice has melted. The rate of top soil degradation has led some to estimatethat there could only be 60 global harvests left. On top of all of this lies the small matter of the climate emergency.

Our economic system has pushed our environment beyond safe operating zones, threatening the foundations upon which civilisation depends. Scientists warn that without “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”, the result will be devastating and irreversible damage to our climate and environment.

Restoring the status quo would not be a neutral act – it would be an active decision to deepen our environmental crisis.

Towards a Global Green New Deal

If we really care about the health of people and planet, we should think twice before we decide to spend money on accelerating this destructive trajectory. While it is essential that jobs are maintained and undue hardship is avoided, propping up the status quo is not the only option available.

Instead, governments could forge a different path by unleashing a vast programme of investment to decarbonise the global economy as fast as is feasibly possible, and bring our environmental footprint within fair and sustainable limits. The effect would be to mobilise resources to transform our energy, transport, housing and agriculture sectors, decarbonise production and consumption, and restore our natural ecosystems.

In 2008 we bailed out the banks – this time we should bail out the planet. Countries that have contributed the most to environmental breakdown have a moral obligation to lead by example, and support other countries as part of a global just transition. As well as placing the global economy on a more sustainable path, this would create a new wave of high-skilled, low carbon jobs.

This plan has a name: a Global Green New Deal. In the face of a growing environmental emergency, it’s the only game in town. We simply cannot afford a return to business a usual.