Via Financial Times

The Covid-19 pandemic represents a tragedy for its victims and their families, and economic hardship for the rest of us. As I write these lines in Los Angeles, 10 weeks after the state of California imposed a lockdown, some shops are reopening and a semblance of normal life is beginning to return.

But the costs have been great: in my case, the past month has brought the deaths of five friends, two of them among my longest relationships. Against that background, it seems vile to say anything “positive” about Covid-19. Paradoxically, though, the pandemic might also bring hope and permanent benefits for the whole world — depending on how we react.

Microbes have often shaped human history. Thousands of years before the Black Death, a previous spread of plague may have contributed to the intrusion of Asian steppe peoples carrying Indo-European languages into Europe. Later, far more Native Americans — including the Aztec emperor Cuitláhuac and the Inca emperor Huayna Capac — died in bed from European germs than on the battlefield from European swords and guns.

Those epidemics of the past had far-reaching harmful consequences: military defeats, population crashes, abandonments of land under cultivation and slumps in trade. They also resulted in conquests and replacements of populations, when previously unexposed peoples contracted diseases from invaders with a long history of exposure.

At the time of writing, official counts are approaching 350,000 deaths globally from Covid-19; the true figure is likely to be higher. Steep death tolls are still to come in populous countries such as Brazil and Mexico, aided by policies of denial on the part of those countries’ presidents.

Yet Covid-19 doesn’t represent an existential threat to the survival of our species. Yes, the pandemic will be a serious blow to the world’s economy, but that will recover; it’s only a matter of time. Unlike many of the epidemics of the past, the virus isn’t threatening to cause military defeats, population replacements or crashes, or abandonments of land under cultivation.

People enjoying a sunset view from Krakus Mound in Krakow-Podgorze. Since the 20th of April, the ban on moving, traveling and staying in public places has been lifted with public parks, forests and beaches reopening. Covering mouth and nose in public still remains compulsory. But the number infected by the virus continues to grow and the Health Ministry reported today 342 new cases and 28 deaths, rising the total count to 10,511 people infected, 454 deaths and 1,740 recovered. On Thursday, April 23, 2020, in Krakow, Poland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A new era? The pandemic offers the world a rare opportunity for an unprecedented level of co-operation © NurPhoto via Getty Images

There are other dangers, present right now, that do constitute existential threats capable of wiping out our species, or permanently damaging our economy and standard of living. But they are less convincing at motivating us than is Covid-19, because (with one exception) they don’t kill us visibly and quickly.

Strange as it may seem, the successful resolution of the pandemic crisis may motivate us to deal with those bigger issues that we have until now balked at confronting. If the pandemic does at last prepare us to deal with those existential threats, there may be a silver lining to the virus’s black cloud. Among the virus’s consequences, it could prove to be the biggest, the most lasting — and our great cause for hope.


What, really, are our existential threats? There are four that I consider to be the most serious.

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They start with the threat that could kill the most people in the shortest time: the detonation of large numbers of nuclear weapons, whether launched as a pre-emptive strike (for example, between India and Pakistan), as the unintended consequence of escalating responses (say, between North Korea and the US), as the response to misread early-warning signals (as nearly happened repeatedly during the cold war) or as an intentional action by terrorists.

The nuclear threat may or may not materialise, but the other three threats already have — and are getting worse. They have the potential to cripple permanently our standard of living, though they would leave many of us still alive. Those threats are: climate change; unsustainable use of essential resources (especially forests, seafood, topsoil and fresh water); and the consequences of the enormous differences in standard of living between the world’s peoples, destabilising our globalised existence.

This is the context in which the virus could actually bring us a benefit. As a motivator, Covid-19 is different from, and more potent than, those existential problems. Covid’s symptoms are palpable; they are indubitably due to the virus; Covid’s consequence of death poses no problems of definition or measurement; and that consequence follows swiftly. None of this is true of climate change, though it will do far more lasting damage to us.

On Tuesday, October 8, activists with Extinction Rebellion New York City coordinated a series of traffic blockades in Manhattan to call attention to the impending climate crisis. This action comes as Global Extinction Rebellion protests have erupted worldwide using nonviolent direct action and peaceful civil disobedience to disrupt business-as-usual to urge governments to act to save the climate. (Photo by Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
An Extinction Rebellion demonstration in New York last year © NurPhoto via Getty Images

But whether that motivational benefit of Covid-19 actually does emerge will depend on how the world responds to this truly global crisis. We can draw guidance from how nations respond to national crises. In my recent book Upheaval, I established a dozen outcome predictors that have made it more or less likely that a nation would respond successfully to a national crisis: among them were acknowledgment rather than denial of a crisis’s reality; acceptance of responsibility to take action; and honest self-appraisal.

