March 14th, 2020
David R. Cole
The global pandemic spurned by coronavirus (COVID-19) is well under way. I have no desire to spread further false or misleading information about the disease, as I am not an epidemiologist. However, as I have been thinking quite deeply about the Anthropocene for several years now, I feel well-equipped to relate this outbreak and its spread to the Anthropocene. What is interesting for me as a social commentator, educationalist and philosopher, is what the outbreak is revealing about the state of our global society, how we relate to it, and our thinking about pan-international-social-health-issues:
- The virus started in China. This should be no surprise, as China still encourages and allows for live animal markets, borne out of a continuing faith in traditional Chinese medicine. It has been said that the new virus may have been transmitted to humans from bat guano and pangolin meat in a live animal market in Wuhan. The markets are densely populated with humans and wild animals, making transmission of novel viruses such as COVID-19 more likely via bodily excretion and fluid interchanges. From the initial identification of the novel virus in Wuhan, it has now spread to 123 territories or countries as of March 14th, 2020. Clearly, it is an extremely transmissible disease from humans to humans, similar to colds and the flu.
- The global reaction to the origination of the disease in China and the wild animal markets is complex. Many countries are now putting local and international quarantine measures and travel bans in place, though many have still not, and many have been slow to act. To an extent, the disease still comes across as being something exotic, unusual, and unlikely to affect us, or with limited effects, despite the evidence to the contrary, suggesting the high transmissibility of the disease, and the relatively high death rate (1-3%), especially amongst older people, and those with underlying health problems. In effect, the first two points are directly related to the Anthropocene: it is something out there, not directly related to us, or connected in a complicated, rather exotic way; it is something that is hard to understand, and that we can really do nothing about, so we may as well go on as before (why should I change my life anyhow?).
- The high transmissibility and global spread of the disease points to the international transport options open to us via planes. COVID-19 has been primarily spread internationally out of China via planes, and latterly through local routes of human transport, and human to human contact in situ. All transport routes via planes emit carbon dioxide via the burning of jet fuel, so one of the inverted effects of the COVID-19 outbreak will be to slow the emission of CO2 via a diminished number of international flights, at least until the pandemic subsides. This amounts to a potentially positive result for the Anthropocene. Of course, this reduction in international travel will be reported globally in terms of the loss of jobs and revenue in the airline and tourism industries. This point leads to the connection between the pandemic outbreak and integrated world capitalism (IWC).
- World trade is entirely interconnected in the Anthropocene. The outbreak started in China, where much of the world’s manufacturing has been relocated due to low labour costs and the ability of the Chinese to effectively run and control factories. The quarantine and social isolation effects of the virus will lead to a slowing in manufacturing in China and elsewhere as work ceases. As such, and as all industrial processes are presently connected to CO2 release in some way; this will, in addition to the slowing of world travel due to air travel restrictions, lead to a lowering of CO2 emissions, at least for the course of the pandemic. Moreover, the translation of this inevitable slowing in the world economy, will be to directly hit the world stock exchanges and flows of money, as investors and traders have to guess where, when and what the specific effects of the pandemic will be on trade. Hence, one of the most noticeable effects of the COVID-19 virus is to increase the imagined connections between the world economy, global speculation and health, as investors try and read what will happen at these levels. This important aspect of the Anthropocene is mirrored and connected to local effects of the pandemic.
- At a local level, every jurisdiction in the world can be seen as a case study of action in the Anthropocene. Governments have already started to announce intertwined health and economic measures to counter the threat of the virus on their populations. Some of these measures will be successful, other will not, because, for example, the injection of large amounts of cash into the economy, will be seen by some as a reason for financial weakness, and could encourage the panic selling of stocks. However, what these actions show is what governments are capable of in times of crises, and, in particular, in times of human health crises, and the accompanying economic effects, as industries struggle to function under changed social conditions of isolation and quarantine. One could say that climate change only receives similar governmental attention when there are direct effects on human populations, such as bush fires and floods.
- Concurrently, many ecologists, social activists, and environmentalists have been encouraging action at the local and personal levels to combat the effects of climate change for many years. The COVID-19 crisis shows us, that, however well-meaning, earnest and correct these local efforts might be to combat climate change, and despite the rhetoric of right-wing politicians, saying that we do not live in a globalised world (i.e.: make your country great again), the global interconnections of the Anthropocene, as proved by COVID-19, is unassailable. This interconnection is augmented and morphed through the internet, and the instantaneous transmission of information around the world (however inaccurate and/or ill-informed this might be). As such, local and personal action, and agency as such in the face of threats such as COVID-19, must be backed up by coordinated and extensive action on the global level. This is exactly what has proven to be so hard to mobilise and achieve internationally in terms of climate change in the Anthropocene.
- Finally, in many places, a type of panic response to COVID-19 has begun to set in, akin to a science fiction novel. In the anonymity of the suburbs no-one knows what you’re really thinking, so bulk buying toilet paper, pasta, rice and canned goods, might appear to be acceptable because no-one cares. In the end, the pandemic becomes another spectacle to watch on TV whilst self-isolating and quarantined, and like the unfolding of the Anthropocene, we can distance ourselves from it in the position of the spectator, now banned from organized sporting events, but allowed to stockpile food and toilet paper and letting the madness roll on unabated…