We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.
F. D. Roosevelt
These days are an invitation to reflection, unless we are distressed by loss or anxious about the future. A reflection about the things we truly miss, now that the world has changed dramatically before our eyes. It is a time to calm down, to consider our priorities and think about the stuff that makes us genuinely happy, such as a hug, the scent of lemon trees, running, dancing or diving into the ocean. It is a fitting time to picture them so they will stay with us, persuaded that some day they will come back, albeit not in the same way.
We don’t know what sort of world will emerge from this cataclysm, but it should be a different one, a different society. Our decisions will pave the way for a new era with a new zeitgeist, a novel thinking climate to match the new times.
We don’t know what the new reality will be like, but we do know that it will arise from whatever lessons we can learn from the coronavirus pandemic and it will require a ruthless analysis of how we got here and what we have built.
It is hard not to see this pandemic as a taste of what climate change might bring. I am not suggesting they are connected, merely that if the virus has brought the world to a standstill and has imposed the pace of death on people, overpowering governments and companies, this will also happen —and on a larger scale— if we do not halt climate change. Therefore, and in order to appreciate our devastating power, today it is essential to acknowledge that nature has got the upper hand, knocking the human species out of the game. Besides recording a drop in pollution and noise levels, cities are witnessing how animals are reclaiming spaces they had been denied hitherto. Birds can be heard singing in eerily silent streets and weeds and bushes are thriving all over. Will the human race be able to realise how truly insignificant it is?
The number of COVID-19 fatalities keeps climbing in Spain: 16,353 at the time of writing. Despite the lack of qualitative data that might allow us to draw transparent conclusions for Catalonia and Spain, we do know that half the deaths recorded in Catalonia were of elderly residents in nursing homes and assisted care facilities, people whose lives faded away far from their loved ones. We will need to take a good look at the fatality data and find out if, as it seems, inequality is also a risk factor, despite the efforts of Catalonia’s public health service.
We know that inequality, poverty and social exclusion are killers, especially in those parts of the world where they lack a national health service. A case in point is Michigan, a state where African Americans make up 14 per cent of the overall population, but 40 per cent of the COVID-19 fatalities. I shudder at the thought of the death toll to come in African and Asian countries where physical distance and hygiene are a luxury. We will need to study Catalonia in detail and draw practical conclusions beyond the rhetoric.
The political management of risk
In Catalonia and Spain we have witnessed how the public health system has survived thanks to the dedication of care providers and how our national health service didn’t benefit from the economic recovery that followed the 2008 recession and the ensuing budget cuts. While the big lie spun during the 2008 recession was that Spanish banks were robust, today’s big lie is that we have the best health care system in the world. We have excellent professionals on a modest salary who are overwhelmed and on the verge of exhaustion. It is not true that this pandemic was unforeseeable. None of us could anticipate this in January, but the administration could and the governments of Catalonia and Spain have done a poor job of risk management. Namely, 25,000 health care staff have tested positive across Spain (trade unions put the actual figure at 28,000), 2,629 of them in Catalonia. Such a high number proves that insufficient preparations were made to face the disease.
There were lessons to be learnt from Italy and, prior to that, they should have learnt that scientists possess the knowledge and consensus emerges from initial disagreement. However, that requires transparency in management so that debate and progress are possible. While we lacked the political experience of SARS, other countries didn’t, and we had scientists who were capable of monitoring a response.
Canada’s British Columbia has set an example for other Canadian regions on how to halt the pandemic. It seems that having decision-makers who were technically able to learn from other experiences was key, together with possessing the communication skills needed to address the public like adults. Their only advice is “prevention, prevention, prevention”.
We understand how the pandemic spreads, we know that lifting the lockdown haphazardly will have dire consequences and that is something we can preempt. All we should expect is a proper detailed plan, with the necessary test kits and masks. But we have not seen one yet and it likely doesn’t exist.