The botched efforts to stop coronavirus and climate change

Why a decisive societal response is needed.

 

In the time of coronavirus, I headed to southern Utah’s remote canyon country to do some extreme social distancing.

All I knew when I emerged a few days later in western Colorado was that the world was … confusing. I half-expected to find empty highways and shuttered businesses. What I witnessed was an armada of black SUVs, loaded down with passengers and skis, all headed to the resort town of Telluride. This was mid-March.

Clearly, a lot of folks were determined not to let a deadly pandemic get in the way of their ski vacation. It occurred to me then that perhaps things weren’t so bad, after all. If that many people were still headed for the slopes, the crowded restaurants, bars, and supersized petri dishes — er, hot tubs — then surely the danger of the virus had passed, right? Wrong.

When the author emerged from a solo Utah trip into western Colorado, he expected to find deserted streets and towns. Instead, he found people, in mid-March, stocking up for their regular ski vacations. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has since closed down the state's ski areas, seemingly the only effort that would prevent vacationers from flocking to their favorite spots.

What I was witnessing was just one instance of an ad hoc, failed response to a crisis. It resembled a magnified version of the global response to climate change in which half the population is in panic mode, while the other half insists on life as usual.

I saw this play out in even starker relief in the supermarket in Montrose, which serves as a supply town for mountain towns to the south, including Telluride. The parking lot was packed, and at first glance things inside seemed fairly typical for a ski season Saturday. The avocados and bell peppers were stacked high in the produce section, and the fancy cheese bin was overflowing. Then I noticed the potatoes were all gone.

I hurried back to the rice and beans aisle only to find what I ascertained to be high-risk folks — older, frail-looking — staring at empty shelves. It was the same with the dried pasta section, where all that remained were a few boxes of gluten-free stuff. I grabbed them and anything else that would give me sustenance for the next week or so while I lived and worked out of my car. 

Back out in the parking lot a massive Cadillac Escalade and a handful of Chevy Suburbans were lined up in front of the liquor store. One woman told her companion to move the car closer because “we’ve got way too much to carry.”

What I was witnessing was just one instance of an ad hoc, failed response to a crisis.

Then it felt like a cascade: Meetings were canceled, my kids were being ordered to vacate their college dorms immediately, giving them little choice but to get on planes and fly across the ocean back to Bulgaria, where I live. Restaurants were shutting down. Meanwhile, the ski vacationers were stocking up on booze. Did they think they’re immune? Or did they believe President Trump when he first downplayed the virus, even calling it a hoax?

It’s tempting simply to roll one’s eyes: They’ll get what they deserve, while those who hole up in their houses and try to do their part to mitigate the virus’s spread will stay healthy.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. By continuing on with their lives, the vacationers could negate the efforts of the conscientious crowd, and likely spread the virus to the people working in the restaurants, hotels and shops.

Climate change is no different. It does little good for one person to reduce their carbon footprint if all around them everyone else — with the encouragement of the federal government — drills for oil, burns natural gas or coal and consumes without limits, as if the climate catastrophe were just another media fixation.

What we need to battle both this virus and climate change is a coordinated, society-wide response. We need leaders who aren’t afraid of taking bold, decisive action, regardless of how it might impact the stock market or the bottom line of political donors. It truly is a matter of life and death.

That same day, March 14, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis took decisive action: He ordered every ski area in the state to shut down and then imposed restrictions on public gathering places. San Miguel County, home of Telluride, went farther: mandatory lock down, shelter in place, all tourists and non-residents must leave, and mandatory testing of the entire population by a private company.

Now we just need the same kind of resolve to tackle the climate crisis.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about Western issues. He is a freelance writer and author of the forthcoming novel, Behind the Slickrock Curtain. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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