COMMENTARY: How the coronavirus pandemic is a symptom of bigger problems

I worry about COVID-19 and the sweeping economic harm it is bringing, but I worry far more if nothing big changes.

Four systemic vulnerabilities created a perfect-storm context for the coronavirus. Each is a product of short-sighted action by individuals and governments, which distributes impacts on the rest of the globe. Each one also contributes importantly to a raft of other global problems, with massive social and economic effects. We would do well to start addressing them now.

In a nutshell, we need to clamp down on the wildlife trade; normalize physical distancing in regular life; invest in health care like a sacred public good; and reconfigure the economy to provide what people really need.

Clamp down on wildlife trade

Most directly, “wet” markets and the broader wildlife trade bring hundreds of species of stressed-out and thus immunocompromised animals into highly unsanitary close quarters.

The wildlife trade is a fountain for new diseases. Every species comes with its own viruses, and they evolve rapidly and can jump species when they are jammed together densely. Only a few species — like bats — huddle in big numbers in the wild. So when bats are placed alongside other mammals and birds, it sets up the perfect conditions for viruses to jump species. In 2003, the coronavirus that caused SARS jumped from bats to civets to humans. Likewise, the current coronavirus spread in the Wuhan wet market before it launched into the general population.

It’s hard to imagine a better factory for biological weapons of mass destruction. Forget genetic engineering superbugs — terrorists might as well let evolution do its work for them by promoting these markets and the wildlife trade that fuels them.

Of course, wildlife trade is not that sinister — traders simply supply the goods that others demand. Those of us not seeking new pandemics might shun wildlife products and the markets that supply them.

Curbing wildlife trade locally and internationally would pay a double-dividend for animal welfare and for wildlife populations, for which such direct exploitation is the second leading threat globally.

Normalize Physical Distancing in Regular Life

A second systemic vulnerability is human hyper-connectedness, which is good for individuals and bad for the whole. Imagine a multiple-choice exam question that asks, “What kind of human population would maximize global contagious disease?” Pick from the following (a) a big one, seven billion or more; (b) closely connected, with individuals regularly flying around the world — and quickly so there’s no time for symptoms to show; (c) one that regularly has large-group gatherings; (d) one that welcomes frequent physical contact — kissing, hugging, shaking hands, etc. — even beyond close friends and family; (e) one where people commonly go to work and school when sick; or (f) all of the above (In other words, the world we live in).

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If you chose (f), shout bingo.

Although the majority of us are maintaining careful social distance as urged by public health officials, a few folks are still putting their own interests above this public health emergency. They are literally holding back the whole nation from more normal interactions, while also putting thousands of lives at risk. Maybe it’s time for a culture of calling out offenders, “Hey! How about some physical distance?”

Invest in Health Like We Care

A third big vulnerability is underfunded health care, in which individual or national cost-cutting yields global externalities. In one sense, Canadians are fortunate in relation to our southern neighbours. It’s hard enough to contain the community-spread of a virus with a publicly funded health care system. Imagine a system in which much of the population actively avoids health care and habitually denies being sick, because they have little or no health coverage. If sick people don’t get care or self-isolate, it’s especially hard to contain the spread.

Public health is a public good. Nations like the U.S. fail to treat it as such, rather loading the burden of health on individuals and their private health-care plans. In the context of infectious disease — not to mention obesity, mental health, etc. — private cost-cutting spells public disasters. Of course, the same is true for public cost-cutting; underfunded health-care systems have revealed great vulnerabilities during this pandemic, here and elsewhere, with inadequate testing, ventilators, and self-contained infectious-disease units.

At least we still have widespread vaccination for many infectious diseases. The current pandemic should be a wake-up call, reminding us all of the hard work and the great societal value of public vaccination programs for infectious diseases. Want a glimpse of the world without widespread measles vaccination? Here it is — except we’d also be at substantial risk of losing our kids.

Make the Economy Work for People, Even Amidst Uncertainty

Fourth is the single-minded pursuit of short-term economic growth, which ironically paves the way for market crashes. There’s already chaos in the stock markets, which have clearly entered “bear” territory, and the worst may be yet to come. One rule of social-ecological systems — which are at play here — is that large ecological disturbances often bring economic ones. So it’s no surprise that the emergence of COVID-19 would disrupt the economy.

But a second rule is that when disturbances trigger economic collapse, it’s our own damn fault. Natural phenomena don’t have to trigger widespread economic losses, yet often we manufacture a disaster.

We’ve done it again. With the longstanding obsession with stock market growth, we continue to prioritize profit and spending over saving and society. Thus, many consumers and small businesses are critically reliant on each month’s salary or revenues to pay the bills. If we ignore environmental impacts (let’s not), this seems fine — assuming all goes as planned.

All never goes as planned. When an event disrupts consumer spending, hourly wage-earners go unpaid, people go bankrupt or get evicted, and businesses go under. The whole economy stalls, and the poorest suffer dreadfully. These larger impacts are externalities of the self-interested pursuit of profit, which is what the current system incentivizes.

Maybe a guaranteed basic income would help avert the worst impacts on the poor. More broadly, how about we move from big publicly traded corporations that overly focus on short-term results to cooperatives and benefit-corporations that focus more on the long term?  With ingrained purposes for social benefit, these alternatives are wired not to help people and nature, not treat them as expendable.

Healthy social-ecological systems need buffers, although short-sighted action often squeezes them. We need more distance between wild animals and each other and us. More of a financial cushion, and less of a need to perform at capacity all the time.

Most of all, healthy systems need the right purpose. That is, freedom from the obsession about short-term economic growth, and a real commitment to personal and public health, resilience, and well-being.

Kai Chan is a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability. 

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