The recent COVID-19 outbreak has generated an incredible interest around public health in particular and other social issues in general. However, most commentaries have failed to look at the crisis from an environmental and ecological perspective. We need to look at the links between COVID-19 and the global environmental crisis in order to identify and address the structural causes leading to the emergence of the pandemic: increasing urbanization, an exodus from rural areas and the abandonment of peasant farming, the intensification of natural resource extraction, and the industrialization of agriculture.
Different epidemic, similar responses
I started getting familiar with diseases and epidemics last summer when I was looking at an agricultural pest outbreak in Apulia, southern Italy. At that time it was not humans who were considered at risk, but a different species: olive trees. The bacteria Xylella fastidiosa that arrived in Europe for the first time in 2013 endangered the survival of thousands of centuries-old olive trees. These plants in Apulia not only are an important agricultural asset on which many depend for their livelihoods, but also have a strong cultural value that relates to the history, the identity, and the landscape of a whole region.
In my research, with the risk of simplifying a bit, two different interpretations of the bacteria’s role in the desiccation of the trees were apparent on the ground: on the one side, a reductionist position considering the new pathogen as the one and only cause of the disease, and therefore concentrating efforts on ‘eradicating’ the bacteria from the countryside; on the other, a more holistic view stressing the fact that the bacteria was only one of the factors contributing to the trees’ pathology, and thus calling for a much deeper reflection on the structural causes of the outbreak.
For example, the abuse of pesticides and herbicides during the last decades, desertification due to climate change, depletion of water resources linked to the intensification of monoculture plantations, and the lack of traditional mantainance practices (e.g. pruning of ploughing) due to the rural exodus might have all together contributed to the weakening of the immune system of the olive trees and the contamination of the environment they are embedded in. Thus, addressing the wider social, economical and environmental factors which made olive trees especially vulnerable to the spread of the bacteria would have been another strategy to tackle the emergency.
What happened then strongly reminds me of the recent COVID-19 crisis: the Italian government declared a ‘state of emergency’ and the crisis was managed by creating an “infected area” in order to try to isolate the bacteria. Infected trees, after being isolated, had to be eradicated in order to avoid the contagion of neighbouring plants. Pesticides were employed in order to get rid of the insect responsible for carrying the bacteria from one tree to the other. The reductionist paradigm ended up dominating.
“The real danger of each new outbreak is the failure—or better put—the expedient refusal to grasp that each new Covid-19 is no isolated incident. The increased occurrence of viruses is closely linked to food production and the profitability of multinational corporations”
(Rob Wallace, from this interview)
The current COVID-19 pandemic thus raises some important questions: is this pandemic just the effect of a random event, i.e. the accidental incursion of coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 into human bodies, or are there some structural reasons which we are failing to consider? Is this only a public health crisis, for which the goal should be to make sure that we can eradicate the virus in order to ‘go back to normal’ (e.g. developing a vaccine that makes us immune to it), or is this part of a global socio-ecological crisis that should push us to reconsider our global development model?
Some studies support the latter position. In his book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, David Quammen claims that, while zoonotic diseases (infections caused by pathogens who jump from animals to humans—the so-called spillover) are not something new to humankind, what is relatively new is the frequency of such events. In the last 30 years, spillovers have happened at an unprecedented pace due to primarily deforestation and land use change caused by the expansion of agribusinesses, together with uncontrolled and explosive urbanization processes that have greatly increased the occasions of encounters between humans and wild species.
Intensification of animal farming also plays a role. In Big Farms make Big Flu, evolutionary epidemiologist Robert Wallace claims that intensive animal farming is responsible for the recent increase in new pathogens’ creation. More than that, the production of diseases is itself part of companies’ business models. Rather than just an unintended consequence of a genuine effort to ‘feed the world’ or achieve ‘food security’, the logic of agrifood corporations implies the externalization of health and environmental costs (such as the accidental generation of a new pathogen) to the public (animals, humans, local ecosystems, governments) while privatizing the profits resulting from their activity, in the most pure capitalist economic rationality.
And a recent position paper analyzing the spread of the infection in northern Italy claims that atmospheric particulate matter might have played a non-negligible role in the long-range transmission of SARS-CoV-2 virus in the area, and therefore adds another aspect to the relationship between COVID-19 and environmental degradation, in this case air pollution.
We cannot go back to normal, because normality was the problem
What can we do, then? The attempt of this post was to make clear that the biggest mistake we can make is to consider the COVID-19 pandemic as an isolated event unrelated with the global environmental crisis and to miss the connection with global capitalism, the expansion of commodity frontiers, and the intensification in the industrial mode of food production. COVID-19 and climate change are two sides of the same ecological crisis and should be addressed as such.
If we realize this, the crisis will open a great space for radical social change to be put in place. In a recent intervention on the Spanish newspaper El País, South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han reminds us that “the virus will not defeat capitalism, there will be no viral revolution: no virus is capable of doing the revolution”. It should therefore be us—civil society, progressive governments, development professionals, environmental activists—who gather momentum to foster radical change in what we believe development is, and making it what we want it to be.
 In a recent blog post, Murat Arsel looks at some similarities and differences between the COVID-19 crisis and the climate crisis, with the goal of learning something useful for climate change politics. He acknowledges that “the astonishing spread of COVID-19 could not have been possible without the incredible powers of global capitalism”, and calls for a different system “not so fundamentally focused on maximizing profits over all other concerns”. Still, he talks of the pandemic and climate change as two separate crises. My claim here is that, from a structural point of view, COVID-19 and climate change are in fact two sides of the same coin.
The author thanks Oane Visser and Fizza Batool for their comments on an earlier version of the post. This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.
About the author:
Fabio Gatti is a graduate from the Agrarian, Food and Environmental Studies (AFES) major at the International Institute for Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague. His current research interests speak to the fields of political ecology, science and technology studies (STS), environmental humanities, and post-development studies.