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Viral pandemics and climate change – different pace, different response, a message perhaps?


We tried to follow our usual Saturday morning routine on Saturday morning.  We were foiled, in part, because of the way our community is responding to the onset of Covid-19.  There are lessons here on tipping points, on climate change, on pandemics, on human and societal response to emergencies.  And our town has zero cases of Covid-19 yet reported.

I live in a small town, but we are relatively well connected to the rest of the world because we have many retired folk who travel and many seasonal residents who move regularly up and down the highway connecting us to Toronto.  There are still no cases of the virus reported in Muskoka, but we all know it will be here sooner or later.

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Early spring in Muskoka can be breath-taking.

Saturday dawned mild and sunny, a wonderful Saturday hinting at a Spring that is still a few weeks off up here.  I’d have expected the town to be bustling, with families out enjoying the day, visitors strolling and looking into the shops, people pretending that winter has gone already.  True, we had cancelled a dinner with friends the night before because two of our guests had only returned from Spain five days ago (with zero symptoms), and one of our guests could not afford to become ill at this particular time.  We had the food bought and ready to cook, but prudence got the better of us.  Still, as we ventured out on our regular Saturday morning visit to our favorite coffee shop and the library, we weren’t thinking about viruses, pandemics, or anything else.

The streets were quiet.  Then we found the public library closed until further notice.  We put the books we were returning into the drop-chute at the door, wondering when we’d get to browse for something new to read.  The coffee shop was bustling, but mainly because two large families were encamped at its two largest tables, with board games and the usual devices plugged into ears.  I suspect they’d ended up there having run out of places to go with the kids.  We had our coffee and returned home.  My wife got an e-mail advising that her regular Monday/Wednesday exercise class was cancelled until further notice, and immediately panicked because that meant no after-exercise latté with her friends.  I got an e-mail advising that a discussion group I belong to would not meet this week, because the building we meet in was closed indefinitely.  I was supposed to lead that discussion.  Sitting at my computer, I’ve discovered scores of other cancellations and closures in our town, all to stem the spread of what we know is coming.  Yesterday, I cancelled a trip to Europe we’d been planning for a year.  It was not going to happen until July.  Now it won’t happen at all, for the foreseeable future.

In Canada, governments at all levels are acting prudently to curtail social gatherings, particularly of older people.  One of my nephews has announced that his friends are referring to Covid-19 as ‘the boomer remover’ – a sign that the young are taking this emergency in stride and won’t be in need of psychiatric counselling as our society collapses around them. 

This prudent closing down of social interaction and travel does not prevent the spread of the virus, but it greatly slows the spread and could significantly reduce the proportion of the population that becomes infected before the current pandemic is spent. 

The NIH’s Anthony Fauci, one of the saner Americans on television these days, famously attempted to explain how social distancing can flatten the curve, thereby avoiding overloading of emergency care capacity when lots of people become ill at once.  He gave his explanation at a White House press conference on Tuesday evening and again on Thursday.  Not shaking hands, keeping some distance between you and others in a group, avoiding gatherings of large numbers of people… this is social distancing.  It’s what Canada is putting in place; it’s what Fauci is recommending; it’s behind the cancellation of most professional sporting events in North America.  President Trump thanked Fauci and shook his hand.

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The rate of increase in number of new cases depends on the rate at which an infected person infects others.  If that can be lowered by measures such as social distancing, the total number of people ultimately infected may not change, but the peak is lower, perhaps below the level that would swamp the capacity of the health system to provide care.  Diagram © US CDC.

My town has clearly embraced social distancing, as has the rest of Canada.  I suspect a lot of people are a bit fuzzy on what social distancing does.  They might be surprised to learn it has the potential to prolong the period when we will be at risk of infection.  In fact, it may prolong the period and fail to reduce the proportion of the population that actually contracts the disease.  It all depends on how effective social distancing is in curtailing transmission.  The US Center for Disease Control has provided diagrams and a good explanation here.

WHO reports that the average person infected with Covid-19 infects between 2 and 2.5 other people.  That number will be higher when people are in crowded situations, and when symptom-relief is poor or the infected individual is careless about avoiding affecting others.  It will be lower when infected individuals self-isolate, are quarantined, and/or practice behaviors that minimize spread – coughing into one’s elbow, avoiding shaking hands, wearing a mask.

With the average infection rate of 2.0 to 2.5, it follows that social distancing will reduce this.  That means the rate of increase of infected individuals in a population will be lower.  If the distancing and other measures are successful enough, the number of infected individuals may not grow at all (an infection rate of 1.0) or rapidly decline to zero.  If the social distancing is less successful, the rate of increase in the number of infected individuals will be lower than otherwise, but there will still be an increase.  The peak number of infected individuals will be lower and will be reached more slowly; both these factors are important in avoiding swamping available medical capacity to treat the small number for whom this disease becomes life-threatening.  From a public health perspective, avoiding swamping the capacity of the system is important and leads to a far better community outcome than otherwise.

