Air pollution kills almost nine million people per year and is the fourth leading cause of death globally. Ironically, since public health measures quarantining the majority of the population since the outbreak of the coronavirus, air pollution has decreased worldwide. We might be stuck at home, but we’re breathing cleaner air. Global emissions plummeted as industries shuttered, unexpectedly rapidly dissipating the relentless torrent of pollution – virtually overnight achieving an accomplishment impossible in the 40 years of campaigning and global summits.
Already, statisticians are informing us that the number of lives saved by this cleaner air may dwarf the lives lost by coronavirus by a factor of ten or more (especially in China, to a lesser but significant extent elsewhere). Clearly, the unprecedented and extraordinary measures coordinated internationally to impose a worldwide quarantine of the pandemic are not solely about delaying our inevitable deaths. If that were the case, we would have effectively addressed air pollution decades ago, and the other forms of environmental harms killing millions and destroying quality of life for many millions more annually. Perhaps it is because we feel that it is somehow more just to die of air pollution than of a virus? Or is it precisely because the virus is not something of our own making, not our fault, that we see it as such a fundamental threat? Or is it the fact that the well-off can flee from pollution and other negative externalities of capitalism that we’ve come to take for granted, while the coronavirus is an equal opportunity employer (even worse: most fatalities are men over 65, precisely that population with the most political and economic power globally)?
Whatever the reasoning, laid painfully bare is the exquisite infrastructure and technical ability we have to attack existential threats – that we have squandered for decades. In its disuse, mobilization to defend from existential threats has fallen into disrepair, and many countries have responded too little too late, and with non-dialogical decrees atypical for democracies. Democracies need to learn how to deal with emergencies too, without flipping into states of exception. By constant exertion, the awkwardness and swings to extremes can be avoided. There is no better or more existential an opportunity to apply this newfound sense of political will and direction than towards the climate crisis. With each ventilator, each facemask, we need to realize how our unsustainable medical system reflects our quarantined sense of health, where the patient at hand gets treated by stochastically infecting another. Medicine, treatment, intelligent social action and sustainability need to be recognized as the unit they are. Until then, the circle of disease only displaces itself.