Will COVID-19 Put Us Right with Nature?
The COVID-19 virus, as frightening as it now seems, may ultimately fail to jolt humanity out of its profligate habits. But instead of regarding the pandemic as merely another problem requiring a technical fix, the world should see it as an opportunity to rethink humanity's relationship with the planet.
LONDON – One of the few things not in short supply in the COVID-19 era is commentary on the pandemic. Understandably enough, the virus has generated a non-stop flow of news about its spread, instructions on how to avoid and survive it, analysis of its causes and treatment, and conjecture about its impact on work habits, mental health, the economy, geopolitics, and much else.
My own period of home detention has produced the following reflections, which I add with some diffidence to the chorus of expert voices.
To begin with, I read Klaus Mühlhahn’s book Making China Modern. In Chinese cosmology, Mühlhahn notes, the human and natural worlds were inextricably linked. “When the proper order was respected, the physical world ran smoothly and the human world prospered,” he writes. But, “when that order was not respected, anomalous or destructive events, such as earthquakes, floods, eclipses, or even epidemics, would take place.”
In what sense might COVID-19 be the result of not respecting the “proper order” of things? In Chinese thought, the proper order is about proper rule, and this includes maintaining the right relationship between the human and natural worlds. A pandemic indicates that our way of life has come to violate that relationship.
The health expert Alanna Shaikh thinks there will doubtless be many more epidemics as “a result of the way that we, as human beings, are interacting with our planet.” This includes not just human-induced global warming, which is creating a more hospitable environment for pathogens, but also our push into the world’s last wild spaces.
“When we burn and plow the Amazon rainforest […], when the last of the African bush gets converted into farms, when wild animals in China are hunted to extinction, human beings come into contact with wildlife populations that they’ve never come into contact with before,” Shaikh says.
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This includes closer-than-ever encounters with bats and pangolins, both of which have been identified as potential sources of COVID-19. So long as we fail to respect nature’s autonomy, nature will hit back.
One can draw either large or small conclusions from this line of thought. The conclusion that Shaikh draws is a small one, perhaps because the broader inference is too unpalatable for most people. We need, she says, to build a global health system good enough to enable countries to respond quickly to epidemics and prevent them from becoming pandemics. Each country should be able to identify, quarantine, and treat its infected citizens immediately.
One way to help achieve this, I think, would be for G7 governments to issue a global COVID-19 bond, with the proceeds going to a reformed World Health Organization that has a specific mandate to build up all countries’ medical capacities to developed-world levels. (Admittedly, even the latter has proved insufficient in the case of COVID-19.) This WHO spending should be in addition to the World Bank’s development expenditure.
Shaikh makes another very sensible point. “Just-in-time ordering systems are great when things are going well,” she says. “But in a time of crisis, what it means is we don’t have any reserves.” So, if a hospital or a country runs out of personal protective equipment, it has to order more from a supplier (often in China), and wait for them to produce and ship the goods.
This critique applies to much more than medical procurement; it challenges the prevailing just-in-time orthodoxy in business. Reserves, the argument goes, cost money. Efficient markets don’t require firms to have inventories, but rather just enough “stock” to satisfy consumers at the point of demand.
Holding financial reserves in case of a rainy day is also wasteful in this view, because in efficient markets there are no rainy days. So, firms should be leveraged to the hilt.
This is fine as long as there are no unexpected events. But when the world experiences a “shock” like the 2008 financial crash, the efficient-market model collapses, and with it the economy. Something like this is happening to our medical services now.
It follows that “just in time” needs to be replaced by “just in case.” Ideally, some global authority should keep a strategic reserve of medical supplies needed to support life for a limited period (say, three months) in the face of a specified set of public-health threats. This reserve should be financed by taxes levied on national governments in proportion to their countries’ national incomes. But such stockpiling can also be done nationally or regionally: the European Union would be an ideal place to start.
None of this, however, addresses the far bigger question of the proper relationship between humans and nature. In a 2014 lecture, the science writer Stephen Petranek listed eight events that could end the world as we know it: pandemics, solar flares, giant earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, biological accidents, greenhouse effects, nuclear war, and a collision with meteors. Four of these would be “natural disasters” – that is, cataclysmic events which do not result from the way we order life. But the other four – pandemics, biological mishaps, nuclear war, and global warming – would result directly from the way humans interact with nature.
The COVID-19 virus, as frightening as it now seems, may eventually turn out to be so mild and controllable that it fails to jolt us out of our habits. Indeed, the psychologist and Nobel laureate economist Daniel Kahneman thinks that “no amount of psychological awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to lower their standard of living.”
But we would be unwise to continue relying on technical fixes to get us out of any hole that our profligate lifestyles land us in, because sooner or later we will run out of medical solutions to the problem of “proper order.” We should use our enforced downtime to ponder what solutions would work.