What Covid-19 can teach us about governance

Boris Johnson looks set to launch his own leadership campaign on the Third Runway (Heathrow) debacle
We need state intervention that is responsive to experts and to communities, now and as we fight climate breakdown and biodiversity loss.

When things return to 'normal' and when we hear calls to resume neoliberal economics, just remember what and who we relied on to address this major crisis. 

The response to the novel coronavirus - Covid-19 pandemic has taught us many things about how we govern our behaviour. When society faces a real crisis that needs strong coordinated action, it looks to the state and scientific experts, combined with civil society cooperation enforced by the police, along with some support from the military in making deliveries.

The private sector plays an important role, such as ensuring food supplies in the face of panic buying or retooling to produce essential medical supplies. But many companies simply look to the state for loans and bailouts. Some libertarians complain that it's all an excuse for state control of our lives, but few take this seriously as the Covid-19 crisis threatens all our wellbeing.

We also recognise the need for cooperation amongst countries to provide for coordinated international action as well as cooperation and mutual support amongst people in society. 

Governments

When things return to 'normal' there will be the inevitable calls to resume the shrinking of the state, and to ignore experts, revert to national isolationism, to claim 'that there is no such thing as society', and, of course, to recognise that ‘markets know best’.

We must, however, remember that governments were central to dealing with the Covid-19 crisis and they will be central to us dealing with the climate change and biodiversity loss crises.

In response to the Covid-19 crisis normal governance has been replaced by strong government coordination based on achieving the common good for everyone by managing the rate of new infections through social isolation measures in this severe pandemic, as well as keeping people supplied with food and medication.

International cooperation and coordination have also been essential to reduce the spread of the pandemic, along with the sharing of Covid-19 epidemiological and research data. This switch in governance model has not been smooth or quick enough in some countries, with delays in the UK and USA response likely to be counted in bodies over the coming months.

Recognition of the weakness of some government responses to address the pandemic demonstrates that the majority of people look to governments and, increasingly, the experts that advise them to address this crisis.

Trade

It is becoming clear that one of the reasons that Covid-19 is such a severe and even fatal respiratory disease is that it is a zoonotic virus, with a genetic signature unknown to our immune systems, delaying our ability to develop antibodies that can fight the infection.

It seems increasingly likely that it was the illegal trade in endangered animals such as bats and pangolins through inhumane ‘wet markets’ in China and Southeast Asia that is the vector for such transmissions between species.

The extremely high risks of such zoonotic virus outbreaks were indicated by previous outbreaks, such as highly pathogenic avian influenza related to the HN51 virus in 1996. The related extreme risks posed by the wildlife trade for a future coronavirus outbreak, particularly associated with wet markets in southern China, were warned of as a “time-bomb” over ten years ago, this being seen by many as a facet of global threats to ecosystems and biodiversity.

The Chinese government banned all such wet markets and related wildlife trades after the initial outbreak, but given official recognition of the cultural and economic importance of the wild animal trade in many rural communities, the Chinese government has already stated that the initial ban will be relaxed in the future, as it was after the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak.

There are also concerns that a continued ban could drive this illegal wildlife trade underground, where much related trade is already conducted. 

Economics 

With hindsight, a better governance approach would have been to heed these zoonotic virus warnings from experts and take a strategic approach to reducing this trade through proactive measures by the Chinese government, such as promoting cultural change, along with gradual regulatory restrictions.

At this stage, the emphasis should be on ensuring a commitment to a long-term ban on the wildlife trade by the governments of China and other countries through a coordinated and strategic approach, especially given the global impacts on many rare species of growing demand to feed the wildlife trade.

Looking to the future, one consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to be a deep and prolonged economic recession. It seems likely that a return to Keynesian state intervention in markets, including the rebuilding of the welfare state and a new spirit of international cooperation will be as necessary, as it was after the 1929 crash and the Second World War.

More recently, a lack of state regulation of markets was widely accepted as a key cause of the 2008 economic crash but it seems a major international pandemic crisis was needed to recognize the importance of the state and of international cooperation in achieving a stable economy and our societal well-being.

Indeed, there have been optimistic calls to seize this opportunity to rebuild our relationship with nature and put climate change and biodiversity at the top of the agenda through cooperation amongst the international community of United Nations, i.e. “to rise to the challenge to emerge from this emergency with a global economic reset.”

