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Covid-19: Let's make this the microbe that saved the world.

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

As the impact of the pandemic deepens worldwide, Sydney-based architect and urbanist Don Albert considers the impacts of lockdown and ultimately what this might mean for urbanism and climate change.

It is only every so often that events such as Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the attack of 9/11, or the collapse of Lehman Brothers lance the festering boil of public-versus-private ideology and present all the world’s nations with stark choices. Do we jump to the left, or step to the right?

In either case, the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 became just such a watershed moment when US President Donald Trump called a press conference on the 26th of February to downplay the impact of the then still ‘novel’ coronavirus saying the United States was the “number one most prepared country in the world” to deal with the impending pandemic. Wall Street, knowing better, smelt a rat. The Dow lost over 1,100 points and so began a week by week decline into what we all now know will likely to greatly eclipse the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-2009.

With months of social isolation ahead we are nowhere near turning the corner…

That the United States lost six crucial weeks in combatting the virus is another major indictment on Trump’s proven ‘anti-science’ leadership, having already kneecapped a department in the White House that had steered Obama’s administration through the Ebola crisis. But of course the US is not alone. In the UK Boris Johnson reversed an initial ‘herd immunity’ approach, and the mishandling of cruise ship Ruby Princess’s arrival in Sydney ~ amounting to 10% of Australia’s cases of the disease ~ is equally disastrous, yet it is a mere hiccup in comparison to the preventable calamity that Trump’s administration has on its hands.

Indeed Australia’s prognosis seems far less damned due to its relatively swift response to the pandemic, both in terms of lockdown and its emergency $17.6 billion fiscal stimulus through new and improved social and business grants.

With around $16 trillion dollars of private equity lost worldwide in less than a month, governments have scrambled to inject cash into their economies, but unlike the Wall Street bailouts of 2009, this time with millions becoming unemployed overnight, it’s for the person on the street.

Suddenly everyone is a socialist

The United States has passed the CARES Act which will pump $2 trillion into taxpayers pockets through one-off payments of a mere $1200 - unlike the ongoing grants as in the case of Australia and New Zealand - and a host of other market related tinkering in the vein of trickle down economics, the results of which are questionable at best and firmly debunked here.

Of these unprecedented fiscal interventions, sociologist Keith Khan-Harris poses the question,

“A successful response from a right-wing government to the coronavirus would raise the question, if you can act that way against coronavirus, why can’t you act that way all the time?”

This has a profound implication for the other most pressing existential challenge now relegated to the back-burner: climate change.

In addition to fiscal measures, since early March, war-like states of emergency for Covid-19 have precipitated 2-3 week total lockdowns for over one third of the world’s population, with the most stringent now occurring in South Africa, India, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Germany and Australia where police and military are patrolling, issuing spot fines and in more than one case, arresting defiant surfers.

On the 30th of March 2020 Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a flattening of the curve is now apparent for Australia which means that Australians can exhale for the time being, while still observing an arcane set of social distancing rules that, like the shambolic federal bush-fire response, is a function of Australia’s perennial commonwealth-versus-states power dynamic. Conversely, some observers have cheered that some individual states were legally able to ignore the prime minister’s recommendations in favour of their own more stringent lockdown terms.

Welcome back big brother

It seems like a lifetime ago that many of us had taken to the streets alongside striking school children to urge our governments into action on climate change. Isn’t it remarkable that we are now confined to our rooms to do a bit of digital striking, and brushing up on our cooking and thrifty home keeping skills, which may indeed be essential for much longer than the lockdown.

In addition to mandatory social distancing decrees, some governments around the world have taken to mobile phone surveillance to keep tabs on people’s movements during the crisis under the guise of ‘its for your own good’. Finally the idea of a common good has arrived with bells on. Unfortunately they are alarm bells.

“We are all in this together” has become an hourly refrain on television as leaders around the world unveil escalating crisis response measures that curtail civil liberty in the interest of the group. Where was this level of ‘care’ during the simpler times of Greta Thunberg’s transatlantic crusade to the United Nations in New York City, or the marches on the Australian government’s handling of the bushfires?

What is it about this little microbe that is seen as more of an existential threat than climate change; the statistics, damage, implications and costs of remedy of which are far greater?

The answer is short-term political gains for those in power, and what a tragic irony it is for the rash of neoliberal governments in the west to have to dust off the big government how-to manuals.

Of course Covid-19 is an indiscriminate, stealthy, and swift killer that we have not yet got our heads around and the lockdown responses are entirely necessary, however as some environmentalists note, in just three months, this microscopic virus has done more for the rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions than three decades of much thwarted climate change activism and carbon footprint calorie counting.

As many are arguing, the worldwide work-from-home response to covid-19 has cut emissions in the order of 25% and presents an opportunity to rethink what face-to-face work is ‘essential’ and what is not, and restructure accordingly. The impact of lockdown on transportation alone is telling, and if economies can survive in the new mode, planners will need to seriously reconsider the CBD-centric mode of corporate operation when considering climate change.

Even if they don’t, corporations will soon make determinations on not only what real estate is essential, but also which of their staff are too. Like the bankers who had to reinvent themselves as baristas, brewers and sharing economy gurus post-GFC, Covid-19 is going to create new modes of survival out of necessity and revised values.

Travel and hospitality have been the hardest hit sectors in the Covid-19 Pandemic. Credit: Victor He via Unsplash

Tourism and hospitality, the hardest hit sector will bounce back as it requires a relatively small outlay if infrastructure is already in place, however chickens and veggies in the garden, home-made clothes and less international holidays will remain the new normal for millions for long after the travel restrictions are lifted.

