A good way to think about the COVID-19 pandemic is that it is like climate change at warp speed. What takes decades and centuries for the climate takes days or weeks for a contagious disease. That speed focuses the mind and offers lessons in how to think about risk in an interconnected world.
With climate change and COVID-19, the real problem is not absolute numbers — whether greenhouse-gas emissions or infections — but rather the rate of change. It is bad enough that average global temperatures have risen by 1°C above pre-industrial levels, but warming of 2°C, 3°C or many more degrees would be profoundly worse.
In pandemics, too, even a very small difference in the growth trajectory has stark consequences down the line.
Infections have increased by about 33 percent per day in most European countries — and by only slightly less in the US, possibly owing to a relative lack of testing. At that rate, a dozen cases today would become 500 cases within two weeks and 20,000 two weeks after that.
Italy had to shut down much of its economy after reaching just 12,000 cases, and shut downs are a must to prevent more healthcare systems coming anywhere close to the breaking point.
Again, the top priority is to slow the rate of growth. Hong Kong and Singapore closed schools and enforced quarantines long before things could spin out of control, and their daily infection growth rates appear to be close to about 3.3 percent.
The critical point about compound growth is that a 3.3 percent infection rate is not merely 10 times better than a 33 percent rate, but over the course of three weeks, it is 150 times better.
At the lower rate, 100 cases would not quite double in that space of time, whereas at the higher rate, 100 cases would become 30,000.
By one estimate, 10 to 15 percent of early COVID-19 cases in China were severe, which implies that about 20 people would require intensive care in the low-growth scenario, whereas 3,000 people would require it in the high-growth scenario.
That difference has significant implications for health systems. Italy is a case in point: Its hospitals have had to triage patients or turn them away outright, and its COVID-19 death rate is significantly higher than in other countries.
These “breaking points” in public health are to the pandemic what “tipping points” are to climate change. Where and when they are to be reached might be uncertain, but they are all too real.
Likewise, in both cases — and in most countries — it is too late for containment. The priority has become mitigation, closely followed by adaptation to what is in store.
In confronting COVID-19, the goal is to “flatten the curve,” just as people must “bend” the curve in greenhouse-gas emissions. Small, immediate reductions in the growth rate would increasingly pay off over time.
Of course, achieving such reductions is not easy. Closing schools can block one channel of disease transmission, but it also places a significant additional burden on households, where parents must stay home and begin home schooling overnight.
New York City’s decision to provide “grab-and-go meals” and supervision for the children of healthcare providers, first responders and public transit employees represents an important step, given that school closures, by indisposing critical workers, can actually increase net mortality from the coronavirus.
Such tradeoffs point to perhaps the most important commonality between COVID-19 and climate change: externalities. In both crises, an individual’s personal calculus might undermine the welfare of society as a whole.
Healthy young people who face a significantly lower risk of dying from the coronavirus would see little reason not to continue commuting to work and putting in “face time” to advance their careers. That is why governments need to step in to change the individual calculus.
Imagine a scenario in which Italy had shut down completely in the middle of last month, when it still had fewer than 30 COVID-19 cases. The costs of the disruption would have been large and the public outcry loud, but thousands of deaths would have been averted.
The overall economic costs resulting from a prompt, aggressive shutdown would surely be lower than those of an even hastier, reactive one.
Unlike Italy, Hong Kong is slowly emerging from its aggressive shutdown.
Mitigating climate change does not require anything close to an economic shutdown, but it does demand a fundamental rechanneling of market forces away from the current low-efficiency, high-carbon path toward a high-efficiency, low-carbon one.
This shift would require aggressive government policies, increased investment and innovation. The results are to be measured in years and decades, but they are highly dependent on what people do now.
In neither case can public policies operate in isolation. The COVID-19 crisis has underscored the need for paid sick leave and universal healthcare, just as the climate crisis has done for investment in the renewable energy industry and measures to address environmental inequities.
A techno fix is not the answer. Working toward a vaccine for COVID-19 is obviously important, as is research into renewable energy “moonshots” and even geoengineering technologies, but these would all take time and real investments in science.
The Chinese word for “crisis” famously consists of two characters: danger (危) and opportunity (機). In the case of COVID-19, the opportunity might well lie in demonstrating that rapid behavioral change is possible.
Next month, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is to hold its first-ever virtual Lead Author meeting. Running online-only meetings with 300 people on five continents is a challenge, but it is easier than flying halfway around the world.
People must ask themselves whether they are taking sufficient steps to “flatten the curve” of transmissions and to “bend the curve” of emissions.
The novel coronavirus might have reduced China’s carbon-dioxide emissions this year, owing to the factory closures in Wuhan and general economic malaise, but in the end, it is all about the trajectory. To confront today’s global crises, people must come to grips with the mathematical power of compound growth, which is both a curse and a blessing.
Gernot Wagner teaches climate economics at New York University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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