BY SOFO ARCHON
V Peremen, Wikimedia Commons
A crisis is a great opportunity. An opportunity for learning, growing in understanding and improving our way of living.
Right now, the world is in a deep social and economic crisis due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Within only a few months’ time, over 300,000 people from across the world have contracted the virus, and more than 15,000 of them have died from it. (Update: that was March 24. Now, on April 13, these numbers are about 6 times higher and keep on increasing day by day.)
To slow down its rapid spread, and thus to prevent the overburdening of the national healthcare systems, many governments have temporarily shut down the vast majority of businesses, while people are told by political authorities to stay quarantined at home for an indefinite period of time.
As a result, we can already see a dramatic global economic recession and everything that goes hand-in-hand with it: increased bankruptcies, unemployment and financial uncertainty.
The question is: If a crisis is an opportunity for learning, what exactly can we learn from the one lying right in front of us?
Here I’d like to share with you the most important lessons the Coronavirus pandemic can teach us. If we understand and act on them, we can minimize the possibility of encountering crises of similar nature in the future. If we don’t, sooner or later we’re bound to experience bigger and more complex crises with far more deadly consequences.
What We Do to Nature, We Do to Ourselves
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 75% of new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals, including COVID-19, commonly known as the Coronavirus.
The World Health Organization reported that genetic evidence suggests the COVID-19 virus most likely originated in bats, which probably passed it to another animal (domestic or wild), and then from that animal it jumped to people at some wet market.
SARS, another viral infectious disease that claimed over 750 human lives between 2002 and 2003, was also caused by a coronavirus that originated in bats, which passed it to civets, and then jumped from them to people in a wet market. Other diseases that have animal origins include MERS (source: camels), Swine flu (source: pigs), Avian flu (source: birds), H1N1 (source: chickens), Hantavirus (source: rodents), HIV (source: monkeys) and Ebola (source: bats, monkeys, chimpanzees, gorillas, and various other wild animals).
Of course, neither bats nor other animals are to blame for transmitting those diseases to us. The only ones to blame are we humans who have created the environments that enable those diseases to proliferate and be easily transmitted to us.
The loss of biodiversity caused by the ongoing destruction of tropical forests and wild landscapes that is driven by human activity such as road building, logging, mining, hunting, farming, and rapid urbanization, is bringing people closer to animals, which creates opportunities for viruses to jump from animals to humans.
Humans not only destroy wildlife habitats, but also transport wild animals to new places, and mix them with other animals (both wild and domesticated) in ways they never had before, in order to eventually kill, trade and eat them. This way, they create the ideal conditions for novel viruses like the latest Coronavirus to arise and spread to the human population.
To make things worse, humans breed, kill and consume over 50 billion land animals (such as pigs, chickens, and cows) each year through intensive animal agriculture, which is one of the leading causes of habitat destruction. Because of the high demand for meat and animal byproducts (such as dairy and eggs), factory farms are constantly expanding and spreading out into previously intact animal territory, where wild animals come in contact with the domesticated animals that are raised for food.
Furthermore, the intensified feedlots and warehouses where farmed animals are forced to live in are breeding grounds for infectious diseases like the swine flu and the avian flu. For this reason, farmed animals are being constantly pumped with an insane amount of antibiotics — a tactic which, in the long run, makes them antibiotic-resistant.
Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace
Not surprisingly, epidemiology experts on infectious diseases argue that if we didn’t eat animals, but subsisted on a plant-based diet, zoonotic (animal-transmitted) diseases would be minimized. In addition, one of the most comprehensive analysis exploring farming and the environment to date concluded that by simply switching to a plant-based diet we could free up more than 75% of global agricultural land. Land that we could then regenerate and rewild, thus restoring the natural barrier between ourselves and other species that helps prevent the transmission of viruses from animals to humans.
Other than the direct ways humans impact on wildlife habitats, there are also a lot of indirect ways. For example, anthropogenic climate change has resulted in tens of thousands of wild species being compelled to move into new places, where they are mixed up with others species (human and non-human) they previously had no contact with. I could go on describing many other human activities that cause wildlife habitat destruction (including pollution and soil erosion, to name a couple), but I won’t for reasons of keeping this article short and concise.
The important point is that, if we truly want to prevent disease outbreaks like this from happening again, we need to rethink how we relate to the natural world. Up until now, instead of addressing the root causes of pandemics and epidemics, we’ve solely focused our attention on fighting symptoms of a much wider and deeper underlying issue. For example, I lately hear people saying that we need to exterminate “disease-spreading” bats “before it’s too late”, not being aware of the critical role bats play in ecosystems, and that acting this way would only cause more damage to the health of our planet.
Of course, the biggest enemy of them all right now is commonly thought to be the Coronavirus itself. Hence, we keep on searching for antibiotics and vaccines to “win the battle” against it, which, although important at this point, does nothing to address the reasons the virus appeared in our bodies in the first place.
So, I’m wondering: What are we going to do in order to restore balance in the ecosystems, once we manage to keep the “number one enemy” COVID-19 under control? Well, if we make a prediction based on history, we’ll do nearly nothing. We’ll just continue business-as-usual, further destroying the planet we depend on and that sustains us and all life on Earth, yet naively believing that our actions won’t have any serious repercussions.
So far, the only positive outcome of the Coronavirus pandemic seems to be China’s ban on the trade of wildlife and consumption of all wild animals (Edit: this ban was proven to be only temporary). Although this is a good first step towards the right direction, in reality it’s just a minuscule change. To prevent future outbreaks, we need to do way more: To stop all activity that’s destroying wildlife habitats and disrupting ecosystems, and that includes reducing our resource consumption to the minimum amount practically possible. For that to be achieved, we need to get rid of our obsolete, profit-driven and essentially anti-environmental economic system that requires cyclical consumption and endless growth. Nature is not a commodity to be bought and sold in the market. Its value is priceless, and as long as we reduce it to a bunch of lifeless stuff and attach a price tag to it, we’ll keep on abusing it.
Ultimately, we need to reconnect with the Earth and start seeing it as our larger body — because it is. We’re all embedded in the web of life, hence what we do to nature, we do to ourselves. Once we realize our true place in the world, we’ll start loving nature and seek to protect it. Instead of damaging the biosphere, we’ll do what we can to help it heal. Then, pandemics and a wide array of catastrophic events will be prevented — not entirely, but without a doubt significantly.