One suggested way to save humankind in the event of a deadly pandemic or other extreme global catastrophe is establishing a safe refuge – on an island or in such far-out places as the moon or under water — where a portion of the human population can stay alive.
A new paper published in the journal Risk Analysis suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates that a refuge is a viable concept and may not need to be geographically isolated or in an exotic location. In their analysis, the authors explore how and why both China and Western Australia served as successful refuges during the first two years of the pandemic.
Seth Baum, a geographer and executive director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute in Washington, D.C., and Vanessa Adams, a geographer at the University of Tasmania, conducted a case study of China and Western Australia, both political jurisdictions that share their borders with others yet managed to keep COVID-19 infections low. From March 2020 to January 2022, China’s estimated cases per 100,000 people were 1,358 compared to 98,556 in the United States and 142,365 in India. Western Australia’s official cases were 48.8.
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.”