Trump’s crime against humanity

Trump’s crime against humanity

Dr. Trevor Hancock

20 April 2020

699 words

In cutting funding to the WHO in the midst of a pandemic, Donald Trump may think he is attacking a bunch of faceless bureaucrats in Geneva and WHO’s regional offices around the world. But in reality he is attacking millions of impoverished people in dozens of countries whose health, indeed whose lives depend directly or indirectly on WHO’s expertise and support. Small wonder that Richard Horton, the esteemed editor-in-chief of one of the world’s leading medical journals, The Lancet, described Trump’s actions as “a crime against humanity.

Not only are these people facing the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, but other pandemic infectious diseases that kill, sicken and impoverish millions annually, largely in low-income countries, while dragging down their families, communities and countries. It’s important to pay attention to these other pandemics, because they will still be with us after Covid-19 is gone, unless we focus on controlling and eliminating them – an important part of WHO’s work that Trump is undermining.

Imperial College’s Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, which has been doing the disease modelling for the UK Government, issued a report on March 26th on the likely global health impact of Covid-19. Their best case scenario, assuming a high level of effective suppression (what we are doing now in Canada) is that there will be between 1.85 and 9.3 million deaths before the pandemic is over. The worst case scenario is 40 million deaths, with many of them occurring in lower income countries with much less capacity to deal with it.

To put that in perspective, there are normally about 56 million deaths annually world-wide, so at worst Covid-19 could almost double the usual death rate, at least for a while. But the good news, in a sense, is that this is likely a one-time event, unless the virus mutates to the point that any vaccine becomes partly or completely ineffective – which is unlikely in this sort of virus, we are told.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 1.5 million people, mainly children, die annually from vaccine-preventable disease such as diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), influenza and measles. In fact this is World Immunization Week, an opportunity, says the WHO, to focus on the “still nearly 20 million children in the world today who are not getting the vaccines they need”.

In addition, WHO reports that 1.5 million people died from TB in 2018, while malaria caused 405,000 deaths and HIV/AIDS was estimated to result in 770,000 deaths. WHO also reported that diarrhoea – caused by a variety of bacteria and viruses when water supply is contaminated and sanitation is poor – killed around 525,000 children under five in 2017.

Together, these infectious diseases kill almost 5 million people annually, about the middle of the range for the best case scenario for Covid-19. But they do so year in and year out. At their current rate, in the next decade they will kill more than the worst case projected for Covid-19.

All these diseases are largely preventable at relatively low cost. The Global Fund, which “pools the world’s resources to invest in ending AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria as epidemics”, has a budget of just $4 billion a year, while the Global Vaccine Action Plan – endorsed by the 194 Member States of the World Health Assembly in May 2012 – required a mere $40 billion of donor assistance by 2020.

So if we are prepared to reduce our economies significantly for Covid-19, while spending trillions of dollars to support people and businesses, why would we not invest just a small fraction of that amount in preventing these deaths and the associated illness and disability? The economic benefits of increased wellbeing, reduced health and social costs and increased economic activity would more than repay the investment.

When the dust settles on Covid-19, as it will, we need to resolve to take action on these other infectious disease pandemics with at least as much commitment as we are giving to Covid-19. In the long run, we will save far more lives, at a fraction of the cost.

Cutting funding to WHO, endangering all the work this important organisation does to reduce this huge toll, is indeed a crime against humanity.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020


Roar radically forward, not back to a pathological system

Roar radically forward, not back to a pathological system

Dr. Trevor Hancock

16 April 2020

699 words

In his daily briefing on April 9th, Justin Trudeau said “Our country will come roaring back”. I understand why he might want to reassure people that everything would be fine, that this is just a temporary if large disruption to business-as-usual. But it’s much more than that. The Covid-19 pandemic has been likened to a combination of the Great Depression and a world war, giving a rude shock to our social and economic system.

But it has also laid bare some of the price we and others around the world pay for our way of life. It has given us an opportunity to stop and think – one we should seize. An April 3rd editorial in the Financial Times noted “The leaders who won the [Second World War] did not wait for victory to plan for what would follow . . . That same kind of foresight is needed today. Beyond the public health war, true leaders will mobilise now to win the peace.” What might that post-Covid ‘peace’ look like?

