A New Decade, A New Virus, A New Opportunity

An article by Sally Campbell

The whole world is an interconnected and single, inter-dependent system. We, the people of this planet are part of this system and whilst we have developed a great deal of power and influence over use of the Earth’s resources, we remain dependent on our larger earth ecosystem. Evidence that the whole ecosystem is in serious trouble has been there for all of us for a long time; recently, the latest we now call the Climate Emergency. For years we have ignored or avoided E. F Schumacher’s prophetic warnings in Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered (1973).

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.

Infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility.

We have ignored E.F. Schumacher’s prophetic warning that when we finally win our war with nature we will find ourselves on the losing side. Suddenly, we are realising we are vulnerable and that a threat to our health, our communities, even the threat of death has changed our outlook, at least presently. Our immune response cannot cope with this new “enemy” coronavirus, even as scientists and epidemiologists frantically search for a vaccine. Suddenly, our government abandons austerity and finds finance to support health and the NHS, redundant, marginalised, vulnerable and the self-employed, all those areas which have been starved of resources for ten years. Concern for us all has shown our collective will to support each other. But why has this come now? And more importantly will we change our ways going forward? Will the Climate Emergency receive an equal financial input to keep the temperature increase below 1.5 degrees within 20 years? We know now that where there is political will a way is found to deliver.

Inger Andersen, Environment Programme chief at UN says nature is warning us with coronavirus and the climate crisis that humanity is placing too many pressures on the natural world and by not taking care of the planet we are not taking care of ourselves. Destruction of the natural world for industrial farming, mining, housing and infrastructure must be curtailed. Our population is too high, our consumption too great. The loss of natural habitats is crucial to understanding the forces. The live animal markets are an ideal mixing bowl for disease. Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people. 75% of all emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife. Other diseases from wildlife had much higher fatality rates in people than Covid-19 has so far shown, such as the 50% death rate for Ebola. Industrial-scale farming in China and other parts of the world have pushed the farming smallholders out, forcing them closer to uncultivated zones such as forests, where new diseases to humans lurk; for example bats, which are known reservoirs for coronaviruses, such as SARS and other viruses like rabies. In fact when it comes to carrying viruses that can jump to other species, so-called “zoonotic” viruses, bats may be in a class of their own. The flying mammals are reservoirs for more than 60 viruses that can infect humans, and host more viruses per species than even rodents do. Scientists have identified coronavirus-related strains in Malayan pangolins, a species of scaly anteaters, seized during anti-smuggling operations in southern China. The international team of experts says that the presence of the SARS-CoV-2-related coronaviruses means that pangolins should be viewed as a possible carrier in the ongoing pandemic. The coronavirus first emerged in December in the Chinese city of Wuhan. While scientists have not yet worked out how exactly how the novel coronavirus first infected people, there is evidence that it originated in bats, which spread to another animal, possibly a pangolin, that ended up in a “wet market” in Wuhan.

A similar drama has unfolded over a much longer timescale with influenza, the disease that has caused more pandemics in the history of humanity than any other disease. ‘Flu viruses that infect animals including poultry and pigs, have periodically spilled over into humans ever since we first domesticated those animals millennia ago. The huge loss of human life right around the world in 1918-20, is believed to have come from ducks on a farm in Kansas in the USA which infected a young man before he left for Army basic training. He passed it to other recruits, who then left by troopship en route to France. Fighting in the latter part of the First World War, spreading through the forces, and some carried it back home as the war ended and the rest is history. This 1918 Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1920 killed more people than World War 1, at somewhere between 30 and 50 million people. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. The ‘flu was most deadly for people ages 20 to 40. But the factory farms that produce our food today ratchet up the virulence of those ‘flu viruses just before they spill over. This has been documented in Europe, Australia and the USA and it is this driver that promoted the last ‘flu pandemic in 2009. I remember being pretty ill in 1958 with Asian ‘Flu, another Pandemic.

We have created a global human-dominated ecosystem from which periodically emerges the host-switching of animal viruses. The resulting diseases are suffered locally at first, Ebola, Zika virus diseases and Bolivian haemorrhagic fever to name just three of them, but some of them, such as HIV and Covid-19 go on to become global. So what to do? We rush for a cure. Infectious disease experts detect a virus circulating in a herd, or flock and generate a vaccine for it. Poultry flocks can be vaccinated and as we have seen with influenza there are human vaccines which can be ready each winter. This is all crisis management, but we are as yet, not seeing changes in our behaviours for the long term to look at our lifestyle and economic structures that encourage consumption, greed and profit before ecological sustainability.

The world ecosystem is about “the Commons” which is about shared resources, common land, common marine waters, and the present tragedy of the commons is when these are overexploited or destroyed by individuals or groups in their own self-interest. This whole world ecosystem, now trampled by us for industry, from logging, mining, industrial agriculture and livestock, from roads to urbanisation. These forces change ecosystems, environments, rivers, destroy forests, and wild spaces and viruses in animals in their path jump to human populations. The forces used are both economic, political and the massive increase in human populations in the last 50 years. We need leaders who understand that the treatment for this Pandemic and others to follow cannot only be topical (panic today). It has to be systemic too, changes for the long term to look after our world ecosystems for the long term future of the planet and indeed our climate.

So how does this Pandemic relate to our Climate Emergency?

It is interesting to witness the immediate changes in climate health due to the present virus. This Covid-19 pandemic is leading to a huge plunge in air pollution in our cities. It is worth considering these unintended consequences, positive for once! There has been a 40% drop in nitrogen dioxide levels in the northern Italian industrial heartland since the lockdown began. NASA estimates a drop of 10-30% in nitrogen dioxide levels in central and eastern China since January’s lockdown. Air pollution levels in London are falling fast as road traffic makes up about 80% of the UK’s nitrogen dioxide emissions. The latest figure is 33-50% fall in tiny-particle pollution in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff since the shutdown. In the UK, 52mg of nitrogen dioxide per kilometre is emitted by the average diesel engine so for each kilometre not driven 52mg less of the pollutant goes into the air. “These figures challenge us in the future to think do we really need to drive our car or burn fuel for that?” said Paul Monks Professor of Air Pollution at Leicester University.

This is potentially the Great Unravelling of our modern economic drive to increase economic growth through consumption and the Great Turning, looking at ways for a new more sustainable future for us and the planet ecosystem. As “Business as Usual” is collapsing those who belong to historically oppressed groups are most vulnerable: from the elderly to those with weak or compromised immune systems to those who are now additionally impacted by the curfews, bans and shortages: the poor, the homeless, the disabled, including indigenous peoples and migrants. Many will lose jobs and homes and others will become sick and die. For example 29 million people in the USA are today without medical cover and many developing countries have inadequate medical systems. Populations in less developed countries, in particular in Africa, are particularly at risk.

The disintegration of the capitalist consumption culture because of this virus is slowing the destruction of our eco-systems and creating time for connection. Entire cities are again able to see the blue sky, listen to the birds and breathe clean and fresh air. People are taking time to contact those they care about, read a book and reconnect with themselves. I hope we can see the Great Turning towards a life sustaining society too. People around the world are self-organising in community support groups. This is a powerful opportunity to slow the destruction and build new, based on traditional structures for a sustainable future. Nothing else in our recent past has received our 100% attention in this way (not climate change, not species extinction, not widespread social injustices). Now hopefully all of us realise that we are truly interconnected and that only through collective action and cooperation can we care for ourselves, the planet, and our communities.

Sally Campbell
March 2020