covid-19 climate and bird-flu-strength-pandemic clarion call
Spain, officially, has had not quite 0.5% of its population infected by covid-19, about a third of the rate the maligned country experienced during the 1918 Pandemic. But 10% of those undeserving more than 230 000 people have died, and its economy is in its worst situation since the 1936–39 Spanish Civil War.
That a similar number of Germans have been infected with fewer-than-1% dying is due mostly, presumably, to their health system with its more than twice the availability of intensive-care-unit beds, coping much better with their less than half the rate of infections. Globally, most populations will experience impacts closer to Spain’s, the United Kingdom’s and the United States’, than Germany’s. If the wicked World Health Organisation-worst-case projection for Africa is applied to the world’s most vulnerable 6 billion, nearly 15 million will die. But the fatality-rate range experienced by Spain and Germany—maybe 10% to 0.5%—is 5 to 53 times lower than the human mortality resulting from h5n1 bird flu, that has killed 452 of the 856 people known to have been infected by it. In Asia 2004–2005, more than 100 million chickens were culled to contain h5n1, and in a Thailand zoo, 80 tigers.
With heroic evidence-based responses, from here on in, the global infection rate may plausibly be kept within single percentage points, and deaths, likewise, of that rate. However, if the responses of the world’s two most recent leading superpowers, the United Kingdom and the United States, are any indication, covid-19 will demonstrate, over the next several years, how disastrously dysfunctional, intergovernmentally, the world is. What remains to play out is whether the needless human and economic cost of this crisis will result in radical reform of the intergovernmental structures that are conspicuously failing to address the wicked problem of anthropogenic global heating.
Protest has been orchestrated In Aotearoa, and less politely in the United States and Brazil, at the continued, state-enforced, physical distancing. covid-19 containment versus the economy is a false dichotomy, shamelessly financed by the usual suspects. Similarly, however, the choice to re-stimulate the existing problematic economy or to build one with a robust future, is false. In times of crisis, there is reticence to be perceived as unseemly by advocating for overarching actions. But now is exactly the time to examine every aspect of New Zealand’s, and the intergovernmental, pandemic response. Aotearoa, for example, could have been much more useful to the world had it closed its border and implemented strict quarantine measures by late January. A fortnight’s shelter-in-place for the non-essential majority, and the rigorous testing urged by the World Health Organisation at the time, would have provided every opportunity to avoid prolonged period of enforced unemployment that will, for all too many, effectively prove to be permanent. By putting its own mask on first, Cuba is demonstrating how a country can better help the more vulnerable.
New Zealand’s visitor industry will never be the same, but nor should it be. Aotearoa must play to its strength as the epitome of physical distancing—renowned as the place where the mandatory minimum length of stay is six weeks, such is the seriousness with which the country takes the need to radically slash carbon emissions. And rather than profoundly problematic cruise ships wallowing into New Zealand waters, a small fleet of high-speed latter-day packet-liners plying to and from Sydney, connected to Australia’s 36 000-kilometre-long rail network, and, into the bargain, to the more than half-million New Zealanders living there.
After its serial earthquake crisis, Christchurch was rebuilt, and ChristChurch Cathedral is rebuilding, on liquefaction-prone land within inevitable reach of locked-in sea-level rise, rather than risk an unseemly debate about a sustainable alternative location inland of its airport. But nor would any usable buildings have needed to have been summarily abandoned, had the opportunity been embraced to progressively retire the extensively damaged city as an antipodean Angkor Wat. Even before covid-19 struck, civilisation had its time cut out to build zero-carbon infrastructure sufficiently quickly. Signs of sustainable transport for suburbia are sparse, and, again, even pre-covid-19, a stalled Labour-led government had ditched any fealty to a zero-carbon future by ordering the resumption of roading work it had earlier side-lined.
The reason more motorway is to be built, post haste, is because the projects are shovel ready. Few actual shovels, of course, would be swung, whereas oceans of diesel fuel and shiploads of heavy machinery are to be deployed, by mere thousands of workers, whose spending would need to trickle down to the up-to-half-million who now may end up out of work. That more than 70% of the average $5.1 billion per year draft 2021–2031 land-transport budget is earmarked for roads reflects a transport agency marching backwards into the future. Small wonder, when the government sought to give the election-year economy a boost, the shovel-ready projects were predominantly more roads, and that trail building was not ready to be actioned. This private-transport legacy of New Zealand’s unfortunate, failed neoliberal experiment needs to be parked up, and the spending redirected to directly employ New Zealanders to begin building a sustainable future. Given the unemployment crisis, the first obvious step is to redeploy the emptied lecture halls, to serve, mostly remotely, students of campaign finance reform, coastal resilience, communicable and noncommunicable disease, digital infrastructure, exotic and indigenous forestry, grid-powered transportation, trail design and engineering, science-based journalism, sustainable visitor infrastructure, zero-carbon energy production, xenophobia and pandemics, and much more.
