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During times of disaster, the human spirit prevails

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Volunteers assisting commuters at a South Chinese train staion (image via YouTube).

The coronavirus crisis has the ability to bring the best out of us, writes Greenpeace Australia CEO David Ritter.

THE ARRIVAL OF COVID-19 so soon after the fire and smoke of the last spring and summer is a shock-upon-shock.

The bushfires affected almost 80 per cent of Australians and now the COVID-19 virus will impact us all, one way or another. Those of us who are able to do so are making rapid adjustments to the rhythm of our lives.

Now is a time to think at the systems level, of how we become a nation premised on giving primacy to care for human beings and for the natural world on which we all depend. 

Truth matters. Science matters. Great public institutions matter. Not as abstract ideas, but because they go to creating the conditions of security for all those whom we love and for the good society that we strive to build.

So much that is the best of humanity comes out in moments of crisis: a phenomenon that we saw in the fires, and which we are seeing again in the face of the pandemic. As Albert Camus wrote, in a time of plague, we learn that there are far more things to admire in people than to despise.  And we are seeing the truth of Camus’ words playing out across the world now in millions of acts of love, decency, professionalism and kindness.

Yes, there’ve been a few incidents of people squabbling about toilet paper, but these really have been few and far between, amidst the great outpouring of care that is occurring at every level of our community and society, as we are reminded of what is truly important, and of our connectedness to each other and to all things.

All over Australia and the world, health workers and carers of all kinds have responded with ethics of care, service and professionalism. At an individual level, our acts of self-isolation are expressions of responsibility to the stranger; of a determination to be the dissident match whose act of conscience breaks the march of fire. Solitude is the new solidarity.

So many of the lessons that were meted out under the fire and smoke of spring and summer are now being reinforced by the impact of COVID-19.

We need media that is properly resourced, independent and accurate; we need politicians telling the truth and acting in the public interest; we need independent scientists and experts to whom decision-makers listen and accord respect; we need public health, social security and other institutions to give us the capacity to cope and respond to the need, as a decent society.

Our lives depend on these things.

Fires and pandemics are universal events that can serve to remind us of our common humanity. We grieve for those who are ill, for those who have died and for all who are harmed, knowing too that – but for the grace of god or chance, depending on your inclination – could go any of us. 

But the work must continue because the climate emergency hasn’t gone away. We still need to replace coal, oil and gas with clean energy as fast as possible. And it is worth remembering that while COVID-19 was not caused by global warming, the propensity to deadly disease outbreaks will worsen as part of the climate emergency.

In the tragedy of the COVID-19 lies a global opportunity for the prevention of much greater harm. Economic stimulus is essential, to prevent the world from spiralling into the kind of downturn that will harm hundreds of millions of people.

And that package, if appropriately targeted, could launch us down the path to securing a cleaner, fairer society – both curing the ills of today and reducing the problems of tomorrow. It is the same argument as Lord Nicholas Stern and others made last decade during the global financial crisis (GFC) – but is even more urgent now, given the acceleration of the climate emergency.

He said:

"With billions about to be spent by governments on energy, buildings and transport, it is vital that these public investments do not lock us for many more decades into a costly and unsustainable high-carbon economy."

Any stimulus package must meet three essential tests:

  • Will it be economically effective?
  • Will it accelerate the transition to clean energy and sustainability?
  • And will it lead to a fairer society?

As we bring all our cleverness and humanity to face down the common enemy of a microscopic virus, let’s imagine what would be possible if we did the same with climate change.

If we just did all that we already know how to do, we could keep global warming to under 1.5 degrees and then draw down further, putting life on earth back on the path to wise stewardship and future flourishing.

Nobody really knows how or when this thing will end. Our times are dangerous and uncertain and there are many more shocks to come as the impacts of the climate emergency are felt. So let’s feed our common spirit of generosity in the face of crisis, and remember that human beings – when we work together – can achieve practically anything.

Let’s look after each other and redouble our energy and our determination, to not only stand together through fear, but to build the world of the future, capable of nurturing life in all of its magnificent diversity.

David Ritter is an Independent Australia columnist and CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, adjunct professor at Sydney University and an honorary fellow of the Law Faculty at the University of Western AustraliaYou can follow David on Twitter @David_Ritter.

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