COVID-19: Who do you blame a pandemic on?

The role of global economic structures that fomented this pandemic is obscured behind our small indignations

By Mridula Mary Paul, Abi T Vanak
Published: Thursday 23 April 2020

Every crisis needs a good scapegoat. In the case of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, we seem to have found multiple ones.

We linked this pandemic to various causes — from bats and Chinese culinary adventurism, to natural habitat destruction and industrial food production — each championed by its own chorus of archangels ranging from environmental scientists to first-world Gaia-worshipping vegans.

While we must never deny anyone the glory of their ‘I told you so’ moments, this seems to be as far as many of us are willing to go.

The role played by global economic structures that fomented this pandemic is obscured behind our small indignations.

When we hear concerns expressed about the effects of the pandemic on the economy, we don’t realise we have it all backwards. Diseases are not a threat to the economy.

The economic juggernaut that led us here is the real threat we should be worrying about. Diseases are symptomatic of this. We can find a cure. We can make a vaccine. We can hug a few trees, recycle our beer cans and righteously munch on non-GMO kale.

But what do we do about the systemic failings of the neoliberal economic system that are at the root of the crisis we are in the midst of?

Acquiring diseases from animals is not a new phenomenon. It has been commonplace for much of human history.

Zoonotic pathogens are plentiful on the planet. In most cases, humans are dead-end hosts, that is, there is no further human-to-human transmission, thus reducing the chances of an outbreak.

During incidences of cross-species transmission, referred to as ‘viral chatter’ increases, however, there are greater chances that a pathogen with the capacity for human-to-human transmission slips through, potentially turning into an epidemic.

We are now at a point where conditions needed for an infectious disease outbreak are lined up perfectly. It only needed that final spark, which in the case of COVID-19, were wild meat or ‘wet’ markets.

There have been others at different times. The structural conditions that enabled these, however, have remained the same. 

Framing the pandemic simplistically as a public health crisis — one that was caused by strange eating habits of people in faraway places — suits the neoliberal economic narrative.

Corporations and governments that have wrought havoc with the environment in myriad ways have been masters of deflection.

They have excelled in passing the buck on to the smallest actors at the outer edges of the economic machinery, with allies among a certain brand of largely urban conservationists and animal rights activists.

The clear-felling of entire forests is a legitimate economic endeavour in this worldview, while collecting firewood for subsistence is portrayed as a threat to the environment.

Large-scale aqua-culture that lay waste to entire landscapes with their introduced salinity are alright but artisanal fisheries are deemed over-exploitative.

Oil palm and soy plantations in rainforests are couched in the language of development and progress, but shifting cultivation by a few communities is singled out as a major threat to the planet.

Industrialised cattle farming is not demonised, even when it led to bovine spongiform encephalopathy or mad-cow disease in the United Kingdom, but subsistence hunting and eating wild meat is a conservation — and now, a health — crisis. 

It is not that we are entirely oblivious.

The links between the destruction of the natural environment and the emergence of disease is widely, if grudgingly, accepted.

We know that economic activities like mining, logging, road-building, and plantations in areas of high biodiversity — and therefore higher diversity of host-pathogen interactions — are creating more avenues for these pathogens to jump from animals to humans.

We are aware that economic growth imperatives that demand cuts to social funding have weakened public health systems globally, making it easier for emerging infectious diseases to spiral out of control.

A wide-ranging consensus, however, is emerging around the ban of wildlife markets. While wild meat might be a luxury consumable in some parts of the world, in others it is vital for the nutritional security for poor communities.

Furthermore, wild meat represents only a fraction of global meat consumption. Rather, it is large livestock production chains that are known hubs of zoonoses, as seen in the 1997 outbreak of the Asian highly-pathogenic avian influenza (H5N1) virus. No one is rushing to ban commercial poultry production just yet. 

This is not to say that all small-scale economic activity is sustainable. The injection of capital and the ubiquitousness of the market have made sure traditional systems that ensured stable relationships between humans and their environment have largely broken down.

Wild meat consumption is not a subsistence endeavour in every case. A study from Cameroon showed commercial timber felling deep within forests brought roads, more people, crowded habitations, poor sanitation and an increased demand for wild meat.

Essentially the ideal cocktail for zoonotic disease emergence, as seen in the case of Ebola. Areas like these — usually in tropical countries — are referred to as ‘hotspots’ for infectious disease.

We have conveniently pathologised entire landscapes rather than call large-scale economic ventures that disrupt environments and societies in these areas into question.

Given that these ventures are spurred by the demand and consumption habits of many of us, perhaps we are wary of asking the question that would implicate our own selves.

Instead of introspection, what we encounter in discussions of the pandemic is platitudes about finding better ways to modify environments.

Despite living through one of the biggest backlashes of the economic system, we are still in pursuit of its ‘sustainable’ version: One that has proved to be so elusive thus far, that it may be time to accept that it probably does not exist.

What we need to discuss instead is how to fundamentally alter our economic and development systems to put the environment at the centre of the equation: A system that reverses centuries of inequity and prioritises the wellbeing of humanity and not the comfort of a few.

Optimism is naturally in short supply when — even in the midst of a pandemic we know was caused by environmental destruction — governments continue to clear projects that cut through prime forest lands.

This pandemic has brought the failures of the neoliberal economic model, almost literally, to our doors; so much so that most of humanity are trapped in their homes and cannot leave.

If the incontrovertible evidence in the tragic form of the rising human death toll of this disease does not force us to confront the structures that brought it about, there may be no one left to blame pretty soon.  

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