[This Guest Column appeared in the Durango Herald weekend edition, April 11, 2020.]
A striking Durango Herald headline during the development of the coronavirus pandemic is that some Americans are stocking up on guns and ammunition, in addition to food. People are scared, in particular, scared for the security of their families.
Few alive remember the sacrifices of World War II. No conflict or threat since that time, including the nuclear confrontation of the Cold War, called for such universal mobilization. War, civil strife, and terrorism remain in the world, but for us in the United States, they are not existential threats.
COVID-19 is different. Experts have been predicting that sooner or later such a global epidemic would occur, but the possibility seemed remote. Now the threat is immediate, around the world and in every U.S. state. The infection is stealthy. It spreads in our communities for up to two weeks before anyone displays symptoms. In that way, it resembles the first few waves of a tsunami, seemingly ordinary, but a little higher than usual. But then the waves get bigger and bigger until the main wave crashes, leaving destruction in its wake.
Epidemics can be even worse. They literally grow “exponentially,” meaning that the more people who are infected, the more others they infect, until scarcely anyone remains uninfected. The propagation of COVID-19 is following this pattern. In many places the doubling time has been two days, and that means it would take just 10 days for 2 cases to become more than 1000, another 10 days to become 1,000,000. Consequently, early action to separate people, quarantining those known to be infected and getting the rest of us to self-isolate, is so important; and the delays seen in many places risk catastrophic outcomes.
At the time of this writing, diagnosed cases in America exceed 150,000. Unless the growth rate slows, in just one to two weeks—perhaps before you read this—the number will reach 1,000,000, which still is much less than 1% of the population. If almost everyone became infected and as few as 1% died, the U.S. death toll alone would be millions.
The pandemic experience is transforming our notion of security. We have learned that in such a crisis public health takes precedence over the economy. In gross statistical terms, each human life is worth millions of dollars, so millions of deaths represent trillions of dollars in economic losses. In reality, we human beings value life as literally priceless. Saving lives through government actions, even drastic ones, are essential in the face of overwhelming threat from pandemic disease.
This reevaluation of security has political implications, in particular, for what “national security” means. For example, America’s dysfunctional health care system already leaves millions of people behind. In the pandemic, they will suffer disproportionately. This situation is unacceptable and I think a likely outcome is that the United States finally embraces universal health care as a national security measure.
Another dimension of national security remains neglected, vulnerability to climate change. As medical scientists for years have been predicting the eventual emergence of a pandemic, climate scientists have been providing more definite forecasts of what is coming. Military planning already counts climate change as a threat multiplier in global security terms. At home, we are experiencing a foretaste of our climate future via the increasing frequency of extraordinary events: wildfires and floods and tidal surges—even apart from storm surges. These are the first waves of the coming climate tsunami. The growth rate of the climate emergency will be much slower than it has been for the pandemic, but it will be harder to stop, and so the necessity and value of early action therefore is even greater.
The changes required to address climate change are deeper and more far reaching than quarantines, but they do not require shutting down most of the economy, “only” shifting direction. For example, further investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is analogous to holding large public meetings during a pandemic. If the U.S. can marshal trillions of dollars virtually overnight to address the economic impacts of the pandemic, we readily could make comparable investments over a decade to address climate change.
I hold out little hope that the current Administration will perceive the validity of this argument. Therefore, the outcome of the 2020 election is paramount. To continue on the path of climate denial would be altogether as foolish as attempting to continue business as usual in the pandemic.