Pandemic lessons

This story is of its time. In a year, maybe less, events may have passed it by. But it’s important for all our futures, nonetheless.

A few days ago, UK prime minister Boris Johnson announced that by mid-June, most restrictions on personal behaviour, imposed to help stem the global pandemic, would be lifted. For people who have endured a year of staying at home (most of the time), avoiding meeting friends and family, this was gold dust. I get it, really.

The immediate result was, according to newspaper headlines, that airlines and travel companies experienced uplifts in bookings of well over 300%, in some cases. In other words, a rush for normality. Again, I get it.

But what I don’t get is the idea that suddenly life can resume as if the pandemic had never happened. That we can resume life as it was. Because we must not.

The roots of the pandemic are in human behaviour today. The wealthy of the world, those in the so-called developed countries, jet around the globe as if it were their personal paradise. And why not? They have the time, the money and air fares are cheap. Astonishingly cheap.

Part of the reason they are cheap is that there is no tax on aviation fuel, which is by far the industry’s biggest single expense. The lack of tax emanates from an international agreement in 1944 that the nascent commercial aviation industry needed a kick start, and the best action was not to tax fuel. This policy has been adhered to ever since. Part of the reason can be found in the encapsulating statement by Bill Hemmings, of Brussels-based campaign group Transport and Environment, that “there aren’t any votes in making trips to Malaga more expensive”.

Yet as he points out, people who drive to France or Spain pay tax on their fuel so why shouldn’t those who fly. And people who don’t fly effectively subsidise those who do. Even if there were tax on aviation fuel at the same rate as road vehicle fuel, it would probably add about €15 per flight. Not onerous – and possibly not onerous enough.

The point? The global pandemic was spread worldwide amazingly quickly by casual aviation. The ability to jump on a plane without considering the real cost. Because aviation contributes 3% of human carbon dioxide emissions, and there is no greater danger facing us right now than the climate emergency.

And this is where it ties into the pandemic. Within the hegemony of ever-expanding growth, seemingly ad infinitum, together with the rocketing human population, there are almost no areas of the planet that humans have not touched in our insatiable demand for food and resources.

We plunder the seas as if they were infinite, we chop down tropical rainforests at a growing rate. Between 1990 and 2016, the world lost 1.3 million square kilometres of forest, according to the World Bank – an area larger than South Africa. Farming, grazing of livestock, mining, and drilling combined account for more than half of all deforestation.

With the disappearing rainforests and the growth of CO2 emissions comes an acidification of the oceans and a huge and a devastating effect on marine life. And a reduction in the rainforests’ uniquely huge ability to soak up CO2.

And as we destroy the rainforests and other habitats around the world to grow food and wrench raw materials from the earth, we destroy the habitats of the plants and creatures that live there.

Evolution has equipped those lifeforms with unique adaptations tailored to their environments. When their world is desecrated, they have to go somewhere. And as human populations grow, the demand for food, products and land grows commensurately. This brings us increasingly into contact with creatures who previously lived in their ecological niches – niches that are being destroyed by human activity.

Those creatures, be they bats, pangolins or whatever, may carry bacteria and viruses that evolution has equipped them to survive with – otherwise they wouldn’t still exist. You can see where I’m going with this: greater contact with humans means a greater opportunity for a virus to jump to another species.

Most of the time it probably won’t. But occasionally, it will, and this is one theory for the origin of SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) in homo sapiens.

Once established in one or more humans, pandemics used to stay where they were. Yes, the Black Death in the Middle Ages spread across Europe by ship but it was a slow spread, and had there been modern communications and modern understanding of disease transmission, it could have been stopped very quickly.

The modern pandemic on the other hand spreads around the world before vaccine makers have got their boots on. Thanks largely to global and overly cheap aviation.

So before we all jump for joy at the lifting of pandemic restrictions, my suggestion is that first we think about the impact on the planet that our lifestyles are having. That we think more than twice before jumping on a plane. And most of all, that refuse to vote for politicians who promise growth at all costs – because the planet that has sustained us so far, cannot do so for much longer.

Growth has to stop – or at the very least, the true costs of raw materials, including water, the air, and land, known as externalities and deemed to be free, need to be added to the balance book.

Imagine the age of the Earth as a year’s calendar. Humans arrived sometime in the last 30 seconds or so. We have done all this damage in the last 0.2 seconds. Let’s just stop.

Lessons from Murdoch’s News Corp

There’s a number of depressing conclusions to be drawn, even at this early stage of affairs from the revelations about News Corp’s activities.