Emissions 

There are less optimistic assessments of potential post-pandemic scenarios. Firstly, the collective action amongst citizens and nations for shut-downs and social isolation to address the pandemic achieved through cooperation and, in some cases, enforcement, cannot be replicated for climate change as there is no institution to enforce compliance. 

The high degree and extent of public and international acceptance of the immediate risks of Covid-19 do not follow-through to acceptance of the long-term risks of climate change, particularly given the overriding priority of economic recovery. 

The link between economic contraction and carbon emission reductions witnessed during this and other recessions shows that we have failed to decouple economic development and carbon emissions. The steep ‘rebound’ economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis may also lead to rapid carbon emission increases even if recent trends to increasingly decouple economic growth from carbon emissions continue.

It could be counter-argued that such critical views represent a very US-centric neoliberal analysis of despair, but there is clearly not a consensus that this moment in history represents an opportunity to better address environmental crises in the light of lessons learned from the pandemic.

While the shutdown of many sectors of the economy will have environmental benefits in terms of carbon emissions and biodiversity loss, few would argue that the socio-economic cost can be justified. As such, solutions to move forward through appropriate economic recovery after the crisis are crucial.

Communities 

It is clear that key workers such as those in healthcare and food production and distribution, were undervalued and and unfairly deemed 'unskilled. Their importance to society needs to be recognised in pay and work security decisions. 

The concept of community has also resurfaced in much of western society, with a resurgence of community level cooperation and mutual ‘tend and befriend’ behaviour.

Government policies to support smaller, local businesses could provide a much more targeted economic stimulus to those in need than the pursuit of corporate economic growth.

Alongside enabling national and international policies, community and local-level collaborations, decisions and action can also help enable climate and biodiversity friendly policies. Indeed, the IPCC claims that far more ambitious national policies that work with local and indigenous communities are required to address the 1.5˚C target. 

The Convention on Biological Diversity also highlights the need for protected areas to be equitably governed by a broad spectrum of stakeholders, and for local community knowledge and participation to be key, with equitable sharing of benefits through the local communities. Furthermore, the IPCC recognises that even limiting warming to 1.5˚C would have disproportionate effects on the poorest countries and poorest in society.

The economic safety net enacted by many global governments with respect to Covid-19 could be maintained and potentially enhanced if local communities are the priority for economic recovery following the pandemic. Such an approach could create a less ecologically destructive economic model and ensure socio-economic security for those who have been most affected by Covid-19, and are also likely to be most affected by climate change. 

Lessons

Whether you adopt an optimistic or pessimistic outlook, there are still some key lessons that could be remembered. When things return to 'normal' and when we hear calls to resume neoliberal economics, just remember what and who we relied on to address this major crisis.

We have renewed recognition that governments have a critical central role in maintaining our health and safety.  Government incentives, policies, nudges, taxation, regulation and enforcement are vital to shaping society to ensure the best outcomes to deal with short and long-term threats. But they work best in combination with local governance through collaborations with communities to build on the capacity for mutual support and cooperation amongst people.

The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has apparently already taken one of these lessons on board, given his pronouncement from isolation that the public response shows that ‘there is such a thing as society’. This is significant given his admiration for his Conservative predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, who famously pronounced the opposite as an indication of her faith in neoliberal free-market ideology. 

Also, remember these times when we again start to hear arguments such as that: climate change is best addressed through private sector action, experts can't be trusted, we do not need a nanny-state and societal behaviour can't be changed overnight.

In the Marvel movie Iron Man 3, Tony Stark triumphantly claims “I did you a favour: I have successfully privatised world peace.” One of the many lessons from this pandemic is that when we really face a crisis, it is the state we look to for concerted action and the people and civil society that we look to for cooperation and mutual support, rather than a corporate Iron Man.

Given the long-term challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and repeat pandemics, we should see that the major lesson from Covid-19 is the failure of neoliberal free markets to protect us. Instead state intervention guided by experts, incorporating and valuing society and communities, is what will save us.

These Authors 

Dr Peter JS Jones is an associate research professor in environmental governance at the Department of Geography at University College London (UCL). 

Prof. Rick Stafford is a professor of marine biology and conservation at the University of Bournemouth.

Prof. Mark Maslin is a professor of climatology in the Department of Geography at University College London (UCL).

Help us keep The Ecologist working for the planet

The Ecologist website is a free service, published by The Resurgence Trust, a UK-based educational charity. We work hard - with a small budget and tiny editorial team - to bring you the wide-ranging, independent journalism we know you value and enjoy, but we need your help. Please make a donation to support The Ecologist platform. Thank you!

Donate to us here