PublicationMiscellaneous This Should Have Been Problem, Not a Pandemic

June 12, 2020
Publication Type:

This Should Have Been a Prob­lem, Not a Pandemic

By Daniel M. Kammen

AS OF THIS WRITING (EARLY APRIL 2020), more than 1 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide are sick with COVID-​​19, 20 per­cent of them in the United States. After claim­ing that COVID-​​19 was noth­ing more than the flu, the U.S. pres­i­dent has been forced to retreat and admit that 200,000 deaths would be a sort of vic­tory rel­a­tive to fore­casts of 2 mil­lion dead. His pres­i­dency has turned away from sci­ence in search of prof­its for the already wealthy and cares so lit­tle about its cit­i­zens that basic health care is a lux­ury good. We have seen the worst eco­nomic quar­ter in the his­tory of the U.S. stock mar­ket, and unem­ploy­ment is approach­ing 15% nation­wide, with pro­jec­tions of 50% in some of the hard­est hit, and most fossil-​​fuel depen­dent, states. Every­thing COVID is of exces­sive, his­toric proportions.

Daniel M. Kam­men is the Class of 1935 Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Energy with appoint­ments in the Energy and Resources Group, the Gold­man School of Pub­lic Pol­icy, and the Depart­ment of Nuclear Engi­neer­ing. He is also the found­ing direc­tor of the Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Energy Lab­o­ra­tory (RAEL), co-​​director of the Berke­ley Insti­tute of the Envi­ron­ment, and direc­tor of the Trans­porta­tion Sus­tain­abil­ity Research Center.

And yet, COVID-​​19 is a sim­ple, nat­ural virus. True, it is potent and chal­leng­ing, but it is not unique, and there will be other crises on a crowded, over-​​consuming planet where we have put every ecosys­tem and species in peril, includ­ing our own.

There is, how­ever, noth­ing nat­ural about the cri­sis we now face. It has been engi­neered by humans. The tragedy we face is, in fact, one of greed and indifference.

To turn a virus into a social and eco­nomic upheaval takes work. We needed to actively ignore and dis­count most of the best lessons of the past cen­tury. We have elected a gov­ern­ment that deval­ued, ignored, and dis­re­spected sci­ence, despite a cen­tury of med­ical advances that have enabled healthy, long, lives. We have under-​​invested in research and edu­ca­tion, despite award­ing the 1987 Nobel Prize in Eco­nom­ics for work that indi­cates that 80 per­cent of eco­nomic growth, or more, derives from sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion. We have uplifted opin­ions on social media based on how caus­tic and cruel they are, not how much they are based in fact. We installed a gov­ern­ment that has looked to divide, not to unite, has fought against healthy air and water, and encour­ages wages to be as low and demean­ing as pos­si­ble to enrich the already affluent.

COVID-​​19 would not have spread as fast and as vir­u­lently if the lessons of SARS, MERS, and Ebola were acted upon in the United States. It would be a prob­lem, not a pan­demic, if health­care were avail­able to the peo­ple who cook, clean, shop, and care for the more afflu­ent. And more impor­tantly, destruc­tion of bio­di­ver­sity and nat­ural areas means that coronavirus-​​type episodes are likely to become more common.

So, while COVID-​​19 is rightly dom­i­nat­ing the head­lines, the true crime is of sidelin­ing sci­ence, abus­ing the planet by valu­ing prof­its over basic health and edu­ca­tional ser­vices, liv­ing wages, and social oppor­tu­nity for the most vulnerable.


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