As the COVID-19 confirmed cases and deaths continue to rise rapidly in the United States and around the world, one question many people have been asking is: Where did COVID-19 come from?
The most obvious first stop to get some answers would be the White House. As it turns out the President has become one of the most influential explainers and healers of the COVID-19 pandemic. While doctors around the world continue to struggle, Trump has already offered several possible cures: “therapy,” “sunlight,” “humidity,” “injection” of disinfectant, and an anti-malaria drug that he successfully secured from India by issuing a “retaliation” threat.
The President’s press briefings are also a good place to learn more about the origin story of COVID-19. At one of those, a Fox News reporter recounted a story that he had heard from “multiple sources” and definitely not through the grapevine. It has a Bollywood flair. The novel coronavirus, according to this origin story, “emanated from a virology lab in Wuhan, that because of lax safety protocols, an intern was infected, who later infected her boyfriend and then went to the wet market in Wuhan, where it began to spread.” With generous hand gesture Trump confirmed that “more and more we’re hearing the story,” and like a trained historian put extra emphasis on “sources” that contributed to concocting the story. In so doing, the President poured pure ghee into the sacred fire to keep alive a conspiracy theory masquerading as the origin story.
But if you are still not satisfied you can always ask a doctor.
“Pure Baloney,” the first thing the doctor would likely say of the imposter’s bogus explanation of the illness and mysterious healing methods. And that is exactly what Dr. Peter Daszak said when called in to explain the Bollywood-style origin story. Daszak is an expert on emerging infectious diseases and has been studying coronaviruses in China since 2004, including at the very “virology lab” in Wuhan that was mentioned in the concocted origin story.
Instead of merely a scientific explanation of where COVID-19 came from—join me on a rather long bumpy ride to also find out the larger ecological and social significance of the pandemic, which demands a different way to think about and engage with the current crisis than considering it “like” other pandemics that happened in the distant past.
Change in Public Perception: Lessons from the Climate Crisis
The journey begins at the turn of this century. If you are old enough, you may remember that we used to consider a flood—normal—something that has always been part of human experience and necessary for ecological renewal. Same was true for hurricanes. And for wildfires. But as the first decade progressed slowly, we began to recognize that floods, hurricanes and wildfires were happening more frequently and causing increasingly more severe devastation. We began to understand, thanks to climate science, that we are living in a “new normal” and started to acknowledge that these extreme weather events are the consequence of a human-caused warming planet.
With grassroots mobilizations from the bottom combined with science and policy efforts at the top—little over four years ago the Paris (Climate) Agreement was drafted, which has been signed by 196 nations. But soon after taking up residency in the White House, Trump, a climate denier, announced in June 2017 that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which will become effective this coming November—the same month the American public will also determine whether to renew or terminate his White House residency.
While Trump is doing his damnedest to derail climate mitigation, the actual crisis has become so severe that the Guardian newspaper has adopted “climate breakdown” as a preferred term setting aside the “rather passive and gentle” climate change. The term was first coined by the influential Guardian journalist George Monbiot.
We are dealing with much more than climate breakdown, however. As it happens, in the same United Nations 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, two separate bodies were created to address two separate and equally significant planetary crises: the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—to address the climate crisis; and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)—to address the biodiversity crisis.
Even though scores of articles and books have already been written about the extinction crisis—at times it may seem from media reports that the biodiversity crisis is somehow a part of the climate crisis—the all-encompassing umbrella. It is not. The two crises are different, each with its own set of drivers that are causing and amplifying that particular crisis, even though each also contributes to the escalation of the other.
Picking up on the significance of this distinction as it relates to the plight of birds, noted American novelist Jonathan Franzen hurled stones at the National Audubon Society, which had (incorrectly) suggested that climate change is “the greatest threat” to American birds. Both Audubon and Franzen care deeply about the well-being of birds. A war between these two is unnecessary and unproductive. What we need instead is the mainstream media to understand the significance and the subtleties of the distinction and then inform the public accordingly. This COVID-19 moment is as good as it gets to do exactly that.
While there is global public acknowledgement of the climate crisis, there is very little public understanding and acknowledgement of the escalating biodiversity crisis—which by the way, also got a rather dystopic name three years ago, not coined by a journalist but by scientists: “biological annihilation.” It includes species extinctions, die-offs and massacres.
