Confusion in the age of coronavirus: what we can (and can’t) learn

It seems like the time of Covid-19 has been characterised by mixed messages. It can’t be killed by hand sanitiser (it can). We won’t be shutting things down (we will). Herd immunity. Social distancing. Self-isolation. I won’t comment on any of that, because I’m not an epidemiologist, psychologist, sociologist, or generally the right kind of biologist to be expressing an opinion.

It is a little disappointing that the news from the world of zoology has been equally confusing.

There are dolphins in the canals of Venice! There aren’t, the video was taken in Sardinia. The waters do seem to be a lot clearer due to reduced boat traffic, and this combined with no crowds may have attracted more seabirds. The fish, incidentally, were always there, we just couldn’t see them. Also, it’s still cool that dolphins are coming closer to the coasts again in Sardinia, likely due to reduced boat traffic.

Elephants may have been through a village in China, but apparently didn’t get drunk and go for a nap in a tea field, and more’s the pity. Wild boars have been seen in the streets of locked down Italian cities though (although they weren’t exactly shy before…).

It’s a shame people feel the need to exaggerate for social media clout when what is happening in the natural world as a result of human activity is genuinely incredible, if a little eery – it has a bit of There Will Come Soft Rains vibe.

And somewhere, someone ‘edgy’ you know is tweeting or posting on Facebook something along the lines of “Guys, we are the virus. Coronavirus is the vaccine.”. Probably the same person who watched Infinity War and went around telling all their friends that Thanos did have a point, though. This is called ecofascism, and puts them in the good company of the Nazis, the Unabomber, and the Christchurch mosque mass shooter. I would encourage everyone to be kind during these strange times, and consider how reading something like the above could impact someone who has just lost a loved one to this disease. But even beyond kindness, let’s talk about why this worldview is not only morally wrong, but also just wrong.

Overpopulation vs overconsumption

Widely repeated by everyone from your university lecturers to David Attenborough is the theory that the reason we are in such a terrible predicament environmentally is because there are too many humans on Earth. We all know there has been exponential growth in the human population (are we getting sick of exponential growth curves?).

I’m not saying this isn’t a problem at all. But it might not be the problem you’ve been led to believe it is. For a start, ‘overpopulation’ is not the cause of food insecurity. In terms of the climate crisis, overpopulation  pales in comparison to overconsumption. And consumption is far from equal. In the UK alone 15% of people take 70% of all international flights. Countries with the slowest population growth have the highest rates of consumption. And about 26 people have as much wealth as the poorest 50% of the world’s population. The cause of our problems, relatively speaking, is a small number of people, not a big one. The focus on overpopulation instead of overconsumption has become an excuse to shift the problem onto the Global South, instead of changing things in Western ‘developed’ countries like the USA and the UK.

So if you’re going to let our current global predicament shift you towards radical political thinking, there are a lot better takes out there than ‘millions of people need to die’.

So what can we learn about our relationship with nature from coronavirus?

For starters, emerging diseases often jump to the human population through animals. The main vectors for this are the wildlife trade, agriculture, and deforestation forcing wildlife into human-inhabited areas. So stopping illegal wildlife trade, decreasing consumption of animal products and factory farming, and stopping the illegal wildlife trade and better controlling (or banning) the legal wildlife trade will all benefit not just animals, but us too.

The rates and patterns of global infectious diseases are changing

Due to climate crisis and our global society, there has been an increase in the rate of emerging infectious diseases and the way they spread and where they persist will continue to change. Even if we mitigate global warming as much as possible, the effects are still going to be felt for decades. As a society, we have to be ready for the next coronavirus.

In the meantime, I hope everyone is practicing social distancing, being safe, and staying kind.

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