The Permanent Pandemic - Is a post-Covid world possible?

By Rupert Read and Aseem Shrivastava.

This essay orginally appeared in Open.

For more than a generation of economic globalisation, to turn the old adage on its head, it seemed to many that “wealth is health”. In the bargain, as everything, including health, came seemingly to rest on the willing shoulders of money, huge fortunes were not only made but universally sought, in what has come to be called an “aspirational world”.

In a grim reminder of the fact that we have in effect been encouraged to escape reality itself in the name of “freedom”, the coronavirus pandemic has been here during the last year to rap us on our knuckles that health is still wealth, that, as John Ruskin had it, life is the true wealth, and that little has actually been well with us and the world all this time that the big fortunes were being made.

We live in an age soaked in propaganda. Could reality actually be much simpler than we are being led to think nowadays? Is it not little more than commonsense that many pathogens have been, are being, and will be summarily unseated by the aggressive, expansionary forces of competitive globalisation from their ancient homes in remote ecosystems—in mountain caves, near polar icecaps, or in the tropical rainforests, or even perhaps the beds of oceans? And that this is, at bottom, the main driving cause of this pandemic and of those many more to come? That if we are to find a lasting answer to the devastating waves of pandemics which are otherwise upon us, we must identify this cause and root it out from our way of life?

Let us note upfront that it is possible that Covid-19 is actually the product of a lab-leak from Wuhan in China. This highly disturbing possibility also casts a very dim light on our hubristic civilisation’s tacit tech-mad assumption that we can act as if we are gods, without fear of blowback. If this were to turn out to be the true origin of this deadly coronavirus, our basic diagnosis would be unaffected. This piece is about the profound danger we have exposed ourselves to by turning against nature, and by turning tech and economics into pseudo-gods. It concerns how our globalising civilisation systematically creates the kind of risk that we have suffered grievously from over the last year. Whether by the lack of humility implicit in constructing deadly viruses in labs, or by the lack of humility explicit in destroying ecosystems, artificialising much of the earth and wreaking climate-havoc, we are manifesting a mode of being that is incompatible with safety and with the richness of long species life.

Our fundamental contention is that you have to choose: you can have a relatively secure, relocalised world, or you can have pandemics in a world of sporadic restless ‘growth’. What you can’t have is our growthist, technophilic, materialistic, economically globalised system and be relatively free of the risk of pandemics.

Nobody likes their homes disturbed and so, having been evicted from their permanent habitats, microbes are looking for new homes in unfamiliar places, the world’s metropolises and its human inhabitants only being the most recent discovery of theirs. Even the animals whose bodies gave them transient succour are slain for human food. Thus, ‘spillovers’ of what are called “zoonotic” viruses are becoming increasingly more frequent than they used to be in a slower, less globalised world of moderate material aspirations, involving far less disturbance to remote ecosystems.

Could things not be as simple as this? After all, every creature, even a virus that comes alive only in a living cellular environment, longs to thrive by reproducing itself. Removed forcibly from its customary habitat, it would surely look for a new home. The current pandemic may be part of the rapidly growing price of the unsparingly triumphalist modernisation of the world.

If all this is true, should we not reject outright any talk of a “post-Covid” world? For, so long as competitive commercial aggression supported by myopic technological utopianism remains the dominant way of human life on earth, one can expect microbes, otherwise remote from or harmless to humans, to turn pathogenic and generate far-flung consequences for global society and human health. The lurking perils would not be allayed even if this particular coronavirus pandemic ended.

Let us look deeper. Let us take some of the evidence.

First, let us look at the destruction of habitats around the earth in the global age. The forces of international competition are the glory of professional economists who advise governments around the world. Such competition is upheld for the virtues of productivity, efficiency, and growth which fire the world’s economies—employment generation being the usual political pretext for such reductionist advice.

