Mike Downham and Pete Cannell suggest ideas for campaigning priorities that tackle the pandemic, future pandemics and the climate crisis.
A new campaign, ‘Zero Covid’ was launched a week ago. The Independent SAGE committee of scientists has been arguing for a Zero Covid UK since the summer. This approach is also supported by the Hazards Campaign for workplace safety. The campaign aims to build a movement that can force UK governments to adopt the Independent Sage proposals as public policy.
There’s a compelling case that we are living in an age of pandemics. It’s possible, although by no means certain, that successful vaccination programmes will have had a significant on UK population immunity in 12 – 18 months. Given the profit motivation of Big Pharma it’s likely to take much longer in the global south. However, the likelihood of a mutation from Covid 19, or one or more completely new viruses over the next 5 years is high. So, a longer-term strategy for the campaign ought to be to ensure that we live safely in the face of recurrent pandemic. This is not a new idea – the British government had plans for such contingencies at the start of the millennium, then failed to maintain and update them and trashed the public health infrastructure that was needed for effective pandemic control.
So, one demand that should be campaigned for is that we learn the lessons of Covid and establish a well-funded local based public health service as part of the NHS. No place for private companies. It would be a tragedy if we are as ill prepared for the next pandemic as we were for Covid 19.
But we need more, and this is where the link with climate comes in. To be prepared we need to reimagine and redesign public transport systems so that they are safe to use and carbon free. We need to build new zero carbon houses and retrofit existing housing stock to high insulation and good ventilation standards. New public buildings and retrofitted existing public buildings also need to be zero carbon and have good effective ventilation. All of this is technically possible and is good for health and the environment.
All the key things we need to do to address both virus epidemics and global warming are not only largely the same (it’s very important that we keep stressing this point, though it’s been made before) but also their technical solutions are linked. Pumped air recirculation in buildings reduces virus cross-infection and improves energy efficiency. New bus design, rolled out in quantity production, can incorporate low-carbon motility and virus infection safety in one design, especially if the buses are in the context of no fares (protecting drivers, and passengers too because of reduced queuing and shorter journey times). Workplaces for the construction and maintenance of renewables can be much safer in relation to the spread of virus infection than oil and gas rigs. More people working in non-intensive local food production, whether commercially or in voluntary organisations, will mean more people working outside.
There are some things, like deforestation and food production, with their linked impacts on global warming and the liberation of new viruses, which we have little chance of influencing until we’ve stopped competitive capitalists from exploiting everything and every person for their profit. But these things related to housing, transport, energy production and food production are technically (and politically) achievable now. And if we don’t achieve them now there will be untold additional human suffering.