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A pandemic refuge can exist in an unlikely place

In the event of a deadly pandemic or global catastrophe, one way to save humankind is a safe refuge. To ensure a portion of the human population can stay alive, safe refuge can take place on an island, or in extremely remote places like  the moon or under water. 

In a new study published by the Society for Risk Analysis, experts say the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates that a refuge may not need to be geographically isolated or in an exotic location. The authors explore how and why both China and Western Australia served as successful refuges during the first two years of the pandemic. A pandemic refuge is a place with low medical risk where a pathogen has not spread significantly.

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. These locations were selected as they are 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.  

Previously, research showed that good candidates for a refuge are on island nations like Iceland, Australia and New Zealand, largely based on their success in keeping COVID-19 infections low. 

However, the study suggests that geographic isolation on islands is not a prerequisite for refuge.  “China is a very clear case in point,” said Baum. “It has succeeded despite having the world’s longest land border.” 

Both the differences and similarities were examined 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. 

However, the similarities between the two jurisdictions are important. For example, both have a high degree of centralization and a high capacity for self-isolation — China via its authoritarian government, and Western Australia via its social isolation and strong economy. Both also have strong in-group cohesion and have been highly motivated to avoid pathogen spread. 

“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,” said Baum. 

“Pandemic refuges are a risk management policy concept worthy of serious consideration, alongside other public health measures such as vaccines and physical distancing,” said Adams.

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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