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This simulation shows the value of introducing measures such as social distancing rapidly (the graph is based on a model, not real data for Covid-19).  Image © US CDC

As of now, it is too early to assess the likely health impact, globally or locally, of this virus.  As a novel virus to humans, none of us have immunity and it could infect a substantial proportion of the human population, perhaps 20 to 60% of us.  With a mortality rate of somewhere around 2%, if 40% of us get infected, that translates to about 150 million deaths due directly to this disease.  Public health officials are hoping it won’t be that bad but preparing for major challenges in coming days.

The coronavirus is also having undeniably large impacts on human behavior and on the global economy.  Social distancing means stopping many activities that bring people together.  The travel industry will soon be on life support.  Mass entertainments whether sporting events or theatre are following closely behind.  The downturn in travel, long-distance and local, is curtailing the need for energy, and, given that Saudi Arabia and Russia have chosen now to engage in a tit for tat fight to garner increased market share of oil, we suddenly see the price of oil collapsing.  For Canada, that downturn is an added complexity.

Forbes is currently suggesting that if the disease pandemic declines and withers away by summer (an optimistic possibility), the world will see a wave of rolling recessions as the impacts peak in each nation, but there won’t be a global recession.  The OECD, earlier this month, said that global GDP growth could fall by half, to 1.5% instead of the 3% it was projecting prior to the crisis.  Such relative optimism may continue, but not if the Covid-19 outbreak intensifies in coming weeks.  One positive aspect of all this is that the total CO2 emissions to the atmosphere this year may plateau, or even fall, compared to 2019.  We need some good news at present!

The global response to Covid-19 has been interesting.  There has been a lot of variation in effectiveness of response among countries, and even now there is evidence that nations are not working closely together to achieve common goals.  Different countries are implementing different measures to combat the spread, with differing effectiveness.  Leadership from the USA has been wanting, and that leadership is missed.  In one particularly jarring action, Naked Emperor in Chief announced on March 11th a ban on all travel from Europe.  The ban, which went into effect on Friday, did not include the UK (with the second highest number of confirmed cases behind Italy) and did not apply to American citizens or permanent residents.  Apparently, this ‘foreign’ virus does not travel on Americans or Britons, or at least that was the thinking in Washington on Wednesday.  The ban has subsequently been extended to include travelers from the UK, but still exempts Americans and permanent residents.  Most amazing of all, this travel ban was announced without any consultation, or even a heads-up to Europe!

Despite such bumbling, most countries have been responding, and at least trying to put in place sensible measures in a timely manner.  But they don’t appear to have been working together as well as they might.  China was quick to provide data on the outbreak and details of the sequence of the virus, and some coordination among leading countries is starting to happen as containment actions are ratcheted up.

The coronavirus outbreak has all the hallmarks of a tipping point for human behavior and the structure of the global economy.  The push for social distancing in most affected countries will show us that working from home is a viable option for a majority of workers for non-urgent times as well.  There may be a jump in online shopping, but there may also be a move away from rampant consumerism as well.  I searched online today but could nowhere find information on the likely duration of the need to practice social distancing, but there is growing awareness that schools that close now may be closed into summer, and on Sunday evening the US CDC explicitly recommended social distancing in the USA for the next eight weeks.  That the virus has established itself in Australia, most South American, many African, and Southeast Asian countries suggests to me that it is unlikely to wither and die come the northern summer, much as I would like it to.  It’s not going to be over quickly and back to normal, whatever that is.

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This up-to-date map is provided by the European Center for Disease Control reports 151,363 confirmed cases and 5758 deaths between start of 2020 and 15th March.  Many infections reported are in people who have travelled from China, Iran, or now Italy, but most countries begin to show in-country infections once they have a few cases reported.

This is what a tipping point is like.  It creeps up to you without you being aware.  Then it rapidly reveals its significance.  And if you are lucky, you don’t stand transfixed like a deer in the headlights for too long.  In the case of Covid-19, we did not stand transfixed but mobilized quite quickly to deal with it.

Climate change is an on-going, and more serious crisis, in the long term – one likely to bring many tipping points of variable severity.  We have not responded to climate change with the urgency we should have, and the contrast with the response to Covid-19 is instructive. 

Our seeding of the atmosphere with excessive amounts of greenhouse gases leads directly to warming and the warming then leads to a widely ramifying array of impacts on our environment.  These environmental changes, in turn, lead to changes in the goods and services for which we depend on the environment, and to changes in the conditions governing human health.  This multilinked web of causes and effects is complex – far more complex than the idea of a deadly new virus multiplying rapidly in some human population far from home but linked to us by the miracle of long-distance travel.  The old idea that we are all 6 degrees or less separated from each other helps us understand that Wuhan, China is not in another universe, and we understand the concept of deadly disease.  We understand Covid-19 far more than we understand climate change.

