The combination of pandemics and climate impacts will force world leaders to make impossible choices.

The current COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in something never seen before in history: the closure of planet Earth. Countries all over the world have told citizens to stay inside and practice social distancing in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. The practice of staying inside may work well in the short-term; but governments should count themselves lucky that this least disruptive option is even available to them. Australia’s bush fires, Canada’s flooding and storms in the Southern US have all resulted in mass evacuations from homes and communities within the last decade – a world where a bad season for natural disasters hits is not new, it is the new normal. We are lucky that this season has not forced us to make the impossible choice of whether to evacuate communities and spread infections in an effort to save lives from disasters – yet.

In 2019 and 2020, bush fires all over Australia forced the evacuation of cities and communities en masse. People fled their homes and slept in gyms and community centres in neighbouring communities. In normal times, the response of communities is to open their arms to the humanitarian crisis faced by their neighbours and welcome them in. But what if that happened today? Would communities worried about the spread of COVID-19 welcome their neighbours? Would people worried about infecting their loved ones be comfortable with sleeping in shared quarters for weeks on end, sharing washrooms and everything else? Would local governments, concerned about the spike in infected cases, say people fleeing disaster weren’t allowed into their communities because of the almost certain reality that their presence would overwhelm local hospitals and reduce their ability to save the lives of local patients?

The same can be said in Canada. 2019’s flooding season, one of the worst on record, forced the evacuation of more than 6’000 people in the Greater Montreal Area alone. Evacuees were sheltered in arenas in neighbouring communities, and the police and Canadian forces were brought in to support with clean-up. If this happened today, it’s hard to imagine the matter not prompting a series of conversations for which Canada is unprepared: between natural disasters and pandemics, which poses a greater risk? Is the benefits of lives saved from evacuation worth the rise in potentially fatal infected cases that will come from cramming people in shared quarters?

Beyond Montreal, it is not hard to imagine nightmare scenarios. Within the last decade, Canada has seen the 2013 Calgary flood, the 2016 Fort McMurray fires, the 2017 Quebec floods, the 2017 British Columbia wildfires and the 2018 extreme heat wave that swept across Eastern Canada. Every single one of these disasters forced evacuations and some cost lives. The frequency of these events also shows that a bad disaster season is hardly abnormal; 100-year events have happened numerous times in the last decade alone. Far from being abnormal, disasters are the new normal. And because this is normal, there is a strong likelihood that they could happen later this year as well once bush fire or hurricane season starts. Governments who face these risks will be forced to answer the impossible questions posed above.

None of this even addresses the other question of economic capacity. A government stretched from supporting people in a prolonged pandemic will eventually be forced to make hard choices if the taps run dry. While not likely in the short-term, multiple rounds of social isolation and closures may require this choice. The Canadian government offered $200,000 buy-outs for those in flood-prone areas who lost their homes during the 2019 floods in Quebec. Would a government stretched from months of mass stimulus spending and cash injections be able to offer this financial support during a dual economic crisis, especially if evacuations lead to spikes in case loads and require higher levels of health care spending? If governments can’t pay for it all and an exercise of economic triage needs to take place – what gets saved, and what does not?

These are the questions that will keep world leaders and policymakers up at night in the months to come. We should count ourselves lucky as both a country and a world that these choices are not currently being faced. The coming months will bring with them hurricane, flooding and wildfire seasons. This pandemic may require multiple rounds of weeks of social distancing and sustained quarantines to prevent millions of deaths while the world awaits a vaccine. Governments looking to maintain stability should hope the planet does not throw disruptive disasters onto the long list of problems and hard choices they will be making the coming months.