“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully,” observed Samuel Johnson, a great wit of the 18th Century.
If you doubt the truth of this aphorism, consider the coverage of the greatest news story of the 21st Century, the arrival on our shores, and everyone else’s at the same time, of the coronavirus and COVID-19, which may be the first disease named by a committee of bureaucrats, at least if you except all those syndromes.
I am not arguing COVID-19 does not deserve either the news coverage it’s receiving or the serious response it’s getting from most national governments — at least the ones that aren’t led by political parties euphemistically known as “conservative.”
As Jonathan Watts wrote in the Guardian earlier this week, “Like global warming, but in close-up and fast-forward, the COVID-19 outbreak shows how lives are lost or saved depending on a government’s propensity to acknowledge risk, act rapidly to contain it, and share the consequences.”
He noted, further, an observation that is near impossible to dispute, that, “on these matters, competence and ideology overlap. Governments willing to intervene have been more effective at stemming the virus than laissez-faire capitalists. The further right the government, the more inclined it is to delay action and offload blame elsewhere.”
Dr. Johnson was a Tory, of course, but that is a variety of conservative no longer found except in headlines. Today’s conservatives are all neoliberals, although that’s not a very helpful designation, as the same can be said of most Liberals, New Democrats and American Democrats as well. But the “conservative” strain of neoliberalism is the most virulent and destructive. But, je digresse.
COVID-19 threatens the lives of a huge number of human beings, even if it is not as lethal to those it infects as, say, the Black Plague or the Ebola virus.
But the main factor, I suspect, in the all-encompassing news coverage this new disease has received is the ease with which it is transmitted and, in an era of international airplane flight, the speed at which it moves.
Dr. Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755. If a time traveller infected with a still asymptomatic case of COVID-19 had decided to sail from London that year, he or she would one way or another no longer have been infectious by the time the ship had completed the six-week to three-month voyage to New York.
The fact that COVID-19 could spread from China, where it was first identified whether or not that’s where it originated, in about a fortnight has indeed concentrated our minds wonderfully.
Even if the attention-deficient mind of the man charged with leading the United States doesn’t recognize this reality, almost everyone else does, including the people who write our almost instantaneously transmitted news reports today. So, due to the great truth of the phenomenon Dr. Johnson noticed, we are living in a virtual news monoculture, wherein almost nothing else is reported.
Consider then the problem of global climate change, which arguably presents a much more serious challenge to the survival of humankind.
Despite being well understood for decades, its course set out in models that have proved accurate to date, it failed for years to garner any attention at all outside academic circles, and when it finally did it was subject to a largely successful campaign of denial, delay and obfuscation by conservative governments, the fossil fuel industry and others who saw short-term benefits in the present state of affairs.
Indeed, the government of Alberta, which fortunately seems to be taking the coronavirus quite seriously, nevertheless all but created a new industry out of denying climate change — although not a very busy industry nowadays judging by the output of the Alberta Energy War Room, which still hasn’t published a story since March 11.
Like teenagers warned about the common consequences of sex, drugs and rock and roll (which most often include babies, lack of ambition, and eventual deafness), we haven’t paid much attention to the genuinely catastrophic consequences of global climate change because it’s not likely to be felt in a fortnight.
Indeed, our governments’ biggest concern about drugs nowadays seems to be that cannabis sales might fall. Conservatives that a generation ago warned too much pot could end civilization as we know it, have in the face of rampaging COVID-19 declared cannabis stores to be an essential service!
Imagine if we had directed the amount of attention to the problem of climate change we have to COVID-19, once confronted by the prospect of needing a respirator in a fortnight! We might not have solved it, but we would be working on solutions that would help.
Alas, Dr. Johnson’s rule is an inflexible one. By the time we get around to addressing the problem of climate change seriously, we may very well be at the end of our rope.