What is not considered by economists is the growing violence to the earth’s ecologies entailed by the routine processes of modern, competitive economic growth. The expansion and intensification of agriculture, the race-to-the-bottom extraction of mineral resources for manufacturing, and the growth of infrastructure (such as the construction of roads, dams, airports, ports and power plants) all involve deforestation and habitat destruction on a large scale. Since 1990, a forested area of 178 million hectares, seven times the size of Britain, has been lost to global economic growth. This is more than 4 per cent of the forested area of the earth.

Some economists have begun taking note of the routine, unsustainable destruction of nature as a result of economic growth. Such environmental accounting as they engage in is risky: to treat nature itself as if it were a kind of capital is arguably just a novel form of the degradation. The value of nature is profoundly misunderstood and mischaracterised if we tot it up in pounds and pennies. But take their false coin for true, for a moment: even on their own terms, such accountings clearly show up the great illusion that global economic growth has now become. Man-made capital not only cannot replace nature, it is suicidally predatory on it. Data from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) demonstrates that the global stock of “natural capital” per capita has fallen by a staggeringly precipitous 40 per cent since the early 1990s, while produced capital has doubled and human capital has grown by only 13 per cent since then.

Rapid deforestation has not only led to enormous loss of biodiversity, flora and fauna, it has also brought (as we shall see) humanity into much closer contact with unfamiliar new pathogens carried by the smaller creatures, such as rodents, rats and bats, moved by or left behind by habitat destruction and modification. This is a big source of zoonosis, since many unknown microbes, with which human immune systems are unfamiliar from evolution have come into close contact with human society for the very first time. Credible research demonstrates that changes in land-use, including deforestation and the modification of natural habitats, are responsible for almost half of emerging zoonoses.

One scientific assessment “found that the populations of animals hosting zoonotic diseases were up to 2.5 times bigger in degraded places, and that the proportion of species that carry these pathogens increased by up to 70%” in comparison with undamaged ecosystems.

During the last one year of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a series of warnings from the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization (WHO) that the world must tackle not just the health and economic symptoms of the pandemic but their root causes in the destruction and modification of natural habitats and remote ecosystems. In the opinion of experts, the Covid-19 pandemic is an “SOS signal for the human enterprise.” “Even more deadly disease outbreaks [are] likely unless nature [is] protected.”

A recent study published in Nature points out that “global changes in the mode and the intensity of land use are creating expanding hazardous interfaces between people, livestock and wildlife reservoirs of zoonotic disease.” “As people go in and, for example, turn a forest into farmland, what they’re doing inadvertently is making it more likely for them to be in contact with an animal that carries disease,” says David Redding, of the ZSL Institute of Zoology in London. “The greatest zoonotic threats arise where natural areas have been converted to croplands, pastures and urban areas.” In his view: “the reason for species such as rodents and bats simultaneously thriving in ecosystems damaged by humans and also hosting the most pathogens is probably because they are small, mobile, adaptable and produce lots of offspring rapidly.” Agricultural and urban lands are predicted to expand in the coming decades. This will call for the reinforcement of disease monitoring and healthcare especially in areas going through fundamental disturbances to habitats and ecosystems, since they are ever more likely to have “animals that could be hosting harmful pathogens.”

Rabies, leptospirosis, anthrax, lyme disease, zika, SARS, MERS, yellow fever, dengue, HIV, Ebola, Chikungunya and coronaviruses are all zoonotic viruses. The familiar flu, as well as malaria and the bubonic plague originated in zoonosis too, though in centuries past. According to UNEP, three-quarters of emerging infectious diseases which affect the health of humanity now originate in animals. So we can scarcely be indifferent to ‘spillovers’ whose origin lies in deforestation and habitat destruction or degradation.

Second, let us consider the rapid growth of movement of people and goods around the world in the global era. The number of international air passenger trips more than doubled from two to 4.7 billion in just the period from 2004 to 2019, till the pandemic interrupted the growth. Thanks to globalisation and the consequent growth in the speed, frequency and volume of international travel across great distances of the earth, viruses—not just zoonotic—have exploded in our time.

