A Great Pause

In a January 28th article in the New York Times, author and journalist David Quammen, whose 2012 book Spillover examined emerging diseases, wrote:

We are faced with two mortal challenges, in the short term and the long term. Short term: We must do everything we can, with intelligence, calm and a full commitment of resources, to contain and extinguish this nCoV-2019 [an earlier label for COVID-19] outbreak before it becomes, as it could, a devastating global pandemic. Long term: We must remember, when the dust settles, that nCoV-2019 was not a novel event or a misfortune that befell us. It was — it is — part of a pattern of choices that we humans are making.

Clearly the world did not do enough to contain the novel coronavirus and we are now in the very pandemic Quammen and others have been warning us about for years. Indeed, in 2005 scientists published a paper identifying bats in China’s Yunnan province as potential sources of dangerous viruses. The paper concluded with the following:

These findings on coronaviruses, together with data on henipaviruses (23–25, 28), suggest that genetic diversity exists among zoonotic viruses in bats, increasing the possibility of variants crossing the species barrier and causing outbreaks of disease in human populations. It is therefore essential that we enhance our knowledge and understanding of reservoir host distribution, animal-animal and human-animal interaction (particularly within the wet-market system), and the genetic diversity of bat-borne viruses to prevent future outbreaks.1

In his New York Times article, Quammen emphasizes the importance of listening to what the scientists are saying: “That the virus emerged from a nonhuman animal, probably a bat, and possibly after passing through another creature, may seem spooky, yet it is utterly unsurprising to scientists who study these things.” Indeed, a search using Google Scholar for the terms “Yunnan bats SARS” yields 408 articles published between 2005 and 2019. (SARS or Severe acute respiratory syndrome was an epidemic that had 8,009 cases and 774 fatalities during November 2002-July 2003. COVID-19, the disease, is caused by SARS coronavirus 2, a mutation of the 2002-2003 SARS virus.) For example, in an important 2017 paper researchers wrote:

As a whole, our findings from a 5-year longitudinal study conclusively demonstrate that all building blocks of the pandemic SARS CoV are present in bat SARSr-CoVs from a single location in Yunnan. . . . Thus, the risk of spillover into people and emergence of a disease similar to SARS is possible.2

That scientists have been warning the world about the growing reality of a serious epidemiological crisis sounds familiar to those of us who have been deeply concerned about climate change which has been studied and reported by scientists for decades. While we know that climate change has been caused by human activity, can the same be said of COVID-19? Quammen thinks so. In a podcast interview titled Shaking the Viral Tree, he explained:

My friend, Peter Daszak, who’s president of EcoHealth Alliance in New York, one of the important organizations working on this, he is a co-author on that paper in 2017. He may have gone to that cave, or some of his colleagues from the Wuhan Institute of Virology clearly went to that cave to research, to sample bats, to find out what was there.

Humanity, generally, is bound to be moving closer and closer to that cave. China’s population is not growing very quickly anymore but it’s huge and it’s consuming resources. Our population in the US is not growing quickly anymore but our consumption continues to grow. And the global population does continue to grow. So even a population of bats in a cave in Yunnan—it’s only a matter of time before we come knocking on their door, wanting what they have.

As the title of that podcast episode so aptly described it, our increasing numbers are “shaking the viral tree” and as a result toxic microbes like the SARS-COV-2 virus can metaphorically “fall down on us,” that is to say create the pandemic ravaging our world today. Our species is disrupting the balance we as a species maintained with our environment since the first appearance of humans on the planet. And as with climate change, this is happening despite the availability of scientific data confirming the destructive effects of our presence.

Although scientists and others raised red flags much earlier about damage being done to the environment, it could be argued that the world’s more widely accepted awareness of climate change began with the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1989. Pandemics have been occurring for centuries (see one timeline of pandemics here), but there has never been a global effort to address a need for an international approach to prevent or mitigate future outbreaks of the sort infecting the world’s population today. Scientific meetings like the biennial International Conference on Infectious Disease Dynamics have occurred, but the scientific data discussed at these conferences have not led to intergovernmental agreements like the environmental accords of the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Paris Climate Agreement (2015).

Of course, these climate change accords are proving to be easily ignored, but we as a species must at least get our act together and do our best to avoid the worst of the possible scenarios. Scientific data must be taken seriously and realistic environmental and public health policies and legislation must be enacted. In order for this to happen, nothing less than a universal realization of humankind’s deep relationship with the earth and all its creatures needs to happen. However, our current governments, corporations, and the business and financial world in general have been unable to act as decisively as needed for restoring a balanced relationship between humankind and nature.

The pandemic has resulted in a dramatic halt to our normal human activities. The effect of this great pause can be seen in the decrease in pollution of the air surrounding our busiest regions and cities. Might this pause be an opportunity to reconsider our values and reenvision ourselves as members of an earth community? Visions of the way forth are available, for instance the Earth Charter of 2000:

We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.

Some are saying that the pandemic’s aftermath will indeed offer an opportunity to radically change many of our behaviors toward our environment. So writes Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian:

Ordinary life before the pandemic was already a catastrophe of desperation and exclusion for too many human beings, an environmental and climate catastrophe, an obscenity of inequality. It is too soon to know what will emerge from this emergency, but not too soon to start looking for chances to help decide it. It is, I believe, what many of us are preparing to do.

My hope and prayer: May we emerge from this terrible pandemic with a deeper consciousness of the interconnectedness of all life, and a universal commitment to preserve the beauty and vitality of of our dear planet earth.

1Weng Dog Li, et al. “Bats Are Natural Reservoirs of SARS-Like Coronaviruses.” Science 310, (Oct. 28, 2005): 676-678.
2Ben Hu, et al. “Discovery of a rich gene pool of bat SARS-related coronaviruses provides new insights into the origin of SARS coronavirus.” PLoS Pathog 13, no. 11 (2017): e1006698. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1006698

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