The COVID-19 pandemic, and the extraordinary restrictions imposed by governments on business and citizens to stop its spread, have done – and undone – many things no one had previously thought possible. The costs and benefits of this strain of Coronavirus and our responses to it remain incalculable.
Not all the news is bad, and it pays to focus on the good. A crisis can clarify certain things. “A friend in need is a friend indeed” and trouble can reveal who our real friends are.
A good place to start is with reliable energy. Oil and gas remain the fuels that account for almost 80 per cent of our energy needs. Restrictions on business lowered demand for jet fuel, gasoline and CNG for public transit and commercial vehicles. Prices came down but supplies never wavered. Consumers sheltering in place and businesses trying to keep employees on and costs down had the comfort of knowing they would have heat and light and the internet when it was most needed.
Homes with natural gas and natural gas-powered electricity also enjoyed the confidence that many have known in other emergencies such as earthquakes and hurricanes: reliability. It may be a buzzword in better times, but it is a necessity now.
Yet reliability is a baseline condition for a transactional relationship. Friendship is something more, and the crisis has revealed that the people who work at many of the companies who deliver that reliable energy are stepping up to help their communities. Examples…
It would be nice if the whole world acted this way, but as COVID-19 and the public health lockdowns took effect in many countries, Russia and Saudi Arabia fell out over oil production restrictions, flooded the market with oil and pushed prices so low they were even negative for a short period. Natural gas prices tend to follow oil prices because the two fossil fuels are often found together geologically and then extracted together. China, whose growth held out the promise of future growth and LNG sales, lashed out at other countries for attempting to hold it to ethical standards, fair economic competition, and the rule of law. And when COVID-19 spread, China may have allegedly held back potentially lifesaving information.
The global Coronavirus crisis also unmasked the insincerity of fossil-fuel critics who claimed to want to help the industry change and save the environment from climate change. For many environmentalists, climatic changes had already produced a global crisis, yet the responses of governments, firms, and ordinary people to the climate crisis paled in comparison to the COVID-19 response. If we can do this for Coronavirus, why not for the environment? Perhaps, some said, we should stick with this as the new normal – have you noticed that the air is cleaner?
Most environmentalists do not think that way, just as most public health officials don’t want to sacrifice vulnerable populations to COVID-19 in order to save others. There are tradeoffs in every situation – some terrible – but facing them and seeking balanced solutions is how most of us live our lives. In a crisis, you see some who become obsessed and lose their moral compass, letting the response to the crisis override all other considerations.
Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, once said that this was the difference between authoritarians and totalitarians. Both are bad, but authoritarians want stability, usually with themselves firmly in charge. Totalitarians want total control of society to achieve a greater goal, whether it is a new political economy to replace capitalism or a planet returned to Eden, rid of the virus homo sapiens.
Totalitarians are not your friends.
For Canadians, the most important friends are the Americans and the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the question of whether the Americans are Canadians’ friends or only business partners. When Minnesota-based 3M alerted the media that the company was under U.S. government pressure not to fulfill Canadian and Latin American orders for respirator masks and personal protective equipment, putting customers in America first, there was initial shock across Canada.
The threat to 3M was withdrawn, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency pledged that no export restrictions would be placed on personal protective equipment, medical instruments, or drugs destined for use in Canada – putting the commitment into a formal regulation.
As Winston Churchill once said, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.” Trial and error is necessary to navigate the unknown in a crisis, and people do make mistakes. How they respond when they realize a mistake shows their character.
Overall, friendship has characterized the responses of the United States and Canada to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitals and public health officials are in constant communication, sharing data and learning from each other. Scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Health are working with Canadian counterparts – and have Canadian professionals on staff. Border security agencies have managed a joint border transit restriction that allows for essential goods and personnel to cross. Soon, state governors and provincial premiers will need to collaborate as they carefully lift the restrictions on the economy when the pandemic response enters a new phase.
Christopher Sands is the Director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a Senior Research Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.