Where transmission from human to human is possible, a virus can speedily spread across our globalised world. The current pandemic is an ample demonstration of the ease with which a dangerous infection can spread in an interconnected, global world through sometimes mysterious vectors and pathways. Those countries—such as Taiwan and South Korea—which imposed international travel restrictions early in the current pandemic have suffered orders of magnitude fewer deaths and Covid cases than those nations—such as Belgium/Netherlands and Spain (with roughly the same population respectively) which did not introduce such controls early enough. Zoonoses are emerging at an unprecedented rate today. Much research is being conducted to address the anxiety of the possibility of a pandemic of globally catastrophic proportions, the likelihood of which grows by the day.

Third, there has been a tremendous growth of international animal trading with the advent of the latest phase of globalisation. What has changed dramatically during the last few generations is the growth in animal trade—for profit—across the world, a good proportion of which is illegal and unregulated, thus not in adherence to international food safety standards.

Especially illustrative is the case of pangolins, sought for their scales, used in traditional Asian medicine, as well as for their meat, a delicacy in some Asian and African communities. They have become among the most trafficked (and threatened) animals in the world. One of the possible pathways by which SARS-Cov-2 may have reached human populations is pangolins.

Legal international trade in animals itself is over $100 billion. However, under the radar, the forces of globalisation have encouraged a growing, unregulated trade in diverse animals with serious public health consequences across international boundaries.

Fourth, scarcely secondary is the public health danger posed by the industrial mass production of meat through animal farming and the slaughterhouses. Most of the meat consumed in the world today is factory-farmed. Animals are closely packed together. As Michael Greger (the author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching) says, “the animals could use a little social distancing, too.” They live under harsh and unsanitary conditions. The stress that animals go through weakens their immune systems. All this makes it easy for microbial infections to spread.

Compounding matters is the fact that animals and birds are selected for genetic traits. This means that those which are farmed are genetically all but identical, making it easy for a viral strain to spread fast across a group of animals or a flock of birds. “Livestock health is the weakest link in our global health chain,” noted the Food and Agriculture Organization in a 2013 report.

Evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace underscores that “big farms make big flu.” “Attempts to proactively change poultry and livestock production in the interests of stopping pathogen outbreaks can be met with severe resistance by governments beholden to their corporate sponsors. In effect, influenza, by virtue of its association with agribusiness, has some of the most powerful representatives available defending its interests in the halls of government. In covering up or downplaying outbreaks in an effort to protect quarterly profits, these institutions contribute to the viruses’ evolutionary fortunes. The very biology of influenza is enmeshed with the political economy of the business of food.” In other words, for pandemics to stop, the world’s food arrangements will have to undergo a serious change.

Fifth, let us further consider dietary habits in a globalised world. Diets are changing rapidly. There is a growing demand for meat from large developing countries, especially India and China, as their middle classes get wealthier and wish to emulate the food habits of wealthier cultures. During the last half-century, global meat production and consumption have grown by an astonishing 260 per cent.

Such a shift in global diets is not sustainable from a planetary resource and climate perspective. Scientists have repeatedly pointed out that avoiding meat and dairy products is the most effective way for us to reduce our footprints on the planet. A shift towards more meat in diets is also ecologically unwise from the vantage point of public health. It is widely understood among experts that meats which we consume regularly can become microbial carriers.

WHAT IS COMMON to all the causes behind growing pandemics is the ruptured relationship between metropolitan humanity and the natural world, upon which the architecture of globalisation stands. It is particularly dangerous that the causes work in tandem. Thus, deforestation and degradation of ecosystems, by wiping out wildlife and buffer species and areas, expose humanity to precisely those microbial carrier species—such as rats and bats—which host pathogens alien and hazardous to the human immune system.

