As we look out our windows from our isolation units we see the seasons changing and the rhythms of nature continuing, while in our hearts there is anxiety and amazement at the way our lives have changed in four short weeks. Thinking ahead more than a few days has become difficult, and our plans and hopes for the coming summer seem now to be just a mirage. The tragic numbers on our television screens every evening adds to our foreboding and we ration our consumption of news just as we ration our food supplies, and curtail our contacts with the outside world except through the magic of our phones and computers.

Although the current outbreak has caught the world by surprise, emerging viruses have been a feature of the recent past. The SARS epidemic of 2002-3, MERS in 2012 have been recent examples, though less damaging in terms of fatalities than the present one. The overwhelming majority of such emergent diseases result from a crossover from animals to people, and signs are that this has increased in frequency in recent years. To some extent as we remove natural habitats to make space for our growing food and settlement needs, and as we stress the remaining ones by climate change, the interaction and risks of such transmissions grow. Of course, the unhygienic killing of some species of host-rich wildlife for food, such as bats and pangolins, as happened in Wuhan, creates ideal conditions for rapid spread and tragic consequences around our globalised world as we have seen.

But as politicians are prone to saying: “We are where we are” and we need to look beyond the short term consequences of illness, deaths, and economies in free fall. The present situation will come to an end, be it in a few months or longer. Where do we want to be positioned as a country in the recovery phase? What lessons have we learned?

Firstly, we have learned that globalisation has a price ticket attached to it. We are not in any way immune to events anywhere in a world that Pope Francis has referred to in Laudato Si’ as “Our Common Home”. This has not yet dawned on many people, for example with respect to climate change where we think Ireland will transition easily while other parts of the world will be acutely distressed. It is worth pointing out the World Health Organisation (2018), who we listen to eagerly at the moment, project that 250,000 additional people will die annually from the direct and indirect effects of climate change during the period 2030-50 if we continue on our present trajectory. Although estimates vary considerably, Covid-19 may have fatalities in this range - but it will be for approximately one year only, not recurring every year for two decades.

Secondly, the importance of acting together has been clearly demonstrated. As a ‘nimble’ small country Ireland has pulled together in an exemplary fashion, together with our European partners, acting on the best advice available. Now is not the time to become insular or to succumb to self-interest or vested interests that will isolate us from potential supports we may need in the future. The speed at which events have occurred has been remarkable. But also the willingness to make hard choices has been a feature of our political system in recent weeks. So quick has the change in attitudes been that vested-interest based opposition has not had time to mobilise. Yes, we saw belated lobbying from some groups seeking to evade the restrictions, and others are keen to resume business as usual even amid the pandemic. But unlike, for example, climate change, where decades of lobbying and resistance from vested interests have stalled progress, the capability of our political leaders to lead has been remarkable. The voice of scientists have been on our televisions nightly with politicians standing shoulder to shoulder with them in a way we haven’t seen before. This must continue in facing the environmental and other challenges ahead, not least in the area of climate change action.

Thirdly, we must learn lessons from the past. The rush to resume business as usual when the present crisis is over will be overwhelming. But it must not be at the expense of hard earned progress in protecting our environment. There will be calls for deregulation, for short circuiting public participation and for limiting measures aimed at environmental protection. Already we have seen an attack commence on the EU’s flagship policy the Green Deal. The Czech Prime Minister has called for it to be dropped, while Poland wants to scrap the Emissions Trading Scheme. We will probably see the chemical industry seek a relaxation in biocide rules and pesticide reduction targets and even a call for single-use plastic to be boosted on the grounds of virus concerns for recycled items. Since State Aid rules are now waived, the option for countries to support whatever domestic industry they wish threatens that large subsidies will be offered to polluting industries to resume service as before.

When the last economic crash happened in 2008-9 the US auto industry collapsed. Before giving a bail-out of $80B President Obama imposed conditions regarding fuel efficiency which resulted in considerable improvements in auto technology around the world. We now need to apply this logic when aviation and marine interests come knocking on the taxpayers’ door. Both industries have not signed up to the Paris Agreement on climate change and have not reduced their emissions over the past decade. The days of a €10 flight and of frequent flyer bonuses must end and serious research expanded regarding electrification of short distance flights and solar/wind powered shipping. Here in Ireland a selective pause on some aspects of our planning system has occurred, but not all. Attempts to stifle public access to justice which reared their heads before the crisis are likely to re-emerge disguised as ‘in the national interest’. Away from the towns and cities, the folly of headlong expansion of milk production becomes more obvious as we are left with excess supplies of milk and calves that must be disposed of. Vigilance is difficult if society is housebound, and the collegial supervision by our farming community is vital to ensure that damaging short cuts are not undertaken to undo their environmental stewardship over recent years.

The narrative has changed. Neoliberalism died at the beginning of March 2020. People will not wish to go back to the past. A new role for civil society is now more than ever required to ensure this. Your material and vociferous support for voluntary charities such as An Taisce is now more important than ever.

by Prof John Sweeney, An Taisce Trustee

Reference: World Health Organisation (2018) Climate Change and Health Factsheet. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/climate-change-and-health (accessed 11th April 2020)