Clearly it should not be ‘back to normal’ if “normal is the pathology”, as Bill Rees, professor emeritus of human ecology and ecological economics at UBC, wrote in The Tyee on April 6th. By this he meant that our present way of life, and the neoliberal economy that supports it, is in many ways pathological. It does a great deal of harm to a great many people and to the Earth, our life support system.

So rather than adopting an approach I call stupid resilience – ‘roaring back’ to a dysfunctional economic system and way of life –we need smart resilience, ‘roaring forward’ to something very different. We need to transition to a system that repairs the social and ecological harm the current system creates.

The same editorial in the Financial Times suggests ways to repair the social harm that some may find surprising, coming from a source that is hardly a bastion of radical anti-establishment thought. The editorial board wrote:

“Radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades — will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.”

In calling for radical reforms that reverse the policy directions of the past 40 years, they are in effect saying ‘toss neoliberalism on the scrap heap of history’. They suggest instead new directions that are actually not all that radical, but in many respects a return to policies from the mid-20th century. This would include a larger and more activist government, a fairer tax system, an end to part-time ‘McJobs’ and much enhanced economic and social security.

Undoing ecological harm was not addressed in their approach, but it has to be the second arm of this radical reform. Fortunately, we have a model in the concept of the Green New Deal. Indeed Peter Julian, the NDP MP for New Westminster-Burnaby, tabled a motion in the House of Commons in December calling on the House to support a Green New Deal for Canada. It envisages investing in Canada’s infrastructure and industry to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century, including achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. This would create millions of good, high-wage jobs while managing a fair and just transition for all communities and workers, ensuring prosperity and economic security for all Canadians.

We can’t afford a short-sighted, knee-jerk response to the post-Covid world that will have us roaring back to the same pathological society and economy that causes such widespread ecological and social harm. We need a new, smart way forward, using the substantial body of work that has been done in the field of ecological economics to develop alternative economic and social models. Justin Trudeau and other world leaders must seize this opportunity and show the true, far-sighted leadership the Financial Times and the Green New Deal calls for.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

A tale of two futures: Lets choose the right one this time

A tale of two futures: Lets choose the right one this time

Dr Trevor Hancock

6 April 2020

701 words

Because of Covid-19 we stand yet again at a crossroads of history. Too often in my lifetime we have stood at this same crossroads, and each time we have taken the wrong path. Will we get it right this time?

The crossroads I refer to is, at its simplest, the choice between what James Robertson, a British alternative futurist, called the HE and SHE futures, in his infuential 1978 book, ‘The Sane Alternative’. HE stands for hyper-expansion, a high growth, high tech future, business as usual on steroids. SHE stands for sane, humane and ecological, where sanity is about balance within ourselves, humanity is about balance between ourselves and the rest of humanity, while ecology is about balance between humanity and the Earth and all its species.

The HE future is the path we have been following since at least the end of the Second World War. The SHE future is the path we have consistently avoided, but is our only real choice if we and the rest of humanity are to live good quality lives within the limits of the Earth.

One opportunity where we had this choice was in 1972, at the time of the First UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm. It was a time of globally significant books and reports such as Only One Earth, The Limits to Growth and Blueprint for Survival.

The Stockholm Declaration stated: “Through ignorance or indifference we can do massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment on which our life and well-being depend. Conversely, through fuller knowledge and wiser action, we can achieve for ourselves and our posterity a better life in an environment more in keeping with human needs and hopes.”

Following the conference, sadly, we opted for massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment. The failure to make the choice to deal with climate change in the decade from 1979 to 1989 was documented in a lengthy article by Nathaniel Rich in the New York Times Magazine in August 2018. As the Magazine’s Editor noted, “It will come as a revelation to many readers — an agonizing revelation — to understand how thoroughly they grasped the problem and how close they came to solving it”.

That pattern of grasping the problem but failing to make the right decisions continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and into the new millennium. The 1987 report of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, “Our Common Future”, identified our responsibility to future generations and noted that humanity’s activities are “changing planetary systems, fundamentally. Many such changes are accompanied by life-threatening hazards. This new reality, from which there is no escape, must be recognized – and managed.”

