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COVID-19 and nuclear weapons  

“COVID-19 has caught even the wealthiest nations unprepared; their massive armaments useless against a small, mindless aggregation of single stranded RNA.”

Below, Dr Tilman Ruff discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the weaknesses in our global economic and political systems and identifies some important lessons for future action on climate change and arms control, in particular the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.


Tilman Ruff writes:

New pathogens will continue to evolve, spread and disrupt our world. Indeed as we deplete habitats for other species, wreak climate havoc, and grow food industrially, we can expect new infectious diseases more often.

COVID-19 is just the latest; it will certainly not be the last. Bad enough it is, but far from the worst we could expect.

Exposing vulnerability

COVID-19 has caught even the wealthiest nations unprepared; their massive armaments useless against a small, mindless aggregation of single stranded RNA, a few proteins and a thin lipid envelope about 120 nm across.

Nations investing obscene sums in nuclear weapons that must never be used have been unable to provide the most basic of protective equipment – gowns, gloves, and facemasks for their frontline health professionals putting themselves in danger every day.

The best funded public health organization in the world, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States, went from recommending N95 respirators for doctors and nurses at risk to recommending improvised bandanas in the face of severe shortages of the most basic protection costing a fraction of a dollar.

The US government rejected international assistance with test kits and was then left with woefully inadequate numbers of its own faulty kits.

Learning from the pandemic

This coronavirus can teach us a lot if we are willing to learn.

It shows where the real threats to our security lie, for which massive military arsenals and the most powerful WMD are not only useless, but get in the way.

It shows our interconnected vulnerabilities and capacities, that globalized problems respect no borders, are shared and demand cooperative solutions.

It has shown how quickly the exceptional hubris of arrogant leaders serving their own and narrow vested interests can enable great harm to occur; evil measured in monumental failures of leadership, causing tens of thousands of deaths that could readily have been prevented.

It has shown the uselessness of ideological baggage in confronting big challenges.

It has laid bare that respect for truth, evidence and science; and listening to the expert custodians of that evidence, are crucial.

It has demonstrated that changes once deemed unthinkable can be made, and made fast.

It has shown that female leaders are often more sensible and reliable in a crisis, and that we need more of them.

It has shown the great ingenuity, resourcefulness and kindness that people everywhere are capable of.

It has shown that what the science and experts tell us – that new pandemics will occur and that we are woefully prepared to deal with them – will occur if warnings are not heeded.

Choosing to listen

We can prevent some new pandemics from occurring. We can always respond better if we listen to the evidence and prepare well for what can be expected.

If we do not listen to or choose to see the overwhelming evidence of accelerating climate disruption, and quickly and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, catastrophe will bear down on us in our lifetimes and the world our children and grandchildren live in will be much more violent, difficult and impoverished.

If we ignore the reality of what nuclear weapons do, and the growing dangers of their use, then what may be a small risk on any given day, over time will become inevitable.

A final epidemic

This COVID pandemic will abate. However after a nuclear war there will be no re-building, no coming back. It would be the final epidemic. There will not be a health care system in overloaded crisis; there will be no health system and no one able to staff it. We can prepare for a pandemic; for nuclear war there is only prevention.

That is why we have to act now to protect our Earth from rampant heating and the abrupt ice age that would follow the radioactive incineration of nuclear war; as if our lives depended on it, because they do.

We can’t stop all new epidemics. And we don’t yet know if we can eradicate the COVID-19 virus.

But we can and must end nuclear weapons before they end us. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons provides the best available path forward. We should heed the lessons of COVID and take that path while we still can.

Tilman Ruff is Associate professor at the Nossal Institute for Global Health, School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne, Co-President, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (Nobel Peace Prize 1985) and Co-founder of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN, Nobel Peace Prize 2017)

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