There is virtual unanimity among scientists and experts in a wide range of related fields that the pace of invasion of the natural world is generating conditions which make it all but certain that humanity will continue to face escalating pandemics from known and (many) unknown microbes well into the future.

“We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbour so many species of animals and plants—and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses,” writes David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic. “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at University College, London, calls emerging animal-borne infectious diseases an “increasing and very significant threat to global health, security and economies”. The resulting transmission of disease from wildlife to humans, she says, is now “a hidden cost of human economic development. There are just so many more of us, in every environment. We are going into largely undisturbed places and being exposed more and more. We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.”

“There are countless pathogens out there continuing to evolve which at some point could pose a threat to humans,” says Eric Fevre, chair of veterinary infectious diseases at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Infection and Global Health. “The risk (of pathogens jumping from animals to humans) has always been there.”

“I am not at all surprised about the coronavirus outbreak,” he says. “The majority of pathogens are still to be discovered. We are at the very tip of the iceberg.”

Humans, says disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie, are creating the conditions for the spread of diseases by reducing the natural barriers between host animals—in which the virus is naturally circulating—and themselves. “We fully expect the arrival of pandemic influenza; we can expect largescale human mortalities; we can expect other pathogens with other impacts. A disease like Ebola is not easily spread. But something with a mortality rate of Ebola spread by something like measles would be catastrophic,”

Gillespie says. Wildlife everywhere is being put under more stress: “Major landscape changes are causing animals to lose habitats, which means species become crowded together and also come into greater contact with humans. Species that survive change are now moving and mixing with different animals and with humans.”

“The risks are greater now. They were always present and have been there for generations. It is our interactions with that risk which must be changed,” says Brian Bird, a virologist at the University of California, Davis. “We are in an era now of chronic emergency,” Bird says. “Diseases are more likely to travel further and faster than before, which means we must be faster in our responses. It needs investments, change in human behaviour, and it means we must listen to people at community levels.”

FINALLY, IT IS necessary to point out in an age of denialist solutionism that many so-called ‘solutions’ to major ecological challenges, such as dangerous man-made climate change, may greatly exacerbate the danger of growing pandemics, creating new problems, often without solutions.

Let us consider the implications of changing patterns of energy use towards a more desirable (‘green’) mix. We have been told by experts that decarbonising the world economy is an imperative to prevent runaway climate change and protect organic life. This implies the gradual phasing out and, ultimately, the elimination of fossil fuels which today constitute over three-quarters of the world’s energy use. It means that renewable forms of energy (solar, wind, sometimes water) and electricity generated without coal and oil must come to replace fossil fuels.

Renewable sources of energy will increasingly be relied upon. The transmission advantages of fossil fuel power will have to be forsaken. The power generated will have to be stored in batteries which will be deployed at the point of end-use. Everything from Elon Musk’s electric vehicles to computers and smartphones will run on batteries. Growing amounts of lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, copper, graphite, and rare earths like titanium, molybdenum and vanadium, are thus critical to the operations of a decarbonising global economy.

The destruction of remote habitats and ecosystems is a necessary consequence of the ceaseless search for these rare earths and metals. Terrestrial mining typically involves deforestation, water pollution and human rights abuses. Seabed mining is proposed as an allegedly environmentally sensitive alternative. The strong likelihood is, however, that it will serve not so much as an alternative, but an additional source of metals necessary for the working of batteries.

According to researchers associated with the US Geological Survey, the deep sea contains countless polymetallic nodules more “critical” and rare earth metals necessary for “green technology” applications than all land reserves combined. Dozens of licences for exploration of the seabed have already been issued by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN body made up of 168 countries which, interestingly, both promotes and regulates deep-sea mining. Once underwater mining codes are approved in the near future, giant mining corporations will dive in and “history’s largest mining operation” will begin.

