OPENING THE COVID-19 PANDORA’S BOX
by Zora Lathan, May 23, 2020
A panel of international scientists—including professors Josef Settele, Sandra Díaz, Eduardo Brondizio, and zoologist Peter Daszak— noted in a recent report, “There is a single species that is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic — us.”
According to the panel: “Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people.”
“When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills—a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public—had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity—to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category,” writes George Packer, staff writer for The Atlantic.
Ed Yong, science journalist for The Atlantic, writes, “Economies have nose-dived. Societies have paused. In most people’s living memory, no crisis has caused so much upheaval so broadly and so quickly.”
Be prepared, this crisis isn’t going away anytime soon, and there will likely be more—and possibly worse—pandemics in our future. Even as we are overwhelmed with 24/7 news coverage of the current crisis, we’re missing the big picture. “Pandemics are on the rise, and we need to contain the process that drives them, not just the individual diseases,” Peter Daszak, disease ecologist, wrote. “Plagues are not only part of our culture; they are caused by it.”
Disease is largely an environmental issue. Most epidemics, and larger scale pandemics, are a result of things people do to nature, which create ripe conditions for viruses to jump species from wildlife or factory farmed animals to humans. The release of viruses is inextricably tied to growing populations and consumption patterns—resulting in uncontrolled deforestation and the expansion of animal industrial-scale farming, mining, and the exploitation of wild species—resulting in pandemics, the climate crisis, environmental injustice, social and political upheaval, income inequality, and poverty. The powers that be share a basic goal: to strip-mine public assets for the benefit of private interests.
COVID-19 is fundamentally the story of humanity’s chronic ills, our obsession with economic growth at any cost, and more specifically the ever-encroaching expansion into wildlife areas, the ever-growing, intensive livestock farming practices, and our growing appetite for eating animals, whether factory-farmed or wildlife. “… the vast majority (three out of every four) of new infectious diseases in people come from animals—from wildlife and from the livestock we keep in ever-larger numbers,” writes Fiona Armstrong, Executive Director, Climate and Health Alliance. “The conditions in which we often farm animals today—crowding tens of thousands of animals wing-to-wing or snout-to-snout—serve as “amplifiers” for viral pandemics,” Paul Shapiro tells us. Whether it’s climate change or COVID-19, we don’t live outside of the laws of nature.
“Though it may not feel like it now, [Rob] Wallace [author of Big Farms Make Big Flu] says, we have been lucky with Sars-CoV-2 [COVID-19]. It appears to be far less lethal that either H7N9—which kills around a third of those it infects—or H5N1, which kills even more. This gives us an opportunity, he says, to question our lifestyle choices—because chicken isn’t cheap if it costs a million lives—and vote for politicians who hold agribusiness to higher standards of ecological, social and epidemiological sustainability. ‘Hopefully,’ he says, ‘this will change our notions about agricultural production, land use and conservation,’ ” wrote Laura Spinney.
The inconvenient truth is: Reducing meat and dairy intake, and eating more plant-based foods, will not only greatly reduce diet-related environmental destruction and promote planetary health, it will promote personal health with issues such as chronic inflammation, heart health, nutritional needs, gut health, hormonal imbalance, cancer, allergies, and more.
The importance of protecting our planet and fighting for public health, science, and competent government has never been clearer. This pandemic cannot be separated from the conditions that birthed it – our manic materialistic raiding of the planet’s resources by the wealthy, and inadvertently, by booming populations in poorer countries.
More Americans are living on the edge. Many people are losing their jobs and households and are left in financial ruin. Ever-growing income inequality means the poorest people always pay the highest price for insurance, health care, and other services, and often pay the highest price of all—losing their lives. Enlarging the social safety net might be one of the biggest impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. We can use this time to reflect on our positions of privilege and implicit biases, and commit to making a difference. “May the crisis give us the opportunity to make the dignity of the person and of work the center of our concern,” said Pope Francis.
COVID-19: VISIONS FOR A BETTER FUTURE
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” –Arundhati Roy, “The pandemic is a portal,” Financial Times, April 3, 2020
As of May 2020, the U.S. has less than five percent of the world’s population, yet we have almost one-third of the world’s coronavirus deaths.
Unfortunately, it is often the case with human beings that things have to become much worse before they get better. Deaths and illnesses are adding up. Many pre-corona businesses and jobs will cease to exist, and the economic toll on our lives is, and will continue to be, painful. Recovery won’t be a sprint but a long and grueling marathon. And happy talk won’t change the reality of the crisis, which is affecting all of humanity in every corner of the globe.
“The coronavirus is revolutionary not just because of the suffering it has caused, but because it—like other diseases, from the bubonic plague to malaria to HIV—has the power to shape social norms for years to come,” said Juliette Kayyem, “After Social Distancing, a Strange Purgatory Awaits,” April 16, 2020.
