The End? Building a ‘safe refuge’ may be key to saving humanity from global catastrophe

HERNDON, Va. — Millions of people likely had the same thought in March of 2020: “Is this it?” The initial days of the COVID-19 pandemic felt like the beginning of a Hollywood Armageddon movie. While the Earth is still spinning, scientists are already scrambling to better prepare humanity for the next deadly pandemic or other extreme global catastrophe. Their solution could lead to the creation of an island for humanity’s “survivors.”

One popular theory right now is that establishing a safe refuge where a decent portion of the human population can escape to is going to be essential to humanity’s long-term survival. Some examples include a remote island, or even more outlandish suggestions such as the Moon or an underwater base.

Now, new research from the Society for Risk Analysis reports that while establishing a safe refuge is definitely a good idea, the location doesn’t necessarily have to be in the middle of nowhere. The analysis documents how both China and Western Australia created their own successful refuges during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This study was co-authored by 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. Baum and Adams put together a case study focusing on both China and Western Australia. Importantly, both of those “political jurisdictions” share borders with other regions – yet also proved quite efficient at keeping COVID-19 infections low.

What do China and Australia have in common?

Between March 2020 and January 2022, China’s estimated COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people was just 1,348, with only 48.8 in Western Australia.

Based on their success while fighting COVID-19, island nations such as Iceland, Australia, and New Zealand are potential candidates for an apocalyptic refuge. Still, this new research indicates that geographic isolation is not mandatory for a pandemic refuge.

“China is a very clear case in point,” Baum explains in a media release. “It has succeeded despite having the world’s longest land border.”

There are some major differences between China and Western Australia. China is an authoritarian state, collectivist, and boasts a huge population. Western Australia, on the other hand, is democratic, individualist, and sparsely populated in one of the most remote areas anywhere in the world.

However, there are some similarities: Both share a high degree of centralization and a high capacity for self-isolation and independence, albeit for drastically different reasons. Both areas also have very robust in-group cohesion and were “highly motivated” to avoid spreading COVID-19. China and Western Australia maintained extensive trading partnerships 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,” Baum adds.

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

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