The Pandemic Is Not a Natural Disaster

 

The coronavirus isn’t just a public-health crisis. It’s an ecological one.
 
By Kate Brown April 13, 2020

The New Yorker

The World Health Organization has launched a multi-arm trial across many countries, with room to add more arms and countries. It’s called the Solidarity Trial.

“This is the third coronavirus outbreak in two decades. There is, undoubtedly, a fourth somewhere on the horizon, if a different RNA virus doesn’t encircle the world first. There is no way to predict what disease it will cause—it won’t be sars, or mers, or covid-19—but certain things will be the same. This one is teaching us the lesson that we should persist and come up with permanent solutions,” he said. “We need to persist until we find a broader solution. An outbreak due to this virus or some other viruses will surely come back.”

Barns packed with animals are good places to breed pathogens. Within the uniform predictability of modern agriculture, the unpredictable emerges. Microbial webs have bridged the spaces between human beings and other species for all of our history. Long before anyone knew what a single-cell organism was, cultural practices maximized the exchange of microbes: as people farmed, foraged, tended livestock, fermented their food, dipped their hands in common bowls, and greeted one other with a touch, they engaged in rituals that bound them together with their neighbors and other organisms. This was probably not accidental. A wealth of evidence shows that, when we share microbes with other people and organisms, we become healthier, better adapted to our environments, and more in synch as a social unit.

The interconnectedness of our biological lives, which has become even clearer in recent decades, is pushing us to reconsider our understanding of the natural world. It turns out that the familiar Linnaean taxonomy, with each species on its own distinct branch of the tree, is too unsubtle: lichens, for example, are made up of a fungus and an alga so tightly bound that the two species create a new organism that is difficult to classify. Biologists have begun questioning the idea that each tree is an “individual”—it might be more accurately understood as a node in a network of underworld exchanges between fungi, roots, bacteria, lichen, insects, and other plants.

The network is so intricate that it’s difficult to say where one organism ends and the other begins. Our picture of the human body is shifting, too. It seems less like a self-contained vessel, defined by one’s genetic code and ruled by a brain, than like a microbial ecosystem that sweeps along in atmospheric currents, harvesting gases, bacteria, phages, fungal spores, and airborne toxins in its nets.

How are we supposed to protect ourselves, if we are so porous? Are pandemics inevitable, when living things are bound so tightly together in a dense, planetary sphere?

At First, these diseases remained confined to the places where they originated. Then globalization arrived. John McNeill, an environmental historian at Georgetown University, speculates that the first wave of the cholera outbreak of 1832-33 was the first true pandemic; it reached every inhabited continent by hitching rides on caravans and ships.

Farms went from being small operations with an average of seventy chickens to factories housing thirty thousand birds. Barns packed with animals are good places to breed pathogens. In the fast-paced world of an industrial hen house, where birds come and go quickly, pathogens select for the most virulent strains, no matter how deadly. Within the uniform predictability of modern agriculture, the unpredictable emerges.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that three-quarters of the “new or emerging” diseases that infect human beings have originated in wild or domesticated animals. In piecing together the origin story of the coronavirus pandemic, many narratives have pointed to Chinese “wet markets,” at which live animals are sold.

In recent decades, as most manufacturing work has shifted to Asia, people and animals there have begun living more closely. Early cases of avian flu, in 1996, and sars, in 2002, were found in animals in Guangdong Province, among the most densely settled place in history, in terms of people and livestock. Hubei Province, north of Guangdong, where the city of Wuhan is situated, has become a major manufacturing center in the past decades. As Wuhan grew, it sprawled into the surrounding countryside and forests; people were pushed off their small farms and moved into the city’s vast slums. The slums served as a bridge between wild and urban spaces. To get by, residents ventured into the neighboring forests; they hunted and raised wild game, trapping, caging, and breeding pangolins, alligators, bats, civets, and other roaming animals on a scale that blurred the line between domestic and industrial animal husbandry. By harvesting animals from the forests, they flushed out pathogens, drawing them into a thriving city that was just a flight away from Singapore or Sydney.

Infectious diseases are only one aspect of a larger, ongoing health emergency. Two-thirds of cancers have their origins in environmental toxins, accounting for millions of annual fatalities; each year, 4.2 million people die from complications of respiratory illnesses caused by airborne toxins—forty-five thousand in the U.S. alone.

Researchers have found that antibiotic-resistant microbes from animal feces float downwind from Texas feedlots. Pesticides from tropical banana plantations end up in chilly Lake Superior. The spores that caused the 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain may have been stirred up by dust storms in the Sahara. And yet those same storms help deliver nourishing phosphorus to the Amazon rainforest. The air helps pollinate our plants; it also transports radioactive particles, fungal spores, bacteria, and viruses. The quality of our air matters, too. New research suggests that dirty air increases the risk of serious complications from the coronavirus: reducing pollution in Manhattan by just one unit of particulate matter could have saved hundreds of lives.