We have the opportunity to use this crisis as an inflection point to build a better society that works for the benefit of everyone. Now is the time to reflect, reassess, and reset.
Prior to COVID-19—and the dramatic change in the pace of life—we’ve lived increasingly fast-paced, non-stop, hyper-accelerated lives. Fast food, fast fashion, fast cars, more money, more fun, more and more of what you don’t even know what you’re looking for. As a nation, we’re “dumbed down and distracted.” It been said, “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate, so we can buy crap we don’t need.” We easily get caught up in petty squabbles and bickering, jealousies, and the like; and we take for granted the wonders of the world and all we have to be grateful for. We often find ourselves on a hedonic treadmill, where whatever we obtain is never enough.
“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature,” states Brene Brown.
A seismic shift is occurring on our shared planet. The vibration of the earth has literally slowed down, as has the pace of our lives, at least for some, and at least for the time being. One is reminded of the sci-fi classic—The Day the Earth Stood Still. Many of us have more time to rest, recharge, reflect, and to be present in moment. As we are sheltering-in-place, we can take time to image our world anew.
For those who are fortunate to have enough food to eat, to shelter-in-place, and to work and learn remotely, they are privileged. Walking and running in our parks and gardening in our yards, more people are seeking comfort in nature these days. As we experience the American version of “Walkabout” (a period of several months spent in the wilderness as a rite of passage in Australian Aboriginal society), as we become more comfortable with getting quiet, being still, and becoming centered, we may just find ourselves with a renewed sense of calm in the midst of the current pandemic storm. We may find ourselves becoming more mindfully in touch with the present, and simply being grateful for each day. Maya Angelou once said, “If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is to be present in the present…Gratefully.”
Many of us are also becoming restless and anxious for a return to pre-coronavirus days. “Life right now feels very odd. And it will feel odd for months—and even years—to come. … Until scientists discover a vaccine, doctors develop significantly better medical treatments, or both, people all over the world will be working around, sharing space with, and sheltering from a virus that still kills. The year or years that follow the lifting of stay-at-home orders won’t be true recovery but something better understood as adaptive recovery, in which we learn to live with the virus even as we root for medical progress,” says Juliette Kayyem, “After Social Distancing, a Strange Purgatory Awaits,” April 16, 2020.
As we look forward to medical progress, there is potential for significant social and economic reforms. Olga Khazan, in her article “How the Coronavirus Could Create a New Working Class,” April 15, 2020, tells us, “… I spoke with 15 experts on the sociology and politics of class. When the dust settles, there’s of course a chance that low-income workers might end up just as powerless as they were before. But history offers a precedent for plagues being, perversely, good for workers. Collective anger at low wages and poor working protections can produce lasting social change, and people tend to be more supportive of government benefits during periods of high unemployment. One study that looked at 15 major pandemics found that they increased wages for three decades afterward. The Plague of Justinian, in 541, led to worker incomes doubling. After the Black Death demolished Europe in the 1300s, textile workers in northern France received three raises in a year. Old rules were upended: Workers started wearing red, a color previously associated with nobility.”
DID YOU KNOW?
There is so much about COVID-19 that has yet to be determined, however, in the meantime, we can at least learn lessons from the history of past viral outbreaks and pandemics.
~ COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease. New zoonotic viruses emerge when mutated viruses jump from animals to humans. “Ebola, the Zika virus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), avian flu, and swine flu [also HIV and Hendra] are all examples of new zoonotic diseases. Newly emerging infectious diseases are on the rise since the 1940s, and about 75 percent of them jump from animals to humans,” writes Caroline Christen, “How Rearing, Hunting, Trading, Killing, Dissecting and Eating Animals Leads to Zoonotic Diseases like COVID-19,” April 2020, www.onegreenplanet.org.
~ Caroline Christen tell us: “Several factors contribute to the rise of new pathogens. The growing human population leads to crowded and unsanitary living settlements worldwide, places where viruses, bacteria, and fungi thrive. Rising temperatures and deforested areas provide ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes carrying vector-borne diseases like the Zika virus. Increased human mobility means that the outbreak of a new disease can travel from a remote village to any major city in the world in less than 36 hours.”
~ “SARS-CoV-2 is the virus. COVID-19 is the disease that it causes. The two aren’t the same. The disease arises from a combination of the virus and the person it infects, and the society that person belongs to. Some people who become infected never show any symptoms; others become so ill that they need ventilators.” –Ed Yong, “Why the Coronavirus Is So Confusing,” The Atlantic, April 29, 2020.
