The Virus Is Not New
We are living in unprecedented times. The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped our daily lives, fragmented our social patterns, and turned many of our institutions upside down. This challenging global moment will no doubt go down in history as one of the most disruptive events of the century. But what if it didn’t? What if this is just the beginning, and it pales in comparison to what will come? The COVID-19 pandemic may seem unprecedented as we currently experience it, but virologists are telling us that it’s actually just a magnification of a pattern that’s been happening for quite some time. AIDS, SARS, MERS, Ebola. To name a few. All these diseases emerge when humans disrupt and exploit natural habitats, causing new pathogens to jump from animals to humans. Why? First, there’s a question of proximity. When humans go deeper and deeper into wild habitats, we expose ourselves to new diseases. Simple. Second, there’s a question of disturbance. When we destroy habitats and disrupt the way ecosystems function, we stress the living things therein, making them less healthy and more likely to interface with humans in detrimental ways. And third, there’s a question of selection. With so many habitats destroyed and so many species driven to extinction, we have created an environment perfectly suited for the creatures most likely to transmit diseases: rats, mosquitoes, cockroaches; some species of bats. We purify our surroundings into a monocropped hell hole roaming with resistant pathogens, and we put everything else into a zoo. Proximity: walking up to a beehive.
Disturbance: shaking up the beehive.
Selection: breeding killer bees. We get stung. There are other factors at play, of course. Healthcare systems land in the crosshairs of criticism during these crises, especially in the short term. Equity implications abound, too, as once again this crisis will disproportionately affect vulnerable and marginalized populations with less access to resources, while people like me just switch from working at the coffee shop to working from home. But in the long run, confronting pandemics isn’t just about hospital capacity, social distancing, or thousand-dollar checks in the mail. Healthcare systems and stock markets are no match for a new pathogen every couple of years. Nor is our moral responsibility. That’s why we need to see pandemics for the environmental issues that they are. Health and environment are intimately connected, and if we want to prevent another outbreak, we’re going to need more than masks. I’m trying to view this pandemic as earth’s call to reconstitute our way of relating to the natural environment. It’s no coincidence that many across the world feel called towards open spaces and the community of other species and ecosystems during these turbulent times. It’s an innate, sometimes unspoken recognition that from where we have come we must return, if we are ever to be whole. The era of serial pandemics and climate change is upon us. In this era open space and healthy habitats are critically important safeguards for human welfare, and they mostly require us to step back, use less, and stop sterilizing the planet. Otherwise we will very soon be truly alone, stuck on this beautiful spinning rock in a perpetual state of quarantine.
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