A tale of two crises

It might be that with this combination of reduced consumption and reduced environmental harm, coupled with societal commitment to ensuring the meeting of basic needs for all, we will find ourselves unintentionally creating the well-being economy we need in the 21st century

By Vic Neufeld & Katrina Plamondon

Undoubtably, the COVID-19 situation is occupying much of your attention in the last few weeks—and so it should. But how shall we, as a community committed to planetary health, think about this new “crisis” in the context of the on-going (and slower moving) climate change crisis. The purpose of this note is two-fold: to highlight some interesting recently published perspectives on the interaction between these two phenomena; and to invite you to share your views on how the COVID-19 story is influencing your thinking.

Illustration by Calvin Dexter

Two perspectives

Earlier this month, Thomas Homer-Dixon (Executive Director of the soon-to-be announced Cascade Institute at the Royal Roads University) wrote an opinion piece in the Toronto Globe and Mail entitled: Coronavirus will change the world. It might also lead to a better future. He makes the point that the COVID-19 situation is a “global tipping event”, characterized by two increasing global phenomena—high connectivity and high uniformity that make us all more susceptible to rapidly cascading change, and at increased risk of “synchronized crises”. He goes on to suggest that the coronavirus pandemic could be viewed as a collective problem that “requires global collective action—just like climate change”.

In his March 22 column in the Victoria Times Colonist, our colleague Trevor Hancock refers to recent observations that dramatic reductions in air pollution and carbon emissions have been noted in China and Italy, and “this will soon become worldwide”. A Stanford University economist has suggested that “reduction in air pollution in China might have already saved more lives than the COVID-19 epidemic had cost”. Trevor concludes his column with this suggestion: “It might be that with this combination of reduced consumption and reduced environmental harm, coupled with societal commitment to ensuring the meeting of basic needs for all, we will find ourselves unintentionally creating the well-being economy we need in the 21st century.”

COVID-19 also presents important opportunities to examine and reconstruct the equity choices that shape our world. Not all countries will experience this pandemic in the same ways. In Canada, healthcare systems are bracing in anticipation of an extreme burden of demand. Our municipal, provincial, and federal public health and political leaders are all working together. They are communicating with their constituents daily. Policies and mechanisms are rapidly being put into place to accommodate for the consequences of a halted economy. And still, we are fearful of our uncertain futures. In contrast, colleagues in the Global South are bracing for complete collapse. Their choices will not be whether or not to stay home, but rather whether or not to risk one’s own life. In settings where healthcare systems are drastically under-resourced, without basic supplies or health professionals, those who become sick enough to need care will likely not get it. Fatality rates from COVID-19 will not be universal. Once this pandemic spreads through Africa, we can anticipate such a dramatic increase in case fatalities that the global average will increase by several percentage points. COVID-19 is a window into global inequities. This is the time to examine our equity choices, and to leverage the opportunities that Hancock and Homer-Dixon point to through an equity lens.

The CCGHR Principles for Global Health Research provide one useful framework for such a lens. Now is an opportune time to look at these principles, bring them into your classrooms and dinner tables, write to your political leaders—spark a dialogue about the world you’d like to see, and collectively, perhaps we can plant seeds for a more equitable one.

We welcome your comments and notes about your thoughts and experiences. In particular, we encourage those of you from home countries other than Canada (such as Nigeria, Uganda, Mexico, Brazil, etc.) to share your stories and leave a reply below about how the COVID-19 situation is affecting your families and friends

2 thoughts on “A tale of two crises

  1. I am deeply concerned that we will return to “business as usual” after the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to use approaches that have traditionally ignored the Nature Emergency that we are in. It’s fine to discuss what this pandemic highlights (inequity, reliance on vulnerable economic systems etc.), but there is no time like now to use that knowledge to forge action to a healthier future. I am asking the Global Health, ecohealth and Planetary Health collectives to fill the gaps that exist in traditional and even newer approaches to interdisciplinary health. I am asking you to start leveling the inequities between human interests and animal interests in your conversations.

    The way I see it is like this.

    We acknowledge that over 60% of human infectious diseases originate in animals, and over two thirds of these come from wildlife. We acknowledge that emerging infectious zoonoses are on the rise in our new millennium, and are a major public health threat (eg SARS, MERS, H1N1). The WHO addresses over 200 epidemics a year- the majority which never hit the headlines. We acknowledge that this rise is due to primarily the intensification of human activities and globalization. And now with the COVID pandemic, these truths have never rung more true.

    But this pandemic is an acute on chronic condition. It is a manifestation of a root cause that is simple, yet difficult for us to face because it challenges our very deeply entrenched value systems. Despite knowing what this cause is, we chose to ignore it, and continue to favour high tech solutions over a simple, but perhaps more challenging shift that needs to happen: a fundamental shift in the way we perceive our relationship with nature.