The first is that people — from individuals rightly sickened at the thought of News of the World journalists poring over Milly Dowler’s voicemails to politicians who should have known better — only seem to have voiced concerns when it involved a little girl. ‘It could have been us’, runs the thought.

And yet, the hacking — if it deserves that description as it only seems to have involved dialling into publicly available numbers and trying passwords until they found one that worked — had not only been going on for years but was known about for years. Few seem to have cared much about it when it involved people seen as disposable — actors, sportspeople, Z-list celebrities and the like.

It’s much the same when you discuss the issue of whether the UK should retain the monarchy. The two most common responses I’ve encountered concern the individuals — the Queen’s doing a good job and I wouldn’t want Blair — or the tourist money they supposedly bring in. Whether or not a country that describes itself as a modern democracy can continue to do so while it has an unelected head of state seems to be irrelevant: it’s simply not part of the discussion.

In both cases — Murdoch or royalty — the principal of whether it;s correct per se to hack into phones or to maintain an unelected head of state is not an argument it’s possible to have, or that people raise with themselves. Issues seem only to matter if they has a directly personal relevance. How we are governed seems not to fall into that category.

The second issue is that the ones truly responsible for this dismal state of affairs — the politicians who have been kowtowing to News Corp all these years — seem likely to be the ones who will be let off lightly. Cameron will be dented and might, in the most optimistic of scenarios, resign. But the rest of them will get away with it.

This is a direct consequence of the feeble level of political debate in this country, as I’ve already noted. It seems we get the politicians we deserve. If we continue to buy the News of the World — or Sun on Sunday as it will morph — then nothing will have fundamentally changed.

Yet the third issue is one that can be easily fixed: the low level of priority assigned by mobile operators to security compared to convenience. Voicemails seem to have been ridiculously easy to break into because passwords weren’t changed from their defaults; subscribers are unlikely even to have known their voicemails had a password let alone that they needed to change them because the operators didn’t tell them about it.

Britain prides itself on being a stable democracy with traditions many of which have changed little over the last 500 years. Consequently, people are not encouraged to think about issues of governance or principal involving public life. Maybe it’s time we did.

Democracy loses to Murdoch – again

Capitalism tends to create monopolies. Over time, we’ve all come to appreciate that monopolies are generally a bad thing (perhaps with the exception of a few areas such as utilities and railways) and should be curbed.

They accumulate too much power in one organisation’s hands, and, because of lack of competition, tend to be able to raise prices to any level they like as well as reducing product choice.

And the media is an industry where that’s particularly egregious because it tends to undermine the democratic process. Here’s a case in point.

According to Ofcom, the UK’s media and telecoms regulator, Rupert Murdoch’s satellite TV operation BSkyB has now reached a point where the regulator has published “a further consultation as part of its pay TV market investigation” as a result of its “concerns about the restricted distribution of premium sports and movies channels operated by BSkyB”.

Specifically, Ofcom is concerned about the “limited distribution of football and movies”, which has seen national games such as cricket and football disappearing from terrestrial TV, and instead commanding premium prices on top of already-expensive pay TV bundles. The regulator said that it “considers that Sky has market power in the wholesale supply of channels containing this attractive content, and that it is acting on an incentive to limit the distribution of these channels to rival TV platforms”. It won’t let its rivals have access to that content for a reasonable price.

Ofcom issued that statement on 26 June 2009. On 6 July, in a little-reported speech – note that Murdoch-owned newspapers dominate the UK market – the UK’s opposition leader David Cameron, who looks set to become UK Prime Minister in 2010, has promised that Ofcom “as we know it will cease to exist….Its remit will be restricted to its narrow technical and enforcement roles. It will no longer play a role in making policy.

“And the policy-making functions it has today will be transferred back fully to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.”

Only one organisation will benefit from Cameron’s new policy: BSkyB.

In other words, the opposition leader, who is now being politically backed by Murdoch in his many media outlets, is already paying back the political capital that Murdoch has invested in him. That’s despite the Tories’ much-trumpeted belief in competition – which clearly does not apply when there’s Murdoch brown-nosing to be done.

The result will be even greater concentration of media power in the hands of one organisation, fewer outlets for not just movies and sport but news too, and – doubt it not – further politically motivated attacks on the UK media’s one big success story, the BBC.

And, incidentally, if you doubt that the BBC, despite its faults, is a success story, just ask any informed observer outside the UK if they would like to see a BBC-style setup replicated in their own country: none will demur.

If the product in question were rivets, perhaps this would be of little moment. But the product is information that’s required by the electorate.

I leave the logical conclusion to your conscience.

There’s more on this in the Guardian here.