Self-isolation is key if we are to stop the pandemic—and yet the need for isolation is, in itself, an acknowledgement of our deep integration with our surroundings. To fully respond to what’s happened, we need to reflect on the worldwide ecological networks that bind all us together.
Barns packed with animals are good places to breed pathogens. Within the uniform predictability of modern agriculture, the unpredictable emerges. Microbial webs have bridged the spaces between human beings and other species for all of our history. Long before anyone knew what a single-cell organism was, cultural practices maximized the exchange of microbes: as people farmed, foraged, tended livestock, fermented their food, dipped their hands in common bowls, and greeted one other with a touch, they engaged in rituals that bound them together with their neighbors and other organisms. This was probably not accidental. A wealth of evidence shows that, when we share microbes with other people and organisms, we become healthier, better adapted to our environments, and more in synch as a social unit.

The interconnectedness of our biological lives, which has become even clearer in recent decades, is pushing us to reconsider our understanding of the natural world. It turns out that the familiar Linnaean taxonomy, with each species on its own distinct branch of the tree, is too unsubtle: lichens, for example, are made up of a fungus and an alga so tightly bound that the two species create a new organism that is difficult to classify. Biologists have begun questioning the idea that each tree is an “individual”—it might be more accurately understood as a node in a network of underworld exchanges between fungi, roots, bacteria, lichen, insects, and other plants.

The network is so intricate that it’s difficult to say where one organism ends and the other begins. Our picture of the human body is shifting, too. It seems less like a self-contained vessel, defined by one’s genetic code and ruled by a brain, than like a microbial ecosystem that sweeps along in atmospheric currents, harvesting gases, bacteria, phages, fungal spores, and airborne toxins in its nets.

How are we supposed to protect ourselves, if we are so porous?
Are pandemics inevitable, when living things are bound so tightly together in a dense, planetary sphere?

At First, these diseases remained confined to the places where they originated. Then globalization arrived. John McNeill, an environmental historian at Georgetown University, speculates that the first wave of the cholera outbreak of 1832-33 was the first true pandemic; it reached every inhabited continent by hitching rides on caravans and ships.

Farms went from being small operations with an average of seventy chickens to factories housing thirty thousand birds. Barns packed with animals are good places to breed pathogens. In the fast-paced world of an industrial hen house, where birds come and go quickly, pathogens select for the most virulent strains, no matter how deadly. Within the uniform predictability of modern agriculture, the unpredictable emerges.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that three-quarters of the “new or emerging” diseases that infect human beings have originated in wild or domesticated animals. In piecing together the origin story of the coronavirus pandemic, many narratives have pointed to Chinese “wet markets,” at which live animals are sold.

In recent decades, as most manufacturing work has shifted to Asia, people and animals there have begun living more closely. Early cases of avian flu, in 1996, and sars, in 2002, were found in animals in Guangdong Province, among the most densely settled place in history, in terms of people and livestock. Hubei Province, north of Guangdong, where the city of Wuhan is situated, has become a major manufacturing center in the past decades. As Wuhan grew, it sprawled into the surrounding countryside and forests; people were pushed off their small farms and moved into the city’s vast slums. The slums served as a bridge between wild and urban spaces. To get by, residents ventured into the neighboring forests; they hunted and raised wild game, trapping, caging, and breeding pangolins, alligators, bats, civets, and other roaming animals on a scale that blurred the line between domestic and industrial animal husbandry. By harvesting animals from the forests, they flushed out pathogens, drawing them into a thriving city that was just a flight away from Singapore or Sydney.

Infectious diseases are only one aspect of a larger, ongoing health emergency. Two-thirds of cancers have their origins in environmental toxins, accounting for millions of annual fatalities; each year, 4.2 million people die from complications of respiratory illnesses caused by airborne toxins—forty-five thousand in the U.S. alone.

Researchers have found that antibiotic-resistant microbes from animal feces float downwind from Texas feedlots. Pesticides from tropical banana plantations end up in chilly Lake Superior. The spores that caused the 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain may have been stirred up by dust storms in the Sahara. And yet those same storms help deliver nourishing phosphorus to the Amazon rainforest. The air helps pollinate our plants; it also transports radioactive particles, fungal spores, bacteria, and viruses. The quality of our air matters, too. New research suggests that dirty air increases the risk of serious complications from the coronavirus: reducing pollution in Manhattan by just one unit of particulate matter could have saved hundreds of lives.

Self-isolation is key if we are to stop the pandemic—and yet the need for isolation is, in itself, an acknowledgement of our deep integration with our surroundings. To fully respond to what’s happened, we need to reflect on the worldwide ecological networks that bind all us together.

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