    The logic model for emerging zoonoses is relatively simple. Human populations have grown in a way that surpasses a healthy carrying capacity for our planet. Moreover, human activities and practices are destroying our natural environments. Wildlife who share those environments are dying from habitat loss, food scarcity, toxin accumulation, bottlenecking of populations, and direct conflict with humans (bushmeat, wildlife trade, direct attacks) to name a few.

    Physiological responses in animals are no different from those in humans. Just like we get sick when we get stressed (cortisol rises, suppresses our immune system and our ability to fight back pathogens is compromised), the same thing happens to animals. With loss of habitat, food, toxic homes and dwindling populations, genetic fitness decreases and stress levels rise in wildlife. Throw in the intermingling of species that rarely (if ever) have encountered each other- and you have a perfect storm for viruses and other pathogens to breed, recombine and jump species. Boom! A new infectious disease “emerges”.

    But this is just the background. What have we done about this? We have relied (and even celebrated) 2 approaches: Conservation and One Health. I am not denying that these approaches do not have significant merits, but they are also significantly flawed.

    Firstly, we celebrated conservation zones to create sanctuaries to protect wildlife. Conservation areas are often a shared responsibility of governments, conservation groups, NGOs and sometimes even international presence. In many regions of the global south, these conservation areas have social responsibility codes- to benefit the communities around them. But what happens on the ground level? People who traditionally lived in now slated conservation zones are displaced, marginalized and even brutalized. These displaced people, who once lived in a way that was “in harmony” with the land and animals around them are now forced into foreign livelihoods, disenfranchised from their cultural ways, and crowded into spaces with poor infrastructure. With this tremendous personal upheaval, mental fitness plummets, stress levels rise, diseases emerge, and even feelings of aggression towards conservation. And these are still the people who live closest to wildlife (who, remember, are also stressed)…

    Secondly, we have upheld One Health approaches around the world- the approach that recognizes the “inextricable link between animals, humans and the environment”. Since the global rise in (re)emerging infectious diseases with the year 200, there has been tremendous public and policy support internationally for such approaches. But what happens at the ground level? Often funded by the Global North- virus hunting has become a main solution (among others) to our unhealthy wildlife-human interfaces. To protect human health from distressed wildlife populations, millions of dollars are poured into projects situated in global “hot-spots” (high risk zones of zoonotic emergence and species jumps, generally in the Global South). Behind a large panel of global north scientific specialists, local (usually veterinarians) are hired to sample bats, rats, non-human primates, migratory birds and livestock in the hopes of identifying the next possible pandemic threat. Not only are these select hired locals put in a position of privilege with their employment above others in their communities, but the communities that live around wildlife are de-prioritized as we hunt for the needle in the haystack- the next possibly emerging disease. We ship the samples off to high biosecurity labs to amplify, stusy and even make drugs against these viruses, and there is little resource (time nor money) remaining for local communities that are interacting with wildlife daily. The result? Novel diseases emerge from the neglected communities that are also, might I add, no longer trusting of the lip service paid by both conservation and One Health approaches. From my point of view in watching the One Health space for years as it has grown popularity in policy and public discourse, it has grown into an approach that generally ignores the social dimensions of our relationship and inextricable link. Perhaps it even widens inequity gaps…

    Again, I feel that conservation and One Health do do important work. But the root cause is still ignored: our relationship with the natural world and wildlife is unhealthy. The solutions lie not in high-tech nor preservationist methods, but rather in a deep shift within ourselves in the way we perceive our relationship with animals and the natural world.

    Nature and animals are not something to be rendered to human will. They are a part of us in a way that we will never be able to separate- no matter how hard we try. They die, we die.

    So what now?

    It has taken us generations to get here- and may take generations for us to recover. But the work needs to start now. It is my hope that as we look forward to building a healthier post-COVID future, communities of practice that prioritize inequity also start putting animals and humans on a level playing field. That is why I urge Global Health, ecohealth and planetary health collectives to prioritize wildlife in their discourses. With your focus on community level action and equity, I feel that you are ideally positioned to help our world transition into a more balanced recovery.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Shawn Cleaver: Thank you for drawing attention to these perspectives! I like how you have emphasized the positive potential for political change at this crucial pivot point.
    Beyond horrifying futures in health systems, I am concerned that the pandemic is creating socio-political conditions to amplify inequity. Naomi Klein outlines these well in her video essay “Coronavirus capitalism – and how to beat it” on The Intercept.
    Regardless as to whether you see this moment as one of positive potential – or one where we need to defend tooth and nail against a more crushing form of neo-liberalism – this is a time to be involved and help shape the future.
    I look forward to engaging in the Coalition’s initiatives to shape that future.

    Liked by 1 person

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