It is not by accident that any suggestion of centralised planning is promptly denounced, and with statements that it is foolish to attempt to anticipate the future. Aside from the distinction that planning for the future is not the same as predicting it, planning is attacked because of its potential to impose on the power of the plutocracy. In his seminal Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age, Dr Paul Mees identifies planning as one of the key characteristics of successful public transport. Conversely, covid-19 has catapulted the need to not travel unnecessarily into sharp relief. Had New Zealand’s businesses’ and institutions’ embrace of distance-working been much less grudging, the country could have responded to the imperative for physical distancing with alacrity. Given the likely need to maintain a degree of physical distancing through 2022, comprehensively connecting Aotearoa with fibre—something the market has conspicuously failed to deliver—should be pursued with vigour. A recurring failure of New Zealand-based startups has been their need to relocate to Northern California on account of poor cellular coverage and bandwidth bottlenecks, whereas wealthy Californians rush to buy boltholes in Aotearoa. But not only do the tech startups struggle internationally, they struggle to better-connect New Zealanders to things:
For example, a forestry worker is inspecting a forest after a weekend of heavy rain. They need to check that the area is safe for workers and that the waterlogged land will drain quickly to avoid a landslide that could destroy growing trees. The forest is laden with moisture and movement sensors which are only useful to the inspector if they can access that information, including safety warnings, in real time. If they have no internet coverage in the forest, they can’t use the data. This entirely erodes the benefit of the IoTinternet of things initiative. The same applies for a farmer in the field. If the farmer has no cellular coverage, they can only view their dashboard information from in or near their house, as far as Wi-Fi can reach. This makes IoT solutions of little use to them when decision support is required out in the field.
Journey avoidance, the poor cousin of zero-carbon initiatives, will presumably now receive some much-deserved, covid-19 due:
Avoiding journeys and/or reducing travel distances can be achieved in many ways. Proximity planning, for instance, aims to minimize travel distances through smart urban planning in which cities are designed to be compact, with complementary goods and services located near each other. Proximity planning is illustrated by a study from Santiago, Chile, where researchers estimated that relocating schools closer to residential areas could reduce transport emissions in the study area by 12%.
That Aotearoa has so far escaped covid-19 with a reported infection rate of 0.03%, and a reported fatality rate of 1.23% of that, is down to geography, timing in relation to its seasonal influenza season, and not taking quite as long after hitting double digits as, for example, Ireland, to mandate emphatic physical distancing—Aotearoa, 12 days, by which time there were 394 reported cases; Ireland 21 days, 1819 cases. As of anzac Day, Ireland, with an almost identically sized population, has a more than 12 times greater number of reported cases, and 59 times the number of reported deaths, nearly half of those in care homes, and likely eventually to eclipse the 4000 Irish troops killed at Gallipoli.
In just four months, a virus with a mortality rate a fraction of that of h5n1 bird flu, infecting fewer than 1% of people, is comprehensively overwhelming most of the world’s health systems. With Rooseveltian leadership, Aotearoa could heed the covid-19 clarion call, and demonstrate dynamic, world-inspiring business and social economic mobilisation.
Achilles’ Heel of Current Strategies The following are the two concluding paragraphs of Asymptomatic Transmission, the Achilles’ Heel of Current Strategies to Control Covid-19:
Asymptomatic transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is the Achilles’ heel of Covid-19 pandemic control through the public health strategies we have currently deployed. Symptom-based screening has utility, but epidemiologic evaluations of Covid-19 outbreaks within skilled nursing facilities such as the one described by Arons et al. strongly demonstrate that our current approaches are inadequate. This recommendation for SARS-CoV-2 testing of asymptomatic persons in skilled nursing facilities should most likely be expanded to other congregate living situations, such as prisons and jails (where outbreaks in the United States, whose incarceration rate is much higher than rates in other countries, are increasing), enclosed mental health facilities, and homeless shelters, and to hospitalized inpatients. Current U.S. testing capability must increase immediately for this strategy to be implemented.
Ultimately, the rapid spread of Covid-19 across the United States and the globe, the clear evidence of SARS-CoV-2 transmission from asymptomatic personsArons MM, Hatfield KM, Reddy SC, et al. Presymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infections and transmission in a skilled nursing facility. N Engl J Med. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa2008457, and the eventual need to relax current social distancing practices argue for broadened SARS-CoV-2 testing to include asymptomatic persons in prioritized settings. These factors also support the case for the general public to use face masks when in crowded outdoor or indoor spaces. This unprecedented pandemic calls for unprecedented measures to achieve its ultimate defeat.