Commentary | Space and coronavirus…any connection?  

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It is obvious the tiny novel coronavirus is giving and will continue to give all of us a very hard time for a prolonged period. 

When news of the COVID-19 outbreak and of its obvious severity first emerged, we may all have thought we were in for a hard time but I don’t think any of us realized the truly massive impact this virus would have across Europe and the entire world. And it was just a matter of time before we in the space sector went from seeing the virus as a potential danger forcing us to concentrate on our most critical tasks to a disease affecting individuals in a very real and dramatic way.

Within ESA, this stage has now been reached with tens of people having the symptoms, at least two confirmed by testing. Our COVID-19-infected colleagues are apparently on their way to recovery. 

Unfortunately, we have to expect that these were not the last cases of colleagues being infected. We set up a general ESA crisis group which meets daily (by Skype) to review the latest developments and take the necessary steps to adapt to the changing situation.

We have to accept that the spread of novel coronavirus is one of the negative consequences of globalization and the global mobility of people it brings with it. Of course, space alone cannot solve this problem; the power of the tiny virus is greater than all our combined efforts. However, at the same time, it does provide yet another example of the need for global cooperation. Modern communication technologies, with space in a supporting role, can play their part by disseminating information on the development of the pandemic and transmitting recommendations or instructions to be followed.

COVID-19 also clearly illustrates some general rules that apply when dealing with the unknown. For the purpose of this illustration it is useful to draw a parallel between COVID-19 and climate change:

The first step is DISCOVERY and IDENTIFICATION

In the case of climate change, the key discovery was on planet Venus and was made as a result of space exploration: namely, that Venus has a much stronger greenhouse effect than the Earth. Thus, understanding and identification were based on the discovery of an unknown aspect. Subsequently, the main influencing factors had to be found. The same thing happened with the coronavirus. No one was aware of its existence when the first people presented symptoms. Through discovery and identification, the root cause of the illness was detected.

The second step is MONITORING

For COVID-19 and climate change alike, observation of their development is of the utmost importance.

The third step is RAISING AWARENESS

To be able to counteract the threats posed both by COVID-19 and by climate change, we must begin by informing the public and raising awareness. Interestingly, when it comes to both of these phenomena, large numbers of people believe them to be nothing but a hoax.

Only then can we go for MITIGATION

Mitigation measures for COVID-19 and climate change are of a very different nature, but what they have in common is that only global solutions stand any chance of being successful.

Space can help with technologies to reduce emissions (navigation, telecommunication, solar power, fuel cells) as a means of counteracting climate change and may also be able to help mitigate some of the worst effects of COVID-19 because of what we know about how to organize quarantine or our experience with protective clothing for use in satellite production clean rooms.

I hope that all readers, their families and their loved ones have been able to find the best possible circumstances in which to cope with what has emerged.  

I know that this must be very challenging and that it will take some time for everyone to become accustomed to these unique circumstances. Trying to telework in an apartment with schools closed and front doors locked is exceptionally difficult.

At the same time, this huge upheaval leaves many understandably deeply concerned about the economic impact they may be facing personally. I hope that many of them, like me, will have drawn comfort from witnessing the massive interventions announced by governments across the world, aimed at ensuring the global economy suffers as little short and long-term damage as possible. 

Jan Woerner is the director general of the European Space Agency.