Will the Coronavirus Save Lives? | A New Shade of Green | Sherry Listgarten | DanvilleSanRamon.com |


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By Sherry Listgarten

Will the Coronavirus Save Lives?

Uploaded: Mar 22, 2020

I saw an eye-opening statistic the other day. Coronavirus to date has killed almost 15,000 people worldwide (as of March 22). It may be 2x or 3x that by the time you are reading this. In response there has been a precipitous decrease in travel and economic activity in order to reduce transmission of the virus. A side-effect of this has been much cleaner air over many industrial and populated areas. Stanford professor Marshall Burke recently estimated how many lives have been saved by the reduced particulate (PM 2.5) levels in China, using a study of the pre-Olympics air quality cleanup in Beijing to predict the impact on mortality. He estimates (conservatively, he says) that the improved air quality has saved 50,000 - 80,000 lives in China. Like I said, eye-opening.

I do not mean to say that the coronavirus is in any way a good thing. This pandemic has so many impacts, and Burke is the first to acknowledge that he looked at only one of them. Many of the other effects, such as worsened inequality and increased poverty, will have very negative consequences for global health. The coronavirus is devastating. But the degree to which the improved air quality may have reduced mortality does indicate to me, as Burke says, that “our normal way of doing things might need disrupting”. He observes: “the calculation is perhaps a useful reminder of the often-hidden health consequences of the status quo, i.e., the substantial costs that our current way of doing things exacts on our health and livelihoods.”

This raises the question of whether we should use this unprecedented economic disruption to put in place policies for a more sustainable and healthful future. Can we hang onto some of the good we are seeing while also remedying so much of the bad? Fatih Birol, the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, has something to say about that in this interview with Climate Home News. “This is a historic opportunity for the world to, on one hand, create packages to recover the economy, but on the other hand, to reduce dirty investments and accelerate the energy transition…. Here the issue is not only the level of money (dedicated to stimulate the economy) but the direction of the money.” As someone once said “Never let a good crisis go to waste”.

You may remember (or not!) that we are in the middle of a series on flying, so I thought I would focus on the proposed economic recovery package for airlines. US airlines are looking at a steep dropoff in flights, with many airports expecting reductions of 50% or more in passenger traffic over the next few months, and a 2020 forecast of a 20-30% drop for the year, globally. This has led them to ask for financial help from the government (i.e., from public funds). A whole slew of questions are being raised about this. Are airlines really so essential to the average American that they need a publicly-funded bailout? Should public funds go to the airlines or directly to the workers? Should any help we give to airlines have constraints on how the funds are used or how airlines operate in the future? (1)

The proposal from the Trump administration is $50 billion in secured loans (loans that the airlines will need to pay back) and at least one string attached, namely “limits on increases in executive compensation until repayment of the loans”. The question I have is, should we be asking more from the airlines, and in particular should we use this opportunity to direct them to more sustainable practices? Sheldon Whitehouse, a senator from Rhode Island, reasons: “Airlines that want public support should live public values,” and has issued a letter with seven other senators asking for more guarantees that airlines become cleaner. The auto bailout in 2008 did something similar, coupling the discounted loans with increased fuel efficiency requirements (35.5 mpg by 2016), resulting in many more efficient vehicles in the following years. Is a similar requirement appropriate this time around with the airlines?

The pandemic is revealing many of the structural problems with America today, such as a lack of health insurance and paid sick leave, and widespread income inequality coupled with inadequate safety nets. At the same time, it is also revealing the cost of devaluing scientific expertise, defunding science, and valuing short-term gains over long-term stability, putting our future health and safety at risk. As we shock our economy to try to save it, can we design the shocks to remedy some of these problems for the future, as opposed to just fixing the immediate, severe issues right in front of us? I hope so. If nothing else, our experience with coronavirus has helped us understand that new directions will help us save lives.

Notes and References
1. It is relevant to note that the “big four” US airlines (United, American, Delta, and Southwest) have been very profitable over the last decade, but according to this article and others, they used much of the profit for stock buybacks, which primarily benefit shareholders (including executives) and investors.

Current Climate Data (February 2020)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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