And speaking of extinctions, last year, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which operates under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Programme, issued what could be considered the grimmest warming of human history—that 1 million animal and plant species are facing extinction, many within decades—all due to human activities.
For public perception of the escalating biodiversity crisis to change, we need to consider it in the same manner we have come to understand and then acknowledge the climate crisis over the past two decades. So, I’m urging you to consider the current coronavirus pandemic as a manifestation of biological annihilation, a high-profile ambassador of sort—in the same manner that we did acknowledge that Hurricane Sandy, which wreaked havoc in New York in 2012, as a manifestation of climate crisis.
Bats Are Not Our Enemies
On March 24, 2020, as the U.S. Congress was considering an economic stimulus package to help individuals and businesses affected by the pandemic, a large group of wildlife and environmental organizations sent a letter to four key leaders of the U.S. Congress. The letter unequivocally places the “root causes” of the pandemic in the escalating biodiversity crisis focusing on two key themes: trade of wildlife and habitat destruction. I was particularly struck by the use of the phrase “root causes,” as we tend to only look at symptoms (and avoid addressing root causes) and then use band-aid to do a temporary fix—and this is a key strategy with which capitalism prospers.
Peter Daszak, the infectious disease expert explained how zootonic spillover combined with trade of wildlife likely caused the initial spread of coronavirus. Zootonic spillover is the process by which a pathogen jumps from vertebrate animals (mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians) to humans. It appears that the transmission likely happened from bats to humans, which is also the case for many other recent zootonic diseases, including SARS and Ebola.
Daszak suggests that this novel coronavirus likely originated in a rural area in China where a farmer or animal got infected through spillover and then the person and/or the animal came to the Wuhan wet market where people congregate—a suitable place for a virus to spread. “And it looks like that’s what’s happened here,” is how Daszak summarized the scientific origin story of COVID-19.
Although pangolin, an imperiled group of ant-eating animals and considered to be one of the world’s most illegally trafficked mammals facing the threat of extinction—may also have played a role as an intermediary in the transmission from bat to human. As it happens, last year, the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups initiated a legal action to force the Trump administration to halt the U.S. pangolin trade.
The other part is habitat destruction via logging, mining, drilling and road building for resource extraction; expansion of industrial agriculture; and urban expansion into wildlife areas. Such destruction of habitats is bringing more and more people into closer contact with wildlife increasing chances of spillover.
“And that’s a global trend that will drive the rise of future pandemics,” Daszak says. He also paints a rather scary picture by pointing out that there are an estimated “1.7 million unknown viruses in wildlife, so there’s a lot of diversity out there that could emerge in the future.”
But wild animals are not the problem. We are. We have been annihilating them and destroying their homes at an extraordinary scale and speed.
Sadly, backlash usually follows after an event that results in deaths that we don’t either fully understand or don’t want to. In Southeast Asia, culling of bats has already begun. In Latin America however, there is call for compassion. “We must not distort the situation due to the pandemic,” the Peruvian National Service of Wild Forests and Fauna urged. “Bats are not our enemies.”
“I believe it’s important to know more about them,” Peter Alagona, an environmental historian writes in urging us to not “blame bats” for the pandemic. Bats have as much right to live on this planet as do we. But they also offer essential ecological services, like pollinate around 500 plant species and some of them help reduce spread of viruses by consuming “mosquitoes that carry diseases like Zika, dengue and malaria.”
As we pull out of the immediate pandemic and think of the larger biodiversity crisis we realize that bats are actually in peril. Southeast Asia provides home to nearly 30% of the diversity of wild bats—379 of the 1370 bat species in the world. But due to “rapid forest destruction” almost “a quarter of Southeast Asia’s bats face extinction,” Robin Spiess, a scholar with the Southeast Asian Bat Conservation Research Unit pointed out.
In the U.S., some conservative lawmakers are also insinuating culture wars. “China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that, these viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people and that’s why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS, the swine flu and now the coronavirus,” Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in March. A simple fact-check reveals that while COVID-19 and SARS likely originated in China, MERS was first reported in Saudi Arabia, and Swine flu, or the H1N1 flu, in the United States.
Human consumption of bats and other wild animals for food is also not the real problem, as people in China and elsewhere in Southeast Asia have relied on these free sources of protein for millennia. “The issue is instead the level and extent of the human-animal interface that wet markets permit,” Adam Kamradt-Scott, a professor at the University of Sydney in Australia pointed out. What was once likely a sustainable dependency on wild animals to support local nutritional needs—has turned into market commodities for cash through trade of wildlife.
