Chains of transmission
A guy is standing in his weather room — so I imagine — looking out into the Arabian Sea. Maybe he could see Dharavi out of his 27th floor perch. In the heart of Mumbai, Dharavi is the largest slum in Asia. In this neighbourhood of almost one thousand people crammed into two square kilometre area, with a single toilet shared among a few hundred individuals, social distancing is only dream. Spatial inequality is just one variant of the inequalities that have manifested during this pandemic, as virus infections and deaths have been mapped across the contours of poverty, race, class, and citizenship status.
If Mukesh Ambani had been home at the very first days of June 2020, he’d have been obsessed with the weather rather than the pandemic. A cyclone was predicted to reach this metropolis of more than 20 million individuals. Built on an estuarine archipelago subjected to the sea, Mumbai is a primitive exemplar of human creativity, hubris, and myopic vision.
As it was, whilst COVID-19 infected most of Mumbai’s bad, the town escaped the complete force of Cyclone Nisarga. However, if matters had turned out otherwise, Ambani could have made a quick getaway from one of the 3 helipads conveniently located in his $US2.2 billion dwelling. Ambani is leader of Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), a global conglomerate with a vast range of pursuits including fossil fuels, petrochemicals, and electronic media. Arundhati Roy has clarified RIL as one of a handful of businesses that operate India, unaccountable to some demos. Some of them cancel their business actions with tax-deductible philanthropy, keeping the world safe for their favorite brand of cyberspace, making sure that the essentials of this hegemonic global neoliberal system, which has improved them beyond all measure, aren’t disturbed.
This pandemic has revealed the profound structural roots of that which is not just a health crisis, but a pervading social and financial catastrophe. While we’ve been bombarded with modelling and metrics, a daily tolling of the dead and hospitalised and unemployed, we’ve seen on our displays the human reality behind the charts and stats. The fault lines and disparities of the globalised neoliberal social order, which was hiding in plain sight, have been subjected: chained and handcuffed, undocumented migrant workers in Kuala Lumpur were forcibly removed to detention centers; four hours’ notice of the countrywide lockdown in India led to millions of impoverished workers and their families fleeing the towns for their villages, many of them walking hundreds of kilometres; wealthy nations saw queues at food banks, while their underresourced public health systems struggled to cope; sentimentalised as heroes, low-paid’essential’ workers with no sick leave or income security were conscripted to the frontlines, exposing them to contagion, while the professional course hibernated in your home.
Unequal societies with inadequate leadership, health programs, and social and labour protections have shown to be ideal breeding grounds for the COVID-19 virus. While the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, disproportionately affecting the poor and disenfranchised, technology titans have been raking in billions with their exploitative, expropriative company versions.
Many months following the WHO announced a pandemic, the interest of nations around the globe is focussed on containment of transmission within their respective borders; financial recovery; and negotiating and developing access to a vaccine. Much like action to deal with climate change, the territorialstate reaction to the pandemic has been more competitive than cooperative, according to resource and vaccine nationalism.
At the time of writing, scant attention was paid to the pandemic’s causes, and how to lower the risk of future pandemics. Governments around the world have been utilizing the economic collapse to dismantle environmental protections. Regardless of the devastating summer bushfires where an estimated three billion animals died or were displaced, the Australian authorities envisions a gas-fired recovery. Governments continue to ignore the profound connections between public and environmental health. “Pandemics like the COVID-19 outbreak are a predicted outcome of the way that individuals grow and source food, trade and consume animals, and change environments.” However, there is very little evidence that governments across the world are acknowledging the interconnections between the globalised capitalist system, poverty, and climate change and the increased risk of future pandemics. Their compartmentalised, short-term thinking presents a clear and present danger to the health and future survival of the human and natural world.
The UN report explains the drivers of zoonoses, all which are due to human activity and our persistent plunder, disruption and commodification of its own processes: unsustainable agriculture and factory farming connected to rising meat consumption; increased use and exploitation of wildlife; deforestation and unsustainable utilisation of natural resources accelerated by urbanisation, land-use alter, and extractive industries; untrammelled travel and transport; changes in food distribution; and climate change.
The ecological crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic are inextricably connected. An incorporated’One Health’ strategy is the only way not just to decrease the probability of future pandemics by breaking the chains of transmission, but also to address climate change and human, animal, and ecological health.
The climate catastrophe demands nothing less than an upending of the globalised socio-economic purchase. Trusting that the marketplace will solve the crisis is akin to believing that philanthrocapitalists would be the answer to world poverty, or that the fossil-fuel industry is the key to a post-pandemic recovery.
As American Vital theorist Nancy Fraser has written, financialised, globalised, neoliberal capitalism is a institutionalised social order in which adulthood, Instead of human needs and environmental sustainability, dictates using human
And non-technical sources. Globalised capitalist society, that takes growth as a system critical and extracts la- bour and anti inflammatory resources in their cheapest point, has contributed to the issues highlighted in the UN’s re- interface. As long as unfettered expansion is an imperative, without regard to its human, animal, and environmental costs, we will continue along our destructive route. We won’t achieve a sustainable, liveable future unless we foreground non-eco- nomic normativities — equal citizen- ship and interdependence, distributive justice, and ecological, human, and animal health — instead of private, cor- porate, and national interests.
The pandemic arrived in a world of poverty and extreme disparities, in which respect for individual life is un- equal. The distorted’progress-against- poverty’ narrative spun by planet lead- ers and philanthrocapitalists is used to warrant the trickle-down neolib- eral thesis. While the rich get richer, roughly half the planet’s population,3.4 billion individuals, try to live on less than $US5.50 a day, a number that has hardly diminished since 1990, and that will increase dramatically as a re- sult of the pandemic.
Philip Alston, the outgoing UN special rapporteur on extreme pov- erty and human rights wrote recently:”Presenting the schedule of the wealthy as the ideal road to poverty alleviation has entirely upended the social contract and transcended the public well as aid – ing the wealthy get wealthier.” Rather than the schedule of the rich and strong, deep economic and social transformation is critical to prevent a climate crisis and get on course to stop poverty.
Changing existing political, social, and economic paradigms on a na- tional and multinational degree requires governments to commit urgently to some transformative agenda, one that serves human and environmental needs instead of the dictates of funding.
Pandemics and climate change are a consequence of the way we live and are governed. A vaccine might be found for COVID-19, but there’ll be no vaccine for climate change. The fate of humanity and of the planet is dependent on multinational co-oper- ation, not competition.
Having shown our vulnerability, the contingency of our circumstances and of how society is organised using its normalised socio-economic dispari- ties and distorted markets, this catastrophe has prepared the earth for a differ- ent trajectory, such as a reshaping of social, economic, and environmental systems. We will need to mobilise to push for so- lutions at the scale of the problem in- stead of embracing the neoliberal tenet of personal duty. Individual ac- tions, like decreasing the environmental footprint, are completely inadequate to the magnitude of the global catastrophe.
Transformative systemic changes are required to guarantee human and planetary health. What we do next will determine whether our future is just, sustainable, and liveable.