There are important lessons to be learned from how the world mobilized to contain the novel coronavirus.
SANTIAGO — A century ago, humanity was recovering from another pandemic, the worst the world had known, at least judging by the fatality figures. Some 50 to 100 million people — or 10-20% of the world's population died — died from the misnamed Spanish flu, which began near the end of World War I and originated, in all likelihood, in the United States.
Fearing generalized panic among the population, most states favored hiding information on the flu. We should recall that there were no antibiotics until the early 1940s, so treatment options were limited a range of unfounded suppositions and various "miracle" remedies. These included medicinal waters, tonics, extra aspirin or quinine-based mixes. Some doctors even recommended smoking, as tobacco smoke was supposed to kill the germs.
We know today that the illness was exacerbated by a cytokine storm. The main disseminating agents were the war, which moved soldiers around the world, along with with a generalized increase in mobility worldwide. Spain was the first country to responsibly inform its citizens of the epidemic, which merely earned it disrepute as the flu's starting point. It took a decade to identify the pandemic's viral origin.
We might have been better prepared had we heeded history, or listened to the scientists.
After three contagious waves, the illness did eventually subside, thanks to hygiene measures and distancing. The measures made possible a sufficient level of herd immunity that ensured we could live with the virus until a vaccine was developed. For many historians of course, the pandemic and its following recession were the prelude to the Great Depression of the 1930s, which a little later led to World War II.
This may seem familiar in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. We might have been better prepared had we heeded history, or listened to the scientists who have been warning for decades that a globalized world is vulnerable to any new pathogen that is potentially deadly and swiftly contagious. We underestimated the threat and remained complacent, thinking it had yet to come or would affect others, not us.
A view of Lake Penualas, affected by drought in the region of Valparaiso, Chile. — Photo: Cristian Bueno/DPA/ZUMA
But at the same time, it's fair to say that we have duly learned about the essential role of science in managing crises. Today, most authorities aren't putting their stake in miracle cures. They're relying, rather, on science, information analysis and crisis-management techniques. We have also learned the central role played by responsible communications and the need for leaders to urge hygiene measures — like the use of face masks (which they too must wear) — and to refrain from promoting invalid or unproven pharmaceutical products.
It's also the case now that anyone with an internet connection can on a daily basis monitor the pandemic's advance in regions. We may thus verify which measures were taken, and how individual or collective conduct is contributing to resolving or aggravating the crisis. There is some way to go certainly, but the world has made progress in reacting to a pandemic.
And yet, with regards to another existential problem — climate change — we do seem to be following the pattern of 100 years ago. We are underestimating the risk with the same cavalier attitude we adopted toward that earlier pandemic. Science warns us that we are facing a crisis so big that it requires urgent and radical cuts in emissions, which means cutting dependence on fossil fuels and changing farming so that it will restore, not degrade nature.
The effects of climate change have already become our "new normal."
Nevertheless, there are still leaders who negate the scientific evidence and the repeated warnings issued since the first IPCC report was published in 1990. We prefer to delay the decision, inventing miraculous solutions that merely exponentially increase our vulnerability to global warming.
In the meantime, the effects of climate change — including the drought that has impacted Chile for almost a decade — have already become our "new normal." It's real, in other words, which is why we need to stop behaving as the world did with the Spanish flu and recognize instead that we're facing a veritable climate emergency.
Unlike in 1918, we do have the technology, information and scientific evidence to face this emergency. We're also learning lessons from this new pandemic, so let's heed them and act — right now!
Just as we've called on doctors to spring into action, on states to provide ventilators and other necessary equipment and on everyone else to help by wearing face masks, we need to ask people and governments right now to do the environmental equivalent: to use energy efficiently and invest massively in energy alternatives. It's time, in other words, to flatten the global warming curve.
*Muñoz is a Chilean businessman and UN-designated High Level Champion of private-sector climate activism. The article was written in collaboration with Ramiro Fernández, head of climate change at AVINA.