The coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc globally.
On one hand, human society is technologically prepared to deal with a crisis of this nature and scale more than ever before. We have been able to rapidly uncover the ecology of the virus, model its infection dynamics, and anticipate the trajectories of outbreaks as they unfold. On the other hand, it is now evident that even countries with solid healthcare infrastructures are underprepared to deal with this crisis.
As I write this, Italy has reported over 11,000 deaths already. The number of cases is skyrocketing across the globe and it’s only a matter of time before the situation worsens. Our lives have been radically altered over the past few weeks. What’s important to note is that this will not be the only large-scale crisis that our generation will face. The ecological crisis that looms ahead of us is of a far greater magnitude. At this point, it makes sense for us to ask ourselves – what can the coronavirus pandemic teach us about the ecological crisis?
If we can learn anything from the COVID19 pandemic, it is that large-scale crises are viscerally real. As we attempt to contemplate the sheer magnitude of a large-scale crisis, we experience a cognitive dissonance in our minds, which we then deal with through denial. In the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, government officials and the general public alike denied that this crisis could lead to catastrophic collapses of our social and financial systems.
However, here we are confronting a situation that has already resulted in thousands of deaths and most likely will result in the collapse of global labor markets. The denial of the real threat posed by coronavirus could have stemmed either from our ignorance or from our unwillingness to comprehend its enormity. But this pandemic has taught us that neither option is acceptable. In the perceived lack of urgency, it has resulted in a colossal loss of human lives, and the ecological crisis that we face will be no different.
In the near future, entire island states that harbor diverse ecosystems and indigenous cultures will drown due to sea-level rises. The climate change exodus will worsen an ongoing refugee crisis. Rapid spread of invasive species and antibiotic resistant genes will pose a key threat to environmental and human health. Struggles surrounding access to food and water security will intensify. The recent Australian bushfires, which burnt an estimated 11.2 million hectares of land (two-thirds of the total area of Nepal) and devastated human and wildlife alike, represents the mere tip of the iceberg.
We need to address the ecological crisis now. We cannot afford to deny its existence because once the crisis strikes, it will be of a greater magnitude, resulting in the loss of far more lives. While for many in our generation, a large-scale global crisis used to be something real only theoretically, that is no longer the case.
The coronavirus pandemic also teaches us that resolving large-scale crises demands systemic changes that are radical and address interdependent socio-ecological complexities. Right now, countries around the world are enforcing some version of a lockdown and shelter-in-place to contain the pandemic. By ‘flattening the curve’, these measures ensure that our health systems are not overburdened.
Governments that acted promptly based on scientific evidence have been more successful in containment, while the ones that were too scared of radical measures or were late to act are being hit the hardest by the crisis. Politicians worldwide will now face the challenge of framing policies that will help affected people rehabilitate and adapt to the catastrophic collapse of our social systems. Issues surrounding labour, affordable housing, and food and water security are not independent and hence, will only intensify over time.
The ecological crisis will be no exception. Dealing with the ecological crisis will require addressal of such socio-ecological complexities. Roles played by global capitalism, fossil fuel industries, and industrial food systems in structuring our societies will have to be reimagined. Just as this pandemic has shown, large systemic changes are absolutely critical to minimize the impacts of large-scale crises and to effectively deal with them. In the past few weeks, we have realized that we are capable of collectively making radical changes but when we act is critical at this juncture to drastically affect the way in which the future unfolds.
This pandemic has clearly shown that the impacts of large-scale crises will not be evenly distributed in our communities. The infection trajectory (one of the many components of the COVID-19 pandemic) of coronavirus seems to be fairly independent of the socio-economic realities of individuals. Celebrities and politicians are among those contracting the disease and the virus does not seem to discriminate against the rich or the poor.
Despite this seemingly neutral mode of infection, the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are being felt rather unevenly. The very politicians and people with power who denied the existence of the crisis and failed to act with urgency are the ones who have easy access to testing and healthcare facilities while the general public struggles even to get tested. Furthermore, healthcare workers are having to make the horrifying choice of who gets to live and who gets to die.
Unlike COVID19, the ecological crisis is deeply rooted in socio-economic inequalities at its core and we can only imagine how this amplified inequality will have disproportionate impacts on our communities. We must realize that the shifts in disease dynamics is only one of the many dimensions of the forthcoming ecological crisis that our generation and future generations will face. Current political and economic structures do not serve the marginalized and vulnerable populations.
Marxist ecologist and epidemiologist Richard Levins talks about how the blood pressure of serum glucose of an individual is a function of the feedback loops that connect the physiology of our immune system with our socialized physiology of class, social status, and the nature of work. Even a seemingly objective measure such as blood pressure, when rigorously analyzed, can highlight the complex interdependencies that define it.
As the coronavirus crisis halts the lives of many around the globe, it is important that we take a moment to reflect on how robust the socio-ecological components of our societies are in the face of large-scale crises.
More importantly, what can we do to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of other large-scale crises such as the ecological crisis that we are guaranteed to encounter in the near future?