Its tempting to imagine that hard-hit cities like New York, where people are fleeing, will see rents tumbling will eventually see an influx of ‘normal’ people gain, at much lower price-points encouraging the kind of arty city New York used to be. The same applies for many of the world’s larger cities where the 1% can escape and others will be evicted to the fringes ~ they might end up enjoying their newfound new rural conditions enough to stay and energise those small towns.

The jury is out

On 20 March Foreign Policy asked 12 leading global thinkers for their predictions about how the world will look post-covid-19. The responses were wide ranging including: “a dramatic new stage in global capitalism”, “democracies will come out of their shell”, “a world less open, democratic and free”, “more China-centric globalization” and “more failed states”.

Of course, it’s very early days, but no matter how you look at it, the western-centric globalist jamboree is over, and this could present a major challenge to international cooperation on climate change.

Indeed, the socio-economic contagion of the pandemic, in a way born-of and exacerbated by globalisation, is yet to play out, but it’s clear to most that the damper is closing fast on globalism and the kind of political cooperation towards tackling climate change even more so. Cop 26 has been postponed, and who knows which countries will be in a position to make meaningful commitments by the new date of October 2021?

Going further, as Keith Khan-Harris suspects, the coronavirus pandemic presents an existential threat to right leaning governments but they may well spin the crisis to their own ends.

A return to science, and social-science

One thing that is certain however, is that compared with the rejection of expert advice that was so prevalent in the shock elections of Donald Trump and Brexit, there is now a reversal where expertise, especially scientific, economic and medical, is being consulted.

As Ian Jacobs, president and vice-chancellor of UNSW Sydney, and Matthew England, Scientia professor of the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre stated,

“The pandemic has united policymakers and the global scientific sector in a way not seen before. It proves that the same can be done for climate change. UNSW surveys of community attitudes across Australia conducted before Covid-19 showed that people saw climate change as the biggest ongoing issue facing the world. And most agree that a global alliance of universities can help overcome policy gridlock and better unite decision-makers.”

For spatial professionals, the climate emergency and the impending economic restructuring post-Covid-19 present the biggest opportunity for spatial theory since the advent of CIAM after the first world war, an important impetus of which was the public health concerns that arose from overcrowding cities during the industrial revolution.

Le Corbusier’s model of the Voisin Proposal 1925 - Credit: SiefkinDR Creative Commons 4.0

Modernism’s functional zoning and eradication of vital streets in favour of separated modes of transport and land-use was widely rejected in the 1970s and 1980s yet it remains the staple for so-called planning as long as it is peppered with a bit of mixed-use here and there.

This model, with its reliance on consumerist notions of ‘progress’, entwined as it is with the banal ‘work to pay off the mortgage and then retire somewhere else’ faustian deal, is going to be severely challenged post Covid-19. A new wave of entrepreneurship and locally attuned small business is inevitable.

Implicit in the de-globalisation and restructuring that is most likely post Covid-19, is a return to more localised means of food production, more localised industrial production, remote schooling, new ruralism and the decline of“just in time” delivery models.

The 20th Century economic quick-fix of digging things out of the ground, transporting them to the other end of the earth, burning them and bashing them into shape and then shipping them back again needs to be relegated to the trash heap, not recycled!

Netflix series Schitts Creek has showcased the virtues of small town living on location in Goodwood, Ontario

The relevance and urgency for green new deals, in every possible country, is crystal clear when we consider countries like Indonesia, India and the United States are woefully unprepared for the pandemic in terms of health care, and just how in a post-Covid-19 world of rebuilding devastated communities, many of the same concerns overlap with a more eco-social approach to stemming climate change.

Inner city Cape Town residents sing the national anthem during South Africa's lockdown.

Source: Greg Truen.

The time is now

As professionals, academics and laypersons alike, we want to feel that our choices are the right choices, and that we have agency, yet oftentimes life deals us a bag of lemons, not a smorgasbord. Covid-19 is the largest sack of lemons since the Black Death. It is at these critical moments that we need to be draw on the lessons of history and our innate creativity to imagine and build a better world.

The apparent paradox of closing borders yet returning to science and inevitably Keynesian economics is liberating for both left and right. In a sense we are all being sent back to school to rewrite the essay on our future. We should celebrate the opportunity this malicious microbe has brought.

As one of the world’s most cited polymaths Noam Chomsky said recently,

“We are now in a situation of real social isolation. It has to be overcome by recreating social bonds in whatever way can be done, whatever kind that can be helping people in need. Contacting them, developing organisations, expanding analysation. Like before getting them to be functional and operative, making plans for the future, bringing people together as we can in the internet age, to join, consult, deliberate to figure out answers to the problems that they face and work on them, which can be done.

While we mourn our dead and pity the grandparents who can’t be with their grandchildren at this extraordinary time, and while we lick our professional wounds and say goodby to commissions on hold or that may have vanished forever, now is the time to cheer the return of science, and not cower under the watch of the neoliberal demagogues who have yet to understand that we owe our lives and livelihoods to nature and not vice-versa.

Let’s make this the microbe that saved the world.

Fulbright Scholar Don Albert is the design principal of Sound Space Design Architects and Urban Designers and the founder of Climate Change Cities. This is an edited version of the article originally published on The Fifth Estate.

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