Just as COVID-19 was beginning its worldwide tour in February, NASA released a remastered version of the 'Pale Blue Dot' image of the Earth taken 30 years ago from the outer reaches of the solar system by Voyager 1. That image shows how small the Earth really is, and now the coronavirus is delivering that same message in a more visceral fashion.
As a pandemic that is affecting people in every part of our planet, COVID-19 is but the latest global phenomenon that is shaping and changing life all over the Earth.
We are familiar with the economic changes that we know as globalization. Historians argue that the internationalization of business we see today goes back to the world-girdling empires of the 19th century, often business driven, that relied on advances in transportation such as steamships, railroads, and more recently automotive vehicles and aircraft. One hundred years ago, the large movements of people related to World War I facilitated the great influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1920.
Since that time, we have seen revolutionary changes in communications such as radio, television, the internet and social media that have tied our world closer together, not always with happy results.
Fifty years ago this spring, the first Earth Day took place at a time when transnational environmental organizations were first being created and when astronauts came home from the Moon with iconic photos of the whole Earth in the darkness of space.
The declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic on March 11 and the big changes that are now affecting billions of people constitute a major historical event that will ensure that 2020 is long remembered. Even under the best case scenarios, the world and the lives of most everyone in it will be changed. It remains to be seen what changes will endure.
Beyond the casualties of disease and economic dislocation caused by COVID-19, I am wondering what lessons will be drawn from this universally shared experience. To start off, there are encouraging signs that many people are realizing the value of public health. The majority of people who haven’t understood that our public health departments have saved many more lives than the much more expensive and higher profile acute care system are receiving a powerful lesson from the coronavirus.
In a time that will never be remembered for the quality of leadership from our political classes or economic elites, public health professionals, many of them women, are stepping in to fill the void. We are learning about the importance of even the lowliest health care workers, the cleaners and janitors, who fight germs despite decades of unfriendly attention from budget cutters and efficiency experts.
Like other plagues and pandemics before it, the coronavirus is exploiting weaknesses in our economic and social structures. It will be interesting to see what lessons are learned in societies that have come to tolerate inequality, poverty, and a lack of social solidarity. To fight COVID-19, we face the paradoxical requests to show social solidarity by social distancing, and to slow the virus by closing borders and doors when COVID-19 has already overcome the walls and the nationalist and populist politics that were supposed to protect many countries from problems originating in other parts of the world.
When the pandemic comes to an end, the population of Earth will have to return to facing the challenges of an even bigger threat to our shared future, climate change. With luck the lessons humanity learns fighting a virus will make a proper impression on those people who have up to now chosen to deny or deprecate the scientific evidence of climate change.
On that pale blue dot where we all live, we will have to learn to think in planetary terms in more than matters of economic gain if humanity hopes to endure.