The coronavirus has brought about an unprecedented global response to an unprecedented global crisis. We have not in modern history seen a virus capable of so much destruction and disruption on such a mass scale. But, despite some flaws in both our global and national response to this crisis, it’s been heartening to see how quickly and thoroughly societies around the world have mobilized to reduce the impact of this disease on those who are most vulnerable. As a result, it is projected that hundreds of thousands, maybe more than a million, lives could be saved in the U.S. alone and many millions more around the world. That is something to celebrate. But, it does not come without great costs, costs which we must work hard to mitigate in the coming weeks, months, and possibly years. While we know these costs are coming and that they will be significant, we deemed them necessary in the face of potentially much greater harm.
As we await the outcome of these measures and continue to weigh the costs and benefits of further actions, it’s important that we reflect on the potential implications that these unprecedented actions have set for our future response to global crises. What we have demonstrated over the past few weeks is a willingness to act on a mass scale, sacrificing our way of life, to save the many lives being threatened. As a global society, we have shown an ability to act in a sweeping and comprehensive way to address a universal challenge. While the research we have at this point seems to suggest that most people have little to fear from this virus, our societies have determined that a threat to those who are most vulnerable, due to health or age, is a threat to us all. In effect, we have established this as a core value: we protect human lives, no matter the cost. Our actions and our sacrifices have made this value clear and revealed much about our capacity as human beings and as a global community to secure our shared future.
So, where do we go from here? When this crisis ends, do we continue to work in unison to address the even greater threats we face today and going forward? Can we continue to make sacrifices and change our way of life when necessary to protect those who are vulnerable?
Consider the following:
  • A report last year found that 870,000 children died in conflict zones from 2013-2017, almost five times as many children as fighters.
  • It is estimated that 3.1 million children die every year from malnutrition-related causes.
  • UNICEF estimates that 56 million children will die before 2030 from entirely preventable causes if urgent action isn’t taken.
  • It is estimated that it would cost anywhere between $7 billion and $265 billion to end world hunger (for perspective, this is less than half of yearly U.S. military spending and a small fraction of the amount spent on the recent coronavirus rescue package).
  • When measured in 2012, the World Health Organization estimated that 7 million people died from air pollution in that year alone (it is also estimated that cleaner air has saved at least 50,000 lives in China in just the past few months due to the slow down of production from the coronavirus).
  • And in the richest country in the world, about 28 million Americans have no health coverage even though the majority of the uninsured live in families with at least one full-time worker (the number of uninsured could increase by another 35 million due to the current crisis).
All of these figures represent crises that are currently being felt and known, and the solutions appear to be less costly than what we’ve already invested in the fight against COVID-19. And, while most of us living in wealthy countries do not feel the impact of these crises, the same will not be true for the larger climate crisis that is already unfolding:
  • The World Health Organization’s estimate (made in 2014) that 250,000 people will die each year in the coming decades due to climate change is now considered to be too conservative. 
  • The UN estimates that the climate crisis will displace millions of people, and potentially up to 1 billion, by 2050.
  • It is widely accepted that we have less than a decade to act before the impacts of climate change will be irreversible.
When the coronavirus crisis ends, we will have to decide what we do with THESE numbers. And that is why I believe the major crisis we face going forward is more than anything a crisis of conscience. What will we choose to do now that we know we have the power to act on a global scale?
The coronavirus has in some ways been an equalizer in terms of who is impacted. Power and money do not provide absolute protection from a viral pandemic. Just ask the many powerful people who have already been infected. Had this outbreak been relegated to developing countries or only contracted by those who are impoverished or malnourished, would there have been such a sweeping response? We must come to terms with the fact that if those of us in a position of privilege had been able to insulate ourselves from its impact, like we are able to insulate ourselves from war, poverty, and hunger, then maybe the urgency wouldn’t have been felt and the necessary actions taken. We must ask ourselves now: Will we continue to hold the value that protecting the vulnerable is worth the cost, even when the powerful are not included among their numbers?
If we decide instead to go back to business as usual, what does that say about us as a society? We now know we have the capacity to respond with ground-shifting magnitude. We can no longer deny that, despite the sacrifice it may require, we can change the course of a major global crisis. So, in many ways, this pandemic is an awakening. It’s our moment to decide once and for all what we value most as a society and what we are willing to do to protect it. 
There will be many left struggling when this current crisis comes to an end. It will feel like a crushing blow to the long-term stability of so many individuals and families. Current estimates put projected job losses at anywhere between 20 and 47 million (an unemployment rate of 32%). The need to come together to protect the vulnerable does not end when this virus goes away. This is all the more reason why it’s so urgent for us to decide right now what we truly value, how we can protect it, and what we are willing to sacrifice to secure a better future for us all. As a society, we have the power. Now, we have to choose.
Leanne Nichols
Partner, The Nu Futurist




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