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INTEGRAL ECOLOGY: The Ecology of the COVID-19 Pandemic

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CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 14 January) — The series of deadly landfalling tropical storms (Siony, Tonyo, and Ulysses) in our country last year have painfully reminded us that, aside from the COVID-19 pandemic, we are in a climate emergency. I hope we will not wait for more devastating typhoons just to be re-awakened to this reality. Let us overcome the view that climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic are unconnected phenomena and have, therefore, to be responded separately.

Like today’s climate change, the emergence and spread of COVID-19 is anthropogenic or human-induced. The unscientific perception that spirits and gods inflicted this contagious disease upon those that deserved their wrath has to be overcome. The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has human causes. As Pope Francis pointed out, “these natural tragedies … are the Earth’s response to our maltreatment… It is we who have ruined the work of God.”[1] Christian faith teaches that God is all-good and He created everything good.

The deforested hills of sitio Kidanggin, Pangantucan (Bukidnon). Photo courtesy of Fr. Reynaldo D. Raluto.

Along this line, science affirms that COVID-19 is zoonotic in nature, that is, it originates in animals. More than sixty percent of the emerging infectious diseases that affect humans are zoonotic and more than two-thirds of those have their origin in wildlife. In the case of COVID-19, it has been claimed that its transmission to humans took place at a “wet market” in the city of Wuhan, where wildlife was being sold. There is no consensus yet regarding its specific transmitter. Some researchers in China have suggested that pangolins are the probable animal source of COVID-19.[2] Others say that “bats are the probable reservoirs of Ebola, Nipah, SARS, and the virus behind COVID-19.”[3] In any case, disease ecologist can explain how virus is transmitted from animals to humans: “It is likely that a bat dropped a piece of chewed fruit into a piggery in a forest. The pigs became infected with the virus, and amplified it, and it jumped to humans”[4] who have the capacity to spread around the globe very quickly with air travel. Thus, zoonotic viruses can infect people either directly, like when they handle live wildlife (or their meat) or indirectly, when there is human contact from infected farm animals such as chickens and pigs.

The increasing number of new infectious diseases affecting humans is a symptom of a deep ecological concern as it “may be linked to habitat loss due to forest area change and the expansion of human populations into forest areas, which both increase human exposure to wildlife.”[5] Deforestation and habitat destruction are the chief reasons why zoonotic diseases have quadrupled in the last half-century largely. Accordingly, humans have felled 46% percent of all the trees on Earth. “Humans and their livestock are more likely to contact wildlife when more than 25% of the original forest cover is lost, and such contacts determine the risk of disease transmission.”[6] Furthermore, it is believed that about 10,000 mammalian viruses are potentially dangerous to people. They will be unleashed once the forest ecosystems are destroyed.

Lastly, it has been argued that this pandemic emerged out of the unsustainable model of economic development that produced the climate change phenomenon. Apparently, both the COVID-19 pandemic and the global climate change have their common roots in the unrestrained capitalist production and unlimited consumption patterns for the sake of infinite growth at the expense of the environment. “The need for more natural resources has forced humans to encroach on various natural habitats and expose themselves to yet unknown pathogens. … The failure to contain [the COVID-19] is also due to the capitalist drive of the global economy.”[7] Thus, from this perspective, it is clear that our integral response to this pandemic should go beyond simply containing the spread of the virus.

An integral ecological response to the pandemic challenges should simultaneously advance the climate agenda. It listens and responds to the cry of the poor and the Earth. It is not only concerned for the health and safety of the people but also eager to work for the preservation of the sustainability of the Earth’s ecosystems. In this sense, an integral pandemic prevention should not merely revolve around following the health protocols and banning on global wildlife trade; it must also get involved in the healing of damaged ecosystems and habitats.

Yes, we need to heal as one … together with our planet!

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Reynaldo D. Raluto is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Malaybalay. He is the Academic Dean of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Cagayan de Oro where he also teaches fundamental/systematic theology and Catholic social teaching. He is the author of Poverty and Ecology at the Crossroads: An Ecological Theology of Liberation in the Philippine Context (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2015). His ecological advocacy includes planting/growing Philippine native trees, mountain climbing, and defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples.] 

[1] Cited in Philip Pullella, “On Earth Day, Pope Says Nature Will Not Forgive Our Trespasses,” Sojourners, April 22, 2020; https://sojo.net/articles/earth-day-pope-says-nature-will-not-forgive-our-trespasses (accessed: January 10, 2021).

[2] David Cyranoski, “Did pangolins spread the China coronavirus to people?” Nature (February 7, 2020); https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00364-2?utm_medium=affiliate&utm_source=commission_junction&utm_campaign=3_nsn6445_deeplink_PID9237743&utm_content=deeplink (accessed: January 10, 2021).

[3] Andrew P. Dobson, Stuart L. Pimm, Lee Hannah, et al.; Science  Vol. 369, Issue 6502 (24 Jul 2020): 379-381; https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6502/379 (accessed: January 10, 2021).

[4] Jim Robbins, “The Ecology of Disease,” New York Times (July 14, 2012); https://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/sunday-review/the-ecology-of-disease.html (accessed: January 10, 2021).

[5] FAO and UNEP, “Executive Summary,” in The State of the World’s Forests 2020: Forests, biodiversity and people (Rome: FAO and UNEP, 2020), xix; https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/state-worlds-forests-forests-biodiversity-and-people (accessed: January 10, 2021).

[6] Andrew P. Dobson, Stuart L. Pimm, Lee Hannah, et al., “Ecology and economics for pandemic prevention,” Science  369, Issue 6502 (Jul 24, 2020): 379-381; https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6502/379 (accessed: January 10, 2021).

[7] Vijay Kolinjivadi, “The coronavirus outbreak is part of the climate change crisis,” Jazeera, 30 Mar 2020; https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/3/30/the-coronavirus-outbreak-is-part-of-the-climate-change-crisis (accessed: January 10, 2021).

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