This led to the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro; the Declaration stated: “Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”, adding that “The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations”.

In 1989, midway between these two events, in its annual report on the state of the world, the Worldwatch Institute dubbed the 1990s “the turn-around decade”, the decade when we really needed to change: We did not turn.

As I have noted in recent columns, the enforced pause in our social and economic lives due to the Covid-19 pandemic gives us the space and time to consider whether we want to go back to the bad old ways, or choose a different path, one that holds out the hope of creating a sane, humane and ecological future.

I am not alone in seeing the opportunity we now have to make the right choice. Writing in the Guardian on April 1st, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said “We simply cannot return to where we were before Covid-19 struck . . . Now is the time to redouble our efforts to build more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change and other global challenges. The recovery must lead to a different economy”.

This time, will we choose the right path? Our descendants certainly hope so.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

Vital lessons from the pandemic for the future

Vital lessons from the pandemic for the future

Dr. Trevor Hancock

30 March 2020

699 words

I suggested in recent columns we should use the pause in our society and economy resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic to re-evaluate what we want and how we want to live. Here are eight important lessons we might learn if we pay attention to what is happening.

First, having less and being less busy may not be so bad, maybe we can have a better quality of life – as long as we can meet our basic needs, of course. Normally we are too embedded in our way of life, and too busy leading that life, to step outside of it and reflect upon it. As a former student of my friend and colleague Rick Kool at Royal Roads University wrote from Kathmandu, Nepal: “The air quality is SO much better here (it is usually the WORST!) and I can hear so many more songbirds in the morning. I’m loving it”.

Second, there is the high price we pay for our way of life. The BBC reported this week that as a result of the pandemic air pollution emissions fell 25 percent overall in China. Meanwhile “levels of pollution in New York have reduced by nearly 50 percent” compared to the same time last year, and cleaner air has also been reported in Italy, Spain and the UK.

So it was timely that in a March 3rd press release the European Society of Cardiology, pointing to a new study, declared “The world faces an air pollution ‘pandemic’”. The study found outdoor human-made air pollution, mainly from fossil fuel use, caused massive health problems, estimating that “five and a half million deaths worldwide a year are potentially avoidable”.

This vast toll of death and disease – and there are many other forms of death and disease that can be attributed to our economic and societal systems – is just shrugged off as the cost of doing business. But is that acceptable?

Third, we are seeing very clearly that social solidarity matters, that we are all in it together, while the neoliberal cult of individualism, the notion that ‘you are on your own’, is toxic. You can’t face this all on your own, it takes a whole village, a whole society and a whole global community working together to manage this. Fourth, a related lesson, is that local matters a lot, whether it be local community organisations, businesses or governments.

Fifth, we are learning that Government matters, and that the Canadian notion of ‘peace, order and good government’ completely out-performs the US model, which some, such as Derek Thompson, writing in The Atlantic on March 14, are likening to a failed state.

Sixth, exponential growth – whether it be Covid-19 cases or carbon dioxide levels – is a really bad idea. As Elizabeth Sawin, co-director of the think tank Climate Interactive, puts it in an article in Yale Environment 360 by Beth Morgan last week, “if you wait until you can see the impact, it is too late to stop it.”

Seventh, nature bats last, and we should not rely upon outwitting and out-performing nature. A Chicago Tribune Editorial (excerpted last week in the Times Colonist) noted: “We learn anew that in nature we’re but temporary components of perpetual systems much bigger than ourselves”.

Finally, hopefully we are learning that if we can act swiftly and massively on Covid-19, we could act just as massively, but with a bit more time for thought and planning, on the even greater but slower crisis of human-induced global ecological change, including climate change. As Eric Doherty, a local transportation and land use planner, writes in the Canadian independent online news outlet Ricochet, “if we can change everything for one kind of emergency, why not do it for another?”

I am not saying all these shifts in perspective will happen, but they might happen. And if realisations of this sort come together, they could create a social tipping point, perhaps even set off the sort of ‘virtuous cascade’ of change that the new Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University has been set up to study and understand. That same process at a local level might lead to the creation of the ‘One Planet Region’ that we need.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020