INTERESTED ARE MANY new business ventures like DeepGreen “whose primary interest in mining the ocean is saving the planet.” But such mining will devastate the fragile ecosystems of the dark, deep sea, which may never recover from the damage done by the ocean rovers and robotised tractors which will plough the seabed in search of the new precious metals of the 21st century. Environmental and other experts and critics have expressed their deep reservations about such a venture since it has the potential to damage forever the ecology of the planet. The deep seas are vital, huge carbon sinks all too significant in a world facing climate breakdown.

The understandable desire to tackle desperately urgent climate crisis is fuelling forms of wider ecological devastation. To save ourselves from the self-imposed climate threat, we are apparently willing to take open-ended new risks of wilfully damaging our ecosystems—including even damaging their very capacity to act as natural carbon sinks.

And that’s not all. Relevant to the discussion about an age of raging pandemics is the question of potential pathogens that might lurk on the seabed. The density of microbes in seawater is many million per millilitre, the reason why some scientists are trying to defend the seabed by arguing that many remedies for the treatment of human ailments might be hidden under the ocean floor. According to genetic scientist Craig Venter, “the chance of finding new antibiotics in the marine environment is high.”

Most deep sea microbes, it is understood by scientists, are hosted by the very same metallic nodules that miners are keen to extract. Oceanographer Jeff Drazen says: “When you lift them off the seafloor, you’re removing a habitat that took 10 million years to grow.” Disturbing such a primitive ecosystem, that too in the name of ‘greening’ the planet, is fraught with microbial dangers of the kind already causing mortal havoc in the terrestrial world. Microbes unseated from their accustomed marine habitat will surely look for new homes. If hadal trenches are also going to be disturbed, who knows what new public health perils such a mining mega-adventure will inadvertently invite upon humanity.

ROUTINE STRUCTURAL violations of ecological niches which constitute the root cause of pandemics are concomitant with the forces of competitive corporate globalisation. We should expect a permanent growth and escalation in global pandemics to accompany the globalisation of economic life.

It is very striking that in countries like the UK—egregious failures for the first 12 months of Covid—a central aspect of their historic, epic fail was their profound unwillingness to face the reality of the impending virus and to change their practices in response to it. The UK government, and most others in the world, when it mattered most failed chronically to restrict ‘freedom’ of movement, to close down economic activity, or to move to new norms of healthful self-protection. About the only things that the UK government has done well in the entire period since January 2020 are to roll out vaccines and to make tests widely available. What is striking about these things is that they are: one, tech-based interventions that are, two, designed to seek to return the economy to business-as-usual.

It tells of the same attitude that characterises most governments’ attitudes towards nature and climate, and towards civilisational health and wisdom. Our governments are largely interested only in using tech-fixes to keep the show on the road a while longer. Not in genuine sustainability and in what makes life worth living. In all such matters, imagination and political will are entirely missing.

It is plainly false to say that global industrial modernity has not bred new diseases, that it has only discovered pre-existing ones. Throughout its history of several centuries, new diseases have evolved with the supposed ‘conquest of nature’. With every breach of natural limits, especially in a world of accelerating globalisation, new diseases are being generated. “The risk of pandemics is increasing rapidly, with more than five new diseases emerging in people every year, any one of which has the potential to become pandemic,” a report from a team of scientists working on biodiversity says. “It estimates there are more than 500,000 unknown viruses in mammals and birds that could infect humans” in the near future as the destruction of the natural world proceeds faster.

We are now quite evidently in an “era of pandemics”. They are likely to come in nightmarish waves of greater frequency and intensity unless ecological sanity miraculously prevails. This may sound like a dream—given the millions of changes and adjustment such a radical change in human affairs will involve. But the realisation of such a ‘dream’ is the only way out. At stake is civilisation itself.

This civilisation is terminating itself. The only way we get to continue the adventure of civilisation now is by transitioning to a radically new one. And that newness will have at its heart ancient wisdoms. The alternative to the nightmare is a future in which the energy we use is genuinely renewable, but that we choose to use less of it.

Climate-damage and habitat-destruction are massive probabilifiers of pandemics: the science on that is pretty unequivocal. You have to choose between having tech-fixated globalisation and having fewer pandemics.

