A study of Western Australia and China during the COVID-19 epidemic suggests that one possibility is to establish a safe refuge.
Establishing a safe refuge — on an island or in such remote locations like the moon or underwater — where a portion of the human population can remain alive has been proposed as a strategy to rescue humanity in the case of a devastating epidemic or another terrible worldwide catastrophe.
The COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent paper in the journal Risk Analysis, shows that a refuge is a viable idea and may not necessarily need to be remote or far away. The authors examine how and why China and Western Australia were effective refuges during the pandemic’s first two years in their analysis.
Seth Baum, a geographer and the executive director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute in Washington, D.C., and Vanessa Adams, a geographer at the University of Tasmania, investigated the case of China and Western Australia, two political jurisdictions that share borders with other countries but have managed to keep COVID-19 infections at a low level. The predicted number of cases per 100,000 people in China from March 2020 to January 2022 was 1,358 as opposed to 98,556 in the US and 142,365 in India. There were 48.8 official cases in Western Australia.
Previous research has shown that island nations like Iceland, Australia, and New Zealand are good candidates for a refuge — based on their success in keeping COVID-19 infections low in the first nine months of the pandemic. (A pandemic refuge is a place with low medical risk where a pathogen has not spread significantly.)
The new study, covering nearly two years of the pandemic, suggests that geographic isolation (or being on an island) is not a prerequisite for a pandemic refuge. “China is a very clear case in point,” says Baum. “It has succeeded despite having the world’s longest land border.”
In their paper, Baum and Adams examine both the differences and similarities between China and Western Australia. China is authoritarian, collectivist, and heavily populated in the most populous region of the world. Western Australia is democratic, individualist, and sparsely populated in one of the most remote regions of the world.
Yet the two jurisdictions are similar in other, important ways. Both have a high degree of centralization and a high capacity for self-isolation — China via its authoritarian government, Western Australia via its social isolation and strong economy driven by a booming mining industry. Both also have strong in-group cohesion and have been highly motivated to avoid pathogen spread. Both China and Western Australia have also maintained extensive trade with outside places throughout the pandemic.
“This is encouraging because it suggests that pandemic refuges can provide a high degree of economic support for outside populations during pandemics, an important element for achieving the global objective of refuges – the continuity of civilization,” says Baum.
“Pandemic refuges are a risk management policy concept worthy of serious consideration,” adds Adams, “alongside other public health measures such as vaccines and physical distancing.”
Reference: “Pandemic refuges: Lessons from 2 years of COVID-19” by Seth D. Baum and Vanessa M. Adams, 1 June 2022, Risk Analysis.