If there is one thing the world doesn’t need right now it is the emergence of a new strain of coronavirus. Almost the entire world has now experienced a wave of sickness and death that emerged as a result of close human contact with infected animals. The vast majority of scientists agree that the crossover of the disease happened in the caged-animal food markets of China, or that it was from there that it initially broke out and started to become a pandemic. All the misery, all the social isolation, all the economic damage is directly down to how humans treat animals.
The latest strain appears to have emerged in Danish fur farms, where mink are kept in crowded conditions that provided ample opportunity for animals to catch the disease from humans. The disease then mutated as it adapted to their immune systems, before coming back to humans in an altered form. If we are lucky that altered form will be less virulent. If we are unlucky it will be more deadly, or it will be resistant to the vaccines scientists have been working so hard to get ready.
Tests in Denmark have found more than 200 people with a mutant form of coronavirus linked to mink farms. Denmark has around 17 million animals that are kept solely for their fur. These animals aren’t running free. They will consume high-protein foodstuffs that require a lot of land to grow and are most cheaply sourced from places like the monoculture soya plantations that have replaced rainforest. Keeping the mink healthy will require the use of medicines like antibiotics, which are rapidly losing their effectiveness, partly as a result of resistance developing after unregulated agricultural use.
Treating animals like this was bad enough before the emergence of the pandemic. Now there is even less justification for 50 million mink being bred worldwide each year to satisfy the fashion tastes of those who think little of the implications.
One of the single most astonishing things about all the pain we have been through this year is how few people have made the link to the obvious fact that this is an environmental crisis. To read many of the papers you would think that new strains of diseases are solely the result of bad luck that we mere humans can do nothing about. Little could be further from the truth.
Cutting down forests to increase food production has put humans in closer contact with new species of animals, particularly bats. That increased proximity with rare and isolated animals has been responsible for a whole series of disease crossovers. Aids was one consequence. Sars another. Now we have a whole new strain of Covid-19 that will be with us, causing misery in some form, for generations to come and possibly permanently.
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That isn’t the only environmental issue to emerge from the pandemic. It has been found that a small rise in people’s long-term exposure to air pollution is associated with an 11 percent increase in deaths from Covid-19. Some 15 percent of all Covid-19 deaths around the world are attributable to dirty air. We have become used to living with exhaust fumes and traffic noise and accepting it as a mundane background problem in our lives.
Yet children who breath in air pollution are more likely to suffer from asthma, wheezing, coughs, poorly developed lungs and cancer, and these conditions predispose people to complications from Covid-19. The pandemic has given us a sharp reminder that traffic fumes produce lung disease and can even kill. During lockdown, many of us experienced quiet streets and skies for the first time in our lives. Is it really wise to go straight back to business as usual and to accept that traffic routinely takes priority over people?
Building back better is a very nice slogan. It means nothing if we are so desperate to get businesses restarted that we are prepared to go back to heavy traffic on the roads, importing foodstuffs that are produced in unsustainable and risky ways, and caging animals in close proximity to humans.
The damage to business of this pandemic has been very real and that matters. Lives are being ruined along with enterprises that took people years of hard work to build up. Jobs are being lost, and that will carry a heavy price in terms of stress, anxiety, poverty, and depression. All of which are killers every bit as surely as coronavirus.
We have learned to our cost that opening up too quickly and too completely before closing down too clumsily has actually increased the damage of the second wave of this virus. Businesses are going bankrupt and the country is running up even more enormous debts because the prime minister wanted to tell people it was OK to go to Spain on a family holiday, and thought it was our patriotic duty to go to the pub.
Do we really want to follow up that experience by rushing to recreate the conditions that created this problem in the first place? Or continue to make light of all the other environmental problems that put our future at risk?
When we encounter a genuine crisis, it is important to think long and hard about the fundamental causes of it. This pandemic isn’t the product of bad luck, it is the product of bad practices. Those practices must be changed if we want to avoid a repeat of a horrible experience.
The vital question that everyone should now be asking is: will we be generating even bigger problems if we get the overall economy back to its old normal without tackling the environmental crisis? Carelessly producing one major pandemic is bad enough. If we carry on mistreating the environment then sooner or later something will emerge with a much higher death toll that is much more virulent.
We need to build back differently.