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Toronto Star Columnist: COVID-19 deaths are ‘not where the terror lies. The true terror is mass death and that could become reality if we don’t tackle climate change’

When the coronavirus catastrophe finally ends, what will we have learned from it?

Good lessons about citizenship, social cohesion, hygiene and patience but also about shamelessly venal politicians, even greater domestic abuse of women in a crisis, hoarding, secret health violations that harm others, financial panic and just plain panic.

I mention this because COVID-19 is something of a test run for worse news, which is climate change. As two McGill University professors, Eric Galbraith and Ross Otto, recently pointed out in The Conversation, total COVID-19 deaths may increase day by day but that’s not where the terror lies. The true terror is mass death.

Global heating is another universal danger where the suffering will be intensely personal. Canada is racing to flatten the COVID-19 curve just as we will eventually be cutting carbon output, as life grows increasingly arduous and unpleasant even in fortunate countries like our own.

But here’s the thing that strikes these two professors, one in earth system science and the other in psychology. Why are we so frantic about COVID-19 but not about climate change? They say there are four reasons: the instinctive, vivid, personal fear of COVID-19; the suddenness of the viral attack; the immediate, obvious strategies to fend off the virus strategies; and finally, the fact that nations are able to go it alone.

Dealing with the coronavirus is easier than dealing with climate change.

It has been fast and remarkable. The economist and historian Adam Tooze says the coronavirus has shattered the myth of “faith in the market,” that the economy has to come first. “We are deliberately inducing one of the most severe recessions ever seen. In so doing we are driving another nail into the coffin of one of the great platitudes of the late 20th century: it’s the economy stupid.”

There is a certain freedom to this, he says. “Given the experience of the past dozen years we should now never tire of asking: which economic constraints are real and which imagined?” He is clearly referring to what we might do to slow climate change.

And then there are other more difficult, and possibly dire, questions. The historian Yuval Noah Harari asks about the consequences of the coronaviral peace after the “fast-forwarding” that crises bring.

Personal surveillance is here to stay, he says. He is referring to facial recognition technology and health-tracking used by China’s communist government but there is something inevitable about it coming to the rest of the world. If we used it successfully to fight death, shouldn’t we keep it?

He suggests we may see the normalization of body-monitoring temperature bracelets, the decision to trust governments (“the soap police” as he calls it), and the need for a globalized supply chain world to globalize everything, to sit down and negotiate, to communally regulate.

He predicts that countries will now pre-screen their own citizens before they travel, rather than relying on their national destination. It makes sense. And he asks another question that we will all be wondering about very soon. Will the U.S. join the planet again?

If Trump is re-elected, the answer is no. It will increasingly become a nation without allies, who will have to turn elsewhere. A Biden administration would presumably renormalize, re-sanitize, and rebuild a world order after having seen how fragile it can be.

But who knows?

There may well be good lessons, one of them being transparency, even in nations like Canada where governments hand out information with the greatest reluctance. Citizens should have access to tests and medical records. They should be entrusted with their own data and with public data that affects their lives.

We can see a change in social norms, a realization that we are indeed all in this together and that social media brutality was a primitive era we’re happy to see die. And let’s be frank, humans will learn how to maintain cleaner bodies and cleaner homes, and then perhaps a cleaner planet.

There has to be agreement on migrants, for there will be more of them in a heating world. As Prime Minister Trudeau announced Friday, there has to be a system in place so that migrants don’t slip into a country outside official border points, endangering their own health and the health of anyone they encounter. It’s not clear what will be done after the crisis ends, but it was good to see two nations, the U.S. and Canada, agreeing about their mutual border and preparing for regulation rather than chaos.

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I also wonder if people will become more self-sufficient, growing food in allotments or their own gardens, returning to preparing food themselves. Given the whacking of global retirement savings in 2020, this may not even be optional.

Our lives will be different from now on. The hope is that we will live more intelligently, thinking more about our future on the planet rather than the blithe destruction we indulged in for 50 years.

Heather Mallick
Heather Mallick is a columnist based in Toronto covering current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @HeatherMallick
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