Unlike climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic is fast-moving.  Public health agencies are racing to keep abreast of it, and sometimes, as recently in Italy, they fall behind with tragic consequences.  But its pace is also a good thing – we are built to recognize rapidly moving threats, far more ready to jump out of the way of the sabre-toothed cat than we are to move our cities out of the way of a rising sea.  Sea level rise, one of the climate change impacts on environment, has been going on for decades, and will continue for at least the next several centuries.  Southern Florida, large parts of Bangladesh, and many other places will be submerged as sea level rises meters.  Perhaps it will only rise a couple of meters (assuming we end our period of transfixion and get busy curtailing the warming); perhaps it will rise many meters, sometimes abruptly as glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica slip and slide their way into the ocean.  But either way, it will be slow, easily something we can keep abreast of.  We could start now to plan for the migration of coastal settlements and coastal cities over the next couple of centuries, but I think we probably won’t.  Instead, we will try a series of expensive band-aids, refusing to recognize the extent of the change we have already put in train, and we’ll waste a lot of money in the process.  We’ll be remaining transfixed, gazing at the headlights. 

This image shows Florida with 3 meters of sea level rise.  That’s the sort of rise we might see at the end of this century.  Image © Sarah Frostenson/Vox.

Sea level rise is one of the slower processes that climate change has initiated, but even the rapid changes and the warming itself are slow by human standards.  True to form, thoroughly transfixed, we have been sitting around discussing, arguing about, denying, and definitely not getting down to dealing with, the problems we are causing.  Climate change happens too slowly.

The environmental changes caused by a warming climate are much more rapid, for the most part, than sea level rise.  Some of them, like the rapid degradation of coral reefs, are both quite rapid and quite conspicuous.  But the collapse of coral reefs is still slow when measured against human timeframes, and we are proving very slow to recognize the consequences of reef degradation for us.  Many of the reef scientists get it; they are the ones with tears in their eyes when they speak about reefs.  Many others still think that somehow reefs will miraculously get through largely unscathed – how this will happen is seldom articulated, except by those pushing the latest way to build an artificial reef, or the latest way to mobilize support for an MPA.  And that’s the scientists, the people who should understand best. 

The enthusiasm for technological fixes is not limited to coral reefs (just think of the absurd schemes to remove plastics from the mid-Pacific), but there are ample examples from coral reefs.  This 2018 video from Vice spends its first half on super-expensive ways to get more precise data on how much coral has died around the world.  That does not fix the problem at all, it just documents the problem in exquisite detail.  (The second half talks about some technologically advanced science that might succeed in developing corals that might live in Anthropocene seas.)  Just think of the schemes that have hit the press over the past couple of years to protect, or to rebuild coral reefs: plastic sunshades to float on the ocean over a reef; cold water pumped from depth to keep reefs cool, using small solar-powered pumps; an endless assortment of different forms of scaffolding on which to suspend coral nubbins that will be then out-planted to replace coral that has bleached; coral planulae being distributed to dead coral reefs using underwater drones. 

The latter is a particularly ridiculous case of clever engineers modifying underwater ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) to carry live coral larvae to a reef.  First announced in 2018, by late 2019 they had progressed to the point that a set of CoralBot ROVs could work from a single LarvalBoat full of larvae.  Gentlemen, the problem is not in getting viable larvae to dead reefs, its in finding ways to prevent juvenile corals being killed by the next heat wave.  That will likely require some selective breeding of corals, as mentioned in the Vice video, and some concerted effort to reduce emissions and keep warming down closer to 2.0 or 1.5oC.  Go play your ROV games in someone else’s playground.

We have been very inventive.  But none of these plans scale up to real solutions for a world that has already lost 50% of its coral and is getting warmer every year, heading towards a +3.5 to +5.0oC increase by the end of this century.

What we should be doing, apart from speaking out loudly and repeatedly against global inaction on efforts to reduce emissions, is intensifying our efforts to understand the details of how coral reef ecosystems function, and to explore ways of retaining at least some of those functions even as coral reefs degrade.  A few of the world’s coral reef scientists are doing this.  They include ecologists and evolutionary biologists, molecular and cellular biologists, geneticists, and many others.  They focus on corals but also on fishes and crustacea and molluscs, and on all those other creatures, including algae, that make a reef possible.  See for example, the articles in this special issue of Functional Ecology.

Cover of Functional Ecology 33 (6), containing an eight-article, special topic on coral reef functional ecology in the Anthropocene.  Photo © Tane Sinclair-Taylor.

But these scientists are a tiny minority of the now very large reef science community.  I only hope they prosper and become the leaders that can bring about sensible adaptations that will help us preserve some of the functions, some of the goods and services, and some of the wonder that healthy coral reefs now provide.

If we can build a future world which has shallow-water ecosystems that largely replace the functions of the coral reefs of the 1950s, coral reef science will have done well.  And in doing well, it would have shown the rest of us how to help our world transition to a good Anthropocene.  This may now be the best we can aim for.  We have had forty years (since the 1982 bleachings) in which we have failed to grapple with the root problem of excess emissions, and we show little sign that we are starting to act aggressively on climate yet.  Perhaps, just perhaps, Covid-19 might help us to understand how to work as a global partnership to manage global crises.  This is learning we clearly need and learning that would help us deal with climate change.