Archie Heaton: if we can pull together against Covid-19, why can’t we tackle even bigger problems?

The Covid-19 virus continues to ravage its way across the world – impacting billions, infecting millions, and killing hundreds of thousands. It is crippling economies, severing social ties and physically preventing many people from even touching their loved ones. And yet, despite all of this, my overriding reaction is one of hope.

At this point I want to make clear that I’m no sadist; of course I am not enjoying the impact this is having. I am however an optimist; one overwhelmed by the scale of humanity’s reaction to this crisis. Over the last few months we have seen national governments shoulder the responsibilities of the market, capitalist economies hellbent on growth quietly shrink and multinational corporations ignoring their share prices to produce products that actually help society.

On top of this, and perhaps most encouragingly of all, individuals have altered every facet of their daily lives – often at no direct benefit to themselves – but in order to protect vulnerable people they have never even met. In short, Homo sapien’s uniquely evolved ability to adapt and cooperate has never been more proudly on display, with the entire species united against a common enemy. And all it took was a little bit of urgency.

But, as overwhelming as it may feel in the heat of this battle, it is important to remember that there are far bigger problems facing the human race than this epidemic. I do not say this to diminish the pain this virus has caused, I do so because it is true. As I am writing this, just over 130,000 people have officially succumbed to Covid-19.

This is a figure which will undoubtedly rise, and one that could have been far worse. But it is also a figure for a disease that will eventually pass. In comparison, according to the World Health Organisation, 264 million people suffer every single day with depression globally, 2.8 million people die as a result of their obesity annually and – shockingly – around 800,000 people took their own lives last year alone.

In the developing world people face even larger challenges, with 734 million living in poverty and the leading cause of death worldwide still being malnutrition. Unlike Covid-19 these issues will not be solved within the next two years, perhaps not even in our lifetimes.

Economically speaking, the impact of the virus has been equally as sudden but – importantly – will be equally as transient. On the other hand, structurally embedded injustices such as gross inequality and climate change will not pass as quickly and will not be overcome as easily. This epidemic has cost world economies $7 trillion. If the cost of climate change-related flooding alone comes to a figure that low, it will be considered a bargain!

Yet none of the problems I’ve listed are new ones – they existed before Covid-19 and they will exist afterwards. However, what has changed is how insurmountable they feel, and this is what should bring hope. What this pandemic has shown is our ability to tackle big issues, and I see no reason why humanity should stop once it is over. The Overton window has been shattered overnight and real, rapid change is clearly not as impossible as we have been led to believe.

For example, if governments have already wielded their power to prop-up the airline industry this year, why should they not demand that that said airlines more to address climate change for all the years that follow? If economies that have pursued growth-at-all costs survive this pause, does a fairer economy with human wellbeing at its heart really seem so radical?

Now companies have shown us that the needs of society can be accounted for as well as the needs of their shareholders, should we just go back to pretending they cannot? And, if every-single one of us can alter our day-to-day routines as radically as we have, could we not make smaller changes to help each other for good?

These are natural and normal questions to be asking and we should have a smile on our face when we do. Why? Because, if states and businesses can react so profoundly to fix a relatively small problem like Covid-19, then problems like the climate crisis, chronic poverty and declining public health suddenly feel a lot smaller too. The only difference between them and the current crisis is urgency, and it’s down to every single one of us to keep the pressure on once this particular crisis passes.

Archie Heaton is a brand consultant.

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