Lock down to save lives? How about shutting down corporations to save the planet

If only governments were as hysterical about climate change

COVID has made a farce of Western liberty, doubly so by governments’ initial unwillingness to impose sanctions, which resulted in thousands of deaths—and the one year of lockdown (and counting). In contrast, many nations deemed authoritarian imposed restrictions on their citizens’ liberties after just a handful of cases, restrictions so severe that it halted the virus in its path and citizens were able to resume a sense of normality after just a few months.

Take Vietnam: This country, with a population of 100 million, has only seen 35 COVID-related deaths. The number is astounding when compared with the 534,000 dead in the United States. As The West fumbled with ideological connotations, Vietnam, having dealt with a SARS epidemic in 2003, launched a containment strategy with military precision: localised lockdowns, community screenings, and quarantine centres for both the infected and their close contacts. Crucially, Vietnam chose to quarantine people who risked the possibility of infection, not just those showing symptoms. Even after an outbreak in Da Nang last summer, only 551 locally transmitted cases were recorded in the three months following.

In comparison, hundreds of people were dying in care homes in England and Wales every week, resulting in more than twenty thousand dead in 2020.

Liberal democracies have see-sawed between protecting the economy and protecting lives, which has resulted in terrible failures on both fronts, all in the name of freedom. The great irony is that citizens of these democracies have experienced some of the strictest measurements in the world, drawn out over much longer periods, with little effect, while populations under authoritarian rule have not been subjected to a “new normal”—Vietnam’s economy even grew last year.

But what is most shocking is the fact that states will happily lock citizens indoors to protect against a virus but they will not sanction the 100 companies responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s the fact that industries are granted every freedom while scientists estimate 50% of the world’s species will be extinct at the end of this century due to climate change. That populations are at risk of becoming climate refugees in the coming decades; that cities risk being swept away by the sea; that, already, 4.2 million people die every year because of air pollution. It’s the fact that the risks of climate change aren’t mere possibilities, but the dangerous reality world leaders have been warned of for decades.

If our governments are so keen to save lives, then where are the adequate sanctions on the corporations killing the planet and risking the very extinction of humanity? Where is the same hysteria about polluting industries and mass consumption? We live in an age where it is illegal for Britons to leave the island thanks to a virus with a 3.4% mortality rate, but it is completely legal for industries to continue pillaging the world for its resources despite risking all life on earth.

The contrast is nothing short of absurd.

So what’s the problem? Well, the history of governments and nation states is the institutionalisation of vested economic interests. Governments’ unwillingness to act on climate change proves this remains the case. However, citizens’ willingness to act to protect one another from COVID also proves something—that communities serve each other where institutions fail.

No matter how alien the restrictions might be, the vast majority of us have done what we must in order to protect one another. In fact, if people had been better informed from the beginning, many more would have been saved by the actions of each individual’s willingness to help another. Yet we live in an economic and political system that delegitimises that very willingness by weaponising precarity as a tool of governance. How deeply cynical and insidious to opine that community is dead while creating an increasingly insecure environment in which citizens scramble to get by. How disgustingly arrogant to then turn to that very community and call upon it only when the supposedly superior institutions of modern political life, free markets and privatisation, fail their citizens. How unbelievable to then name any attempts by communities to reorganise around a different set of principles naive, ideological, and dangerous.

We have forsaken our liberty to protect our communities. It is outrageous that the individuals spearheading dangerous corporations and officials putting our health at risk are afforded any at all.

Stripping these corporations of their freedoms is no longer an impossible task. It is a necessary one. Locking down the population of liberal democracies was unimaginable, 12 months ago, but we did it anyway. We locked down to save lives. It’s time to shut them down to save the planet. And, frankly, if our governments are more comfortable sanctioning individuals than companies then we do not live in a democracy at all.

The question then becomes: What are we going to do about it?