For example, the outstanding success of 19th-century Japan in modernising began with the crisis provoked by the uninvited visit of Commodore Perry’s warships in 1853. Japan acknowledged its weakness; it took action by adopting a crash programme of selective changes; and it honestly appraised its military strength at every step of a cautious military expansion.

Among other national outcome predictors, I judge as crucial the presence or absence of a shared national identity, which can help a nation’s people to recognise their shared self-interest and to unite in overcoming a crisis. National identities variously depend on different things for different nations, such as a shared language and culture, pride in a shared historical legacy and shared environment, or a shared common enemy.

That last factor has proved particularly potent in times of crisis. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor galvanised Americans literally overnight. It instantly created a shared determination to accept sacrifice, for however long it would take. For Finns, the galvanising experience was the Winter War of 1939-40, when they preserved their independence (albeit at the cost of enormous losses) by fighting to a standstill the invading armies of the Soviet Union, whose population was 40 times Finland’s. For Indonesians, fragmented among hundreds of islands, 726 languages and four major religions, unity coalesced around their shared independence struggle against the Dutch, and then around one shared national language.

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For all three countries — the US, Finland and Indonesia — purposeful action followed an external threat. But global problems have never generated a comparable sense of urgency. Until the unprecedented danger posed by Covid-19, there has never been a struggle that united all peoples of the world against a widely acknowledged common enemy.

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Arundhati Roy in April wrote about how coronavirus threatens India — and what the country, and the world, should do next

For millennia, epidemics have tested friendships, faith and society, writes Simon Schama. But, amid the horror there is hope

As a result, we have been hamstrung in our responses, especially to climate change. All four of those dangers threaten every one of the world’s peoples. Yet nations have been dealing with them, or have been avoiding dealing with them, one by one. Even before President Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris agreement on climate change, that deal fell far short of an effective solution to the problem. Nations haven’t joined in acknowledging that climate change will ruin every nation, that every nation is contributing to causing it (some nations more than other nations), that all nations must do their share in the struggle, and that the failure of even just one nation to do its share will harm all other nations.

The one-by-one approach is as impotent for solving the danger posed by Covid-19 as it is for solving the problem of climate change. Even if all countries save one should succeed in quelling their own virus outbreaks, that remaining country sustaining Covid-19 will serve as a permanent focus to reinfect the rest of the world. Covid-19 is at last providing us world citizens with a shared enemy, an unequivocal quick killer, a threat to the inhabitants of every nation.


There are precedents for our finding world solutions to world problems. The 1973 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (Marpol) led to regulation that reduced pollution of the world’s oceans by separating oil tanks from water tanks on ocean-going ships, and by mandating double-hulled tankers for all transport of oil by sea.

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In 1980, the World Health Organization completed the worldwide eradication of smallpox, among the most devastating diseases in human history. The stratosphere’s ozone layer became protected by the Montreal Protocol of 1987, restricting worldwide the production and use of chlorofluorocarbons and other gases. The 1994 Law of the Sea Convention at last delineated exclusive national and shared international economic zones around the world.

All of those efforts resolved very difficult problems by means of high-level international agreements, even without a sense of world identity on the part of the public at large.

Thus, a best-case outcome of our current crisis would be for it to create, at last, a widespread sense of world identity: to make all peoples recognise that we now face the common enemy of global problems that can be solved only by a united global effort.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA MAY 17, 2020: A rainbow over the Novomoskovsky multipurpose medical center for patients with suspected coronavirus infection. Vyacheslav Prokofyev/TASS (Photo by Vyacheslav ProkofyevTASS via Getty Images)
A rainbow appears over the Novomoskovsky medical centre, south of Moscow, for patients with suspected coronavirus infection © TASS

Covid-19 would then illustrate, at the world level, another outcome predictor of success in national crises and individual crises: the memory of a previous crisis that was overcome, creating confidence that a new crisis can also be overcome. When I first visited Finland in 1959, 19 years after the end of the Winter War, there was still a widespread consensus among Finns.

Nothing could have been more difficult, for Finland with its population then under 4m, than fighting off the enormous Soviet Union; but Finns nevertheless succeeded then, and so they expected to be able to overcome any new problem that Finland faces today.

Similarly, if the world joins to solve the current visible Covid-19 crisis against heavy odds, our current pandemic might thus represent the beginning, not of a dismal era of chronic worldwide danger, but of a bright era of worldwide co-operation. Hopeful signs already are the rapid recent development of co-operation among scientists studying the virus all around the world, and the shipments of supplies from China and Russia to the US to combat the American epidemic.

That’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario would be if we instead continued our doomed attempts to solve the virus problem one country at a time, or even one American state at a time.

In that case, we’d also entrench our doomed attempts to solve other global problems one country at a time.

Which of these two opposite scenarios will the world choose? We’ll know the answer to that question by the end of this year.

Jared Diamond is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ‘Guns Germs and Steel’, ‘Upheaval’, and ‘Collapse’

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