The health of humanity is directly dependent upon the health of nature. The health of nature is the health of humans. Taking a unified approach to the mortal crisis of public health and the catastrophe being inflicted upon the rest of the natural world is the only ecologically wise attitude to adopt today.

We have been arguing here that you can have a world that cuts off most pandemics or you can have an economically globalised, artificialised, technophilic world, but you cannot have both.

The world has learnt a new respect for science, especially for the undeniable facts on which good science rests. But the very real possibility of the lab-leak hypothesis, in the context of its snarling denial by authorities in the medical world until recently, reminds us powerfully of the dangers of scientism, quite a different thing from science itself. It is scientism when the domain of all knowledge and wisdom is sought to be ‘colonised’ by science, its claims and possibilities greatly exaggerated for usually undisclosed commercial, political, or military purposes, thereby undermining other forms of valid knowledge, and especially wisdom (which often does not lend itself to easy scientific verification). Ironically, its effect is to promote more credulity and blind faith in ‘science’ rather than careful scepticism and a balanced consideration of contending hypotheses. Studiedly ignored, in particular, are precisely those possibilities which do not sit well with corporate bottomlines.

This sort of commercially inflected science-worship has nothing to do with science proper. Corporate science-worship and uncritical acceptance of techno-power is as great a danger in our world as its opposite: the danger presented by the overtly denialist nonsense of ‘populism’. Instead, we need a way (a Tao, one might say) that transcends both the ‘all-knowingness’ characteristic of the modern metropolitan elite and the ‘knownothingness’ that has reactively sprung up against it. Science alone is, quite simply, not enough to see humanity through a crisis of such cataclysmic proportions as the one we are in.

Further, to avoid being systematically exposed to the global viral load circulating internationally due to rapidly growing jet travel, we need to completely remodel contemporary economies and enact the spirit of relocalisation found, for instance, in the experiments around Ubuntu in Africa, Pachamama in South America, Bija Swaraj in India, and in the work of activists such as Gaura Devi in India and Mamphela Ramphele in South Africa, Besime Conca in Kurdistan and Yu Xiaogang in China.

Naturally occurring viruses are not malicious. Like other organisms, they try to survive, reproduce, and mutate where necessary and possible. When a species is accustomed to the presence of a particular virus, there prevails a semblance of what may be called “equilibrium”—since there are not many deaths in such cases. But if the virus mutates significantly and infects new species, the equilibrium is disturbed. There are likely to be many deaths in the new host species until a new ecological balance is established with the pathogen. Something like this seems to be happening with the prevailing strands of the coronavirus, getting accustomed to whose presence will ultimately happen, but at a devastating price in the tens, possibly hundreds, of millions of human lives lost.

Our worst enemy today is public denial—by the highest authorities around the world—wherein we are told that the pandemic is all but over. There is plenty of evidence that “the forever virus” is here to stay. It shall return to haunt different parts of the world in recurrent waves of possibly greater virulence and intensity. It is a reality that accompanies globalisation and eventually races past it, blighting its future unless it is called off.

Today, when the truth has come home to so many of us, it is time for us to awaken to the reality that human freedom and survival itself rest symbiotically upon the liberation of the natural world which has been under ceaseless assault for the last two centuries of industrial overkill. The coronavirus is one of the last remaining lines of defence that nature has in what is, from its point of view, a guerrilla war in which its choices are severely constrained. The conquest of nature, the reigning global myth of modernity, needs to be relinquished if humanity and nature are to survive this otherwise tragically ill-fated war.

We ignore this wisdom at risk of death, and possibly species extinction.

It’s time to return to life. The only post-Covid world is a post-globalised world. The only future for us is to create a new civilisation from the gathering ruins of the current one. The industrial revolution needs to be transcended by an ecological one. Only this can renew our hopes for freedom in a yet dimly glimpsed future.