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COVID-19 has reminded us to trust and prioritise science

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It remains to be seen whether Scott Morrison's Coalition Government will embrace the science on COVID-19 and the environment (image via YouTube).

The coronavirus pandemic should lead us to consider the importance of science and the environment, writes Dr Graeme McLeay.

EVEN FOR an optimist, it is hard to find a silver lining in the dark clouds of COVID-19, but perhaps there will be a shift in the way science is regarded by the political classes. Are our leaders in the face of a pandemic demonstrating that they are prepared to listen to scientists? Maybe. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has shifted from the bravado of going to a football match (later cancelled) to heeding the advice of medical advisors. Many mistakes have been made, conflicting messages have gone out and the response was slower than it should have been. Passengers from a cruise ship were allowed to wander Sydney harbour without undergoing checks and passengers from an international flight were confined in close contact while clearing customs with Border Force looking on.

The vulnerability of our health system to major disruption is being tested. Without control, doctors may soon be asking themselves who is to be saved and who is to be let go, as in Italy and Spain. Doctors themselves are at significant risk. 

The stark reality is that only science and the application of scientific principles can ameliorate the pandemic which is still in its early phase. Gone is the primacy of the economy and the surplus: it has been replaced by the need to first save live and then to prevent total societal breakdown. 

Perhaps now we can hope for a more general recognition that all government policy must be backed by the best available scientific and medical knowledge and be implemented for the common good. These principles have become almost quaint since the rise of neoliberalism and the worship of free markets, as though the market cares about the common good. 

As a result, we have seen our scientific institutions lose funding, some of our universities become arms of industry, and our primary and secondary school international rankings in STEM subjects go down. Scientific literacy in the general public has suffered; how else to explain the crowds in pubs and bars and on Bondi Beach acting as if nothing is wrong?

The situation in the United States is, if anything, even worse. U.S. President Donald Trump made it to the White House and could be there for another four years. He has already done tremendous damage to the country, weakening environmental protections, undermining scientific institutions, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, and, dangerously, increasing military spending. His attempted rollback of Obama-era rules on fossil fuel pollution, his opening up of public lands to oil and gas exploration, and his fight against regulation of transport pollution will cost many American lives and further endanger the planet. 

Now, to add to these harms, he is causing confusion about the coronavirus and delaying action to deal with it, a situation one commentator described as “Italy on steroids”.  

Trump is the antithesis of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) who led the U.S. out of the Great Depression and during a World War, who defended the nation against vested interests and who worked tirelessly for the common good. Sadly, today FDR would be derided in the U.S. as a "socialist", if not a "communist". 

While leaders like FDR and Winston Churchill are thin on the ground, we still might hope that the catastrophe of the coronavirus in 2020 will realign economics and politics.  

Epidemics and pandemics have always occurred and will do so again, but science is our best hope of containing their spread and saving lives. The coronavirus is a wake-up call that we ignore nature and the biosphere at our peril. Scientists have warned since the seventies and earlier that the planet’s boundaries have not only been reached but breached. 

It is simply not possible to continue to disrespect natural fauna, to decimate natural habitat, continue burning fossil fuels, reducing forests and wilderness, growing the population, and heating the atmosphere and oceans. The consequences have now arrived, starkly for Australia in the recent bushfires.  

Many have lost trust in government and are disengaged from politics. Little wonder when the nightly stock market report is given more importance than what is happening to our rivers, oceans and wildlife; when gross domestic product (GDP) and "growth" are the measures of our worth as a nation and a people. It is time the economy served the people and not the other way around. 

When the coronavirus has passed, as it must eventually, there is an opportunity to rebuild this wonderful country in a new way.  

We can end the climate wars for a start, by taking the politics out of policy decisions, guided instead by a scientifically-backed Environment and Sustainability Commission. 

The result could be climate legislation which achieves real emission reductions, and environmental laws which protect our unique ecosystems. No more lumps of coal in Parliament. No more silly statements about the Government "taking your utes away. For the moment Zali Stegall’s pro-environment Bill is in abeyance but when she introduces it later, it could ignite a new movement in Parliament. Kick the self-serving corporate lobbyists out of Canberra, they do not serve the common good. Lead the international effort to control global heating, rather than undermining it. A Green New Deal is possible in Australia. 

As Ross Garnaut has suggested, we could be the renewable energy powerhouse of Asia: dare we dream it?  

Give science a chance and grasp the nettle, Mr Morrison. 

Dr Graeme McLeay is a retired anaesthetist and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

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