The coronavirus pandemic has brought urgency to the defining political question of our age: how to distribute risk. As with the climate crisis, neoliberal capitalism is proving particularly ill-suited to this.
Like global warming, but in close-up and fast-forward, the Covid-19 outbreak shows how lives are lost or saved depending on a government’s propensity to acknowledge risk, act rapidly to contain it, and share the consequences.
On these matters, competence and ideology overlap. Governments willing to intervene have been more effective at stemming the virus than laissez-faire capitalists. The further right the government, the more inclined it is to delay action and offload blame elsewhere. International comparisons suggest this could be making infection and death rates steeper.
Take the US, where Donald Trump is only now acknowledging the seriousness of the pandemic after weeks of claiming fears were exaggerated. Until recently, his government put more money into shielding the oil industry than providing adequate testing kits. He reportedly ordered officials to downplay early warnings because he did not want bad news in an election year. The US now has one of the fastest rising numbers of new cases in the world.
In Brazil, the ultra-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, is equally reckless. He claimed the risks of coronavirus were overblown, until 17 of his aides and security detail tested positive after a trip to the US. Last weekend, he ignored his own government’s advice and chose to shake hands and pose cheek-to-cheek for selfies at a mass rally of supporters. As cases and deaths surge, his support has plummeted.
In the UK, Boris Johnson acknowledged the risk, but did little about it. Though not as extreme in his denial as Trump or Bolsonaro, Johnson’s government first dithered, then dabbled with a policy of “herd-immunity”that was reportedly driven by Dominic Cummings’ desire to protect the economy, even if it cost pensioners’ lives. The UK has since shifted tack and enforced a lockdown, but its controls are still haphazard. Last week, daily deaths in the UK were reckoned to be on a steeper upward curve than Italy was at the same stage.
By contrast, more interventionist governments – generally but not exclusively those which are centrist or leftwing – have acted more quickly and shared the burden of risk more widely. Norway, Denmark and Sweden already appear to have flattened the coronavirus curve. Spain and France implemented lockdowns at around 200 deaths, which the UK and US have far surpassed.
In Asia, China initially attempted to hide the problem from the public when the virus emerged in Wuhan, then mobilised huge public resources to enforce a strict lockdown and provide extra hospital beds. South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand also appear to have turned the corner thanks to different combinations of extensive testing, quarantine measures and public health education.
Other factors are at play. Asian countries with prior experience of the Sars epidemic appear to have been better prepared. Italy, one of the worst affected countries, has one of the world’s oldest populations. In Japan’s case, the relatively flat curve of confirmed cases may also be a result of the government’s unwillingness to do widespread testing because it could jeopardise the Olympics.
Similarly, the relatively low number of cases in the global south has raised hopes that warmer weather might slow the disease – but this is far from certain. A comparatively low number of coronavirus cases could be the result of a lag caused by distance from the origin of the disease, relatively lower levels of international traffic, and fewer resources for testing.
This pandemic has amplified the importance of assessing and controlling risk before it gets out of hand. But the political champions of the neoliberal right, such as Trump and Bolsonaro, are more inclined to deny and delay, as climate politics have shown us in recent years.
When it comes to a pandemic like Covid-19, that position is untenable. No leader can deny the science, nor can they endlessly delay action as they have done on global heating. Muddling through until the next election is not an option; leaders will be judged on deaths next week, not emissions reductions in 2050.
The demographics are also completely different. Unlike the climate crisis, the virus predominantly threatens the elderly – the right’s core support group – rather than millennials. So far, the worst affected regions are also closer to the centre of economic power: the cool industrialised north rather than the warmer developing south (though the latter may suffer more in the future due to weaker healthcare systems).
For the right, this makes the pandemic a greater political threat than the climate crisis has ever been. Unless they can quickly get on top of the disease, they will lose any claim to being champions of national security. It is entirely possible that the effects of this pandemic could be one of the most catastrophic failures of free-market capitalism.
This should also be a lesson for the left. If state intervention and scientific advice is effective in dealing with the virus, the same principles should be applied more aggressively towards the still more apocalyptic threats of climate disruption and the collapse of nature. Until now, the left has recognised these dangers, but done little to act on them because economic growth has always taken precedence.
The pandemic has proved that delays are deadly and expensive. If we are to avoid a cascade of future crises, governments must think beyond a return to business as usual. Our conception of what is “normal” will have to change. We’ll need to invest in natural life-supporting systems such as a stable climate, fresh air and clean water. In the past, those goals have been dismissed as unrealistic or expensive, but recent weeks have shown how quickly the political compass can shift.
First though, we need to accept – and share – risk. Instead of deferring risks to future generations, weaker populations and natural systems, governments need to transform risks into responsibilities we all bear. The longer we hesitate, the fewer resources we will have at our disposal, and the more risk we will have to divide.
o Jonathan Watts is the Guardian’s global environment editor