Lessons from a global pandemic

Covid-19 continues to take a great toll on societies around the world. As we struggle to respond appropriately, our societies can emerge ecologically and socially stronger—provided we learn the important lessons this tragedy has to teach us.

by Kelvin Thomson

In Australia, and I suspect in many other countries as well, there are three key lessons we need to learn from the coronavirus pandemic.

The first is that we need to be more self-sufficient. The spectacle of overseas companies buying up essential Australian medical supplies and sending them back to their home country was eye opening for Australians. Other countries put the welfare of their citizens first, and frankly so they should.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, people didn’t look to big corporations to protect them. Nor did they look to international agencies. They looked to the nation state. Fortunately in Australia’s case it was up to the task. But we need to maintain a nation state, and a national manufacturing capacity, that is strong enough to protect us.

The second lesson is that denser populations are not healthier or safer. For years we have had Dense Population Pushers in the property development and planning industries urging us to make Melbourne more like Manhattan, by imitating its high rises. But in New York, at the regional height of the pandemic, coronavirus was killing people at the rate of one every 2 minutes.

Melbourne – Dietmar Rabich

As Philip Cafaro of the TOP team has pointed out, “When increasing density becomes a substitute for setting limits to human numbers and demands on nature, environmental conditions deteriorate. And as usual, poor people and other species end up paying the price”.

Well before the coronavirus pandemic showed up, the disease ecologist Peter Daszak said in Scientific American in 2013 that “There’s a strong correlation between the risk of pandemic and human population density. We’ve done the math and we’ve proved it”.

The third lesson is that we need to make Health and Wellbeing our Key Performance Indicators. We need to move away from growth, and its absurd measurement device, GDP, which encourages politicians and bureaucrats to rig the books with fake growth through population increase. The UN’s Human Development Index is a step in the right direction, with its balancing health and longevity, educational attainment, and wealth in a more comprehensive accounting of national development. The HDI also sensibly discounts the value of increased wealth as societies become wealthier, since this increase accomplishes less in terms of improving people’s lives.

Human development index
Human development index – United Nations Development Programme

Both when I was a member of the Australian Parliament and afterwards, I received a lot of feedback that the focus on growth at any cost is wrong. Certainly the focus on economic growth at the expense of health and wellbeing is wrong.

It is most revealing that in Britain, a YouGov poll found that 8 out of 10 people would prefer the United Kingdom government to prioritise health and wellbeing over economic growth during the coronavirus crisis. And 6 in 10 want the UK government to pursue health and wellbeing ahead of growth even after the pandemic has subsided.

This is the most important lesson that we need to take from the coronavirus crisis. Rather than continue to pursue growth at all costs, we need to pursue health and wellbeing, comprehensively understood. That means the health and wellbeing of all members of society—and the environments on which they depend.

There will be people saying that such major and disruptive steps are not needed. They will say, a vaccine or a cure for coronavirus will be found, and we can then go back to life as normal. I have two responses to this.

First, life as “normal” has not been sustainable. We have been wrecking the climate and destroying the world’s remaining birds, plants and other life forms at an alarming rate. In the last 40 years there has been a 60% decline on average in the populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians.

Second, the coronavirus pandemic is not the last – it is only the latest – sneaky little zoonosis that is telling us loud and clear that we blithely ignore the impact of our actions on the natural world at our peril. Continuing to crowd out the rest of nature will rebound and harm people, too.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. Covid-19, terrible as it is, has much to teach us, if we are willing to learn its lessons and build better, rather than bigger, societies.


Kelvin Thomson served as the Labor Party Member for Wills in Australia’s Federal Parliament for over 20 years, from 1996 until the 2016 Election. Kelvin is now Chief of Staff for the Sustainable Australia Party’s Victorian Upper House MP Clifford Hayes, and a national media spokesman for the Sustainable Australia Party.


For more on the environmental lessons of the coronavirus pandemic, see:

The disconcerting association between overpopulation and the COVID-19 crisis, by Alon Tal

Pandemics and Population: Lessons from the Coronavirus Catastrophe of 2020, by Leon Kolankiewicz

Pope Francis says pandemic can be a ‘place of conversion’, by Austen Ivereigh

The Earth Is Telling Us We Must Rethink Our Growth Society, by William Rees

Spillover Warning: How We Can Prevent the Next Pandemic, by David Quammen

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5 thoughts on “Lessons from a global pandemic

  1. Excellent post I agree with all points, and see a broad consensus emerging (especially from sustainability commentators), but wonder how to begin actioning any of it.
    The language is always ‘we must’ or ‘we need to’, but is in danger of being ignored with a hand wave. “It’s an Is/Ought issue”, especially while so many well-meaning development economists still support growth as the best route out of poverty.

    1. Yes, there’s the rub! How to act on the realization that humanity is in ecological overshoot?

      We environmentalists have many good ideas and policy proposals, on the whole raft of environmental issues, from climate change to plastic pollution. I think the key is to keep working on all these fronts, but to marry them to a commitment to reducing human populations. That way, our reform proposals can actually work to make the situation better, rather than just serving to prop up the system that is making it all worse.

      This is not a new idea. The need to quickly end human population growth was a commonplace at the dawn of the environmental movement around 1970. The environmental movement dropped population stabilization not because we learned that it didn’t matter environmentally, but because we lost our nerve and gave in to wishful thinking.

      We can create sustainable societies and preserve what makes living on Earth worth it. But only if we are willing to tackle the fundamental drivers of our problems.

      1. Do you think people will accept a new paradigm? Western countries have been lured into overconsumption to support capitalism. How do we counteract the constant pressure from advertising and economists who preach growth at all costs? The warped expectations and behaviours it has spawned seem ingrained now. The literati might be keen to adopt sustainability, but how is it possible to set up a new vision to inspire the main stream? Any concerted messaging from scientific or governmental bodies will be viewed with suspicion and undermined by conspiracy mongers and mis-information. Sometimes it feels like we are lurching towards metaphorical book burning pogroms that will make Pol Pot look like a practise run.

        Are you optimistic that the Thungrens of coming generations will be heard?

  2. I have heard it argued that poverty is a principle driver for high fertility rates and that empowering women is the best way to reduce overpopulation. Meanwhile, politicians in countries with declining population incentivise people to have more children! As a species it would be more logical to encourage immigration but our ‘tribal’ traits make this a step too far.
    It seems to me cultural tolerance is the long term answer to overpopulation yet we seem to be heading in the exact opposite direction. I doubt COVID will be able to save us.

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