~ “There isn’t just one coronavirus. Besides SARS-CoV-2, six others are known to infect humans—four are mild and common, causing a third of colds, while two are rare but severe, causing MERS and the original SARS. But scientists have also identified about 500 other coronaviruses among China’s many bat species. ‘There will be many more—I think it’s safe to say tens of thousands,’ says Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance, who has led that work. Laboratory experiments show that some of these new viruses could potentially infect humans. SARS-CoV-2 likely came from a bat, too.” –Ed Yong, Ibid.
~ “Before the domestication of birds about 2,500 years ago, human influenza likely didn’t even exist. Similarly, before the domestication of livestock there was no measles, small pox, and many other diseases that have plagued humanity since they were born in the barnyard about 10,000 years ago. Once diseases jump the species barrier from the animal kingdom, they can spread independently throughout human populations with often tragic consequences.” –Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, 2011
~ “The industrialization of the chicken and pork industries is thought to have wrought these unprecedented changes in avian and swine influenza. No one even got sick from bird flu for eight decades before a new strain, H5N1, started killing children in 1997. Likewise, in pigs here in the U.S. swine flu was totally stable for eight decades before a pig-bird-human hybrid mutant virus appeared in commercial pig populations in 1998. It was that strain that combined with a Eurasian swine flu virus ten years later to spawn the flu pandemic of 2009, sickening millions of young people around the world.
“The first hybrid mutant swine flu virus discovered in the United States was at a factory farm in North Carolina in which thousands of pregnant sows were confined in “gestation crates,” veal crate-like metal stalls barely larger than their bodies. These kind of stressful, filthy, overcrowded conditions can provide a breeding ground for the emergence and spread of new diseases. … “So far, only thousands of people have died from swine flu. Unless we radically change the way chickens and pigs are raised for food, though, it may only be a matter of time before a catastrophic pandemic arises.” –Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, 2011
~ To put the current coronavirus pandemic in perspective, there have been numerous pandemics throughout human history, many of which have killed millions of people and devastated societies. The bubonic plague or Black Death, from 1347 to 1351, is estimated to have it killed between 75 million and 200 million people at a time when the world’s population was only 450 million. Historians estimate that half the population of Europe died within four years.
~ The 1918 to 1920 influenza pandemic is said to have killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide (estimates vary) during World War I. It killed more people than World War I itself (37 million). The estimated world population in 1918 was 1.8 billion, and as many as one-third of the world’s population may have been infected. In the United States, an estimated 675,000 people died—10 times the number of US soldiers killed in World War I. Misnamed the “Spanish Flu” (because Spain was the first country to officially report on the pandemic), it is believed to have originated on a hog farm in Kansas (although there are other theories). It was then spread to the entire world by American soldiers, who were shipped overseas during World War I, on ships that came to be dubbed “floating coffins.”
~ Influenza has caused an estimated 15 pandemics in the past 500 years. Flu is constantly mutating, which is the reason the seasonal flu vaccine has to be updated each year.
~ “Indeed, the H1N1 swine flu outbreak of 2009 appears to have originated in a pig confinement operation in North Carolina. And while the H5N1 bird flu outbreak in 1997 evidently originated in Chinese chicken farms (case fatality rate 60 percent), a similar bird flu in the U.S. just five years ago led American poultry farmers to kill tens of millions of their birds to contain the outbreak, which thankfully never made the jump into the human population. And at this very moment, both India and China have announced bird flu outbreaks among their chicken factories. Similarly, these are not yet affecting human health.” –Paul Shapiro, “One Root Cause of Pandemics Few People Think About: It’s our seemingly insatiable desire to eat meat,” Scientific American, March 24, 2020, www.scientificamerican.com.
~ In 2011, Dr. Michael Greger—physician, author, and international speaker—stated that, “Currently H5N1 kills approximately 60% of those it infects, so you don’t even get a coin toss chance of survival. That’s a mortality rate on par with some strains of Ebola. Thankfully, only a few hundred people have become infected. Should a virus like H5N1 trigger a pandemic, though, the results could be catastrophic. During a pandemic as many as 2 or 3 billion people can become infected. A 60% mortality rate is simply unimaginable. Unfortunately, it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.”
~ “The Indian practitioners of tika had likely learned it from Arabic physicians, who had learned it from the Chinese. As early as 1100, medical healers in China had realized that those who survived smallpox did not catch the illness again (survivors of the disease were enlisted to take care of new victims), and inferred that the exposure of the body to an illness protected it from future instances of that illness. Chinese doctors would grind smallpox scabs into a powder and insufflate it into a child’s nostril with a long silver pipe.” —Siddhartha Mukherjee, “How Does the Coronavirus Behave Inside a Patient?” www.newyorker.com, March 26, 2020.