OPINION: Who is really responsible for the coronavirus pandemic?

DHAKA (The Daily Star/ANN) - The answer is the Anthropocene, a geological epoch in which human activity is changing the planet's climatic and environmental DNA in a profound way.

As the novel coronavirus known as Covid-19 spreads rapidly across the world, we now face another dimension of the "globalisation and its discontents" argument. A pandemic-induced paranoia could be globalised very quickly, with a host of haunting repercussions. Cultural norms—such as shaking hands and hugging as a form of greeting—are changing, since they are now considered a conduit for human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus. Over a dozen countries have closed their schools amid the global public health emergency, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. As a result, over 300 million children around the world are stuck at home. The empty airports in New York, London, and other metropolises around the world have become anti-icons of our world, which is suddenly finding itself unprepared to contain a plague. Holy sites like the Kaaba in Mecca and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem are suddenly empty, provoking many to express discomfort at having to mull over the mysterious intersection of faith and science.

The world appears to be on a mission to sanitise itself. The efforts to contain Covid-19 is impacting the neoliberal economic order, which requires an unimpeded flow of capital and labour across the globe. Quarantines, both literally and figuratively, are an anti-neoliberal idea. The threat of the epidemic is also provoking different types of xenophobic, nationalist thought: minorities are spreading the disease through their filthy lifestyles; refugees are bringing in deadly viruses; closing the border is the answer; etc.

When the coronavirus was first reported in Wuhan, China, the general explanation was that this unknown virus originated from an exotic animal, sold at a "wet market" in Wuhan. The animal source of the virus still remains contested, but the original host is believed to be bats. Although not sold at the densely-packed Wuhan market, bats may have infected chickens, and other domestic fowls sold there. 

The inflated question about which creature originally harboured the coronavirus and transferred it to humans, and the subsequent panic about its global outbreak, blurs a more fundamental question: what caused the transfer of the coronavirus from animals to humans? The answer lies in what than which. Scientists agree that microbes have lived in animal bodies harmlessly for millions of years. So why, in modern times, do we have so many animal-to-human pathogen transmissions?

The answer is the Anthropocene, a geological epoch in which human activity is changing the planet's climatic and environmental DNA in a profound way. In the age of the Anthropocene, modern industrial societies have fundamentally disrupted the planet's ecology based on the coexistence of all species, thereby creating imbalanced environmental conditions ripe for unpredictable pathogen mobility from animals to humans. Deadly coronaviruses are frequently migrating from animal bodies to human bodies because of the ways humanity—in the name of economic growth, development, and progress—has been mutating the natural environment, deforesting the planet, and diminishing wildlife habitats. Dislodged animals, reptiles, and birds are forced to encroach into traditional human territories, perpetuating their dormant pathologies among humans.

In short, predatory capitalism, with its uber-market-centric worldview and perpetual hunger for natural resources, has created disruptive ecological conditions for uncertain human-animal encounters. Until and unless predatory capitalism is reined in, we can expect to see more and more coronaviruses afflicting humanity.    

First identified in 2003, SARS coronavirus was thought to have spread from bats to cats, first infecting humans in Guangdong province of southern China in 2002. While the origin of MERS coronavirus, first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012, remains unknown, virological studies suggest that humans became infected by MERS after its transmission from dromedary or single-humped camels. By domesticating more and more animals to serve commercial, industrial and household purposes, we face increased vulnerability to new coronaviruses. Furthermore, a burgeoning global population means people will have to look for more protein sources beyond the conventional poultry list. The Wuhan market is one example. 

The author of Pandemic: Tracking Contagion from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond (2016), science journalist Sonia Shah wrote: "Since 1940, hundreds of microbial pathogens have either emerged or reemerged into new territory where they've never been seen before. They include HIV, Ebola in West Africa, Zika in the Americas, and a bevy of novel coronaviruses. The majority of them—60 percent—originate in the bodies of animals. Some come from pets and livestock. Most of them—more than two-thirds—originate in wildlife." But wildlife is not necessarily the problem. The problem is the way societies dislocate wildlife by legalising deforestation, encroaching into wetlands, cutting hills, allowing unchecked urbanisation, dumping industrial effluents into rivers, and, ultimately, disrupting ecological cycles. It is then expected that wild species, driven away from their natural habitats in the wilderness, would come into intimate contact with human settlements, in the process transforming harmless animal microbes into lethal human pathogens.   

Scientists have examined how Ebola outbreaks, with potential origins in several species of bats, were results of deforestation in Central and West Africa. Where can the bats go when their habitats are destroyed, along with the forest? They would take shelter in trees right in the middle of residential neighbourhoods near the forest, or in farms where fruits could be poisoned by bat saliva, creating fertile situations for bat-to-human microbe spillover. Now imagine what one person, infected by a bad orange, could do to a high-density human settlement. This is one reason why in a populous country like Bangladesh, environmental stewardship and settlement planning should be an existential imperative. Wellbeing should take precedence over development.

As I desperately shopped for hand sanitisers, I thought of how Albert Camus' The Plague, published in 1947, can still be instructive in enlightening us about the corrosive effects of turbo-capitalism, hyper-materialism, and humanity's dereliction in the natural world through an allegorical reading of the plague of 2020. This pestilence may very well signify an ailment of people's respiratory system as well as their environmental morality.

(Adnan Zillur Morshed, PhD, is an architect, architectural historian, and urbanist. He teaches at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and serves as Executive Director of the Centre for Inclusive Architecture and Urbanism at BRAC University. He can be reached at amorshed@bracu.ac.bd)

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