The letter from the U.S. conservation organizations also highlights that “zoonotic diseases have quadrupled in the last 50 years, mostly in tropical regions.” Over almost about that same span of time, between 1970 and 2014, according to the 2018 Living Planet Report, monitored populations of vertebrate species, on average declined by 60% globally. Here too, the greatest losses have taken place in tropical regions, with 89% decline in Latin and Central America, 64% in the Indo-Pacific, and 56% in the Afrotropics.
Is there a connection between the increase in zoonotic diseases and the escalation in biological annihilation as highlighted in the Living Planet Report? The answer is a likely yes, and the common thread is habitat loss, which also happens to be the #1 contributor to biological annihilation.
Before we point fingers at those who consume wild meat (including this writer) let us look at how we produce and consume non-wild meat in the U.S. and around the world and its larger implications for biological massacre.
According to a study published in 2008, about 72% of emerging infectious zoonotic diseases originate in wildlife. The remaining ones then have to come from livestock—a likely candidate would be industrial animal farms and the meat processing facilities. At these farms, animals “are being produced living in their own waste, breathing terrible fumes that give them viruses,” Winona Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch said in a recent interview on Democracy Now! And at the meat processing facilities there is high rate of COVID-19 infections being reported, including Smithfield Foods in South Dakota, which became the “largest coronavirus hotspot” in the United States. “More than 150 of America’s largest meat processing plants operate in counties where the rate of coronavirus infection is already among the nation’s highest,” according to an investigation conducted by USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
In addition to the tremendous mistreatment of farm animals, the unethical process of production and processing, and its potential contribution to spillover—let us also consider the role of industrial meat production and more broadly livestock animals in the larger crisis of biological annihilation.
Two years ago, the first comprehensive study of Earth’s biomass, or weight of all living creatures was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The results were startling. Of all the mammals on Earth at the moment, only 4% are wild mammals, 36% humans, and 60% livestock, mostly cattle and pigs. And of the winged creatures, 70% of all birds are farmed poultry with the remaining 30% are wild birds.
The most widely known visual representation of “justice” is a balanced scale. Imagine this now. We get up on the right scale-pan with our cattle and pigs—and all the rest of the wild mammals on Earth from land and the seas, blue whales and elephants included, jump up on the left scale-pan. The scale tips disproportionately to the right with a verdict: 96% vs. 4%. I would call it “Mammalian Injustice” of an order that no science fiction writer has yet dared to conceptualize, not to my knowledge. But this is not science fiction. This is just as real as the current coronavirus pandemic.
Pandemic or Not, the Border Wall Construction Continues
As I noted earlier that Trump is pulling the U.S. out of the Paris (Climate) Agreement, which has its own consequences for the escalating biodiversity crisis. But more specifically, the United States is not a party to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, and consequently does not have a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, unlike other nations like India.
Beyond missing at the table in the global scene of biodiversity conservation, Trump is also violating binational cooperation for species conservation in the northern- and southern- borderlands of the United States.
In the U.S.-Canada borderlands, he opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain to oil and gas drilling, which endangers a biological nursery of global significance, violates binational conservation of the Porcupine River caribou herd, and human rights of the Indigenous Gwich’in people who depend on that caribou herd for nutritional, cultural and spiritual sustenance and call the coastal plain “the sacred place where life begins.”
To bring attention to Trump’s reckless Arctic policy, in February 2018, I convened a three-day national conference the last oil: a multispecies justice symposium on Arctic Alaska and beyond. The long-fight to protect the Arctic Refuge goes on. In the meantime, the pandemic has drastically reduced the worldwide demand for oil and recently brought the price of a barrel of oil to “below zero” making the expensive exploration and development of Arctic oil not feasible–driving a potent dagger into Trump’s Arctic ambition—not only the Refuge but all of Alaska’s Arctic, land and seas. In so doing, the pandemic has helped to save some remarkable biological nurseries in the Circumpolar North.
And in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, Trump is pushing forward with building a continuous wall through one of the most biologically diverse places in North America. According to a study by Defenders of Wildlife, the U.S.-Mexico borderlands traverse six eco-regions and provide home to 1,506 native terrestrial and freshwater animal and plant species. The study further highlights that 34% of U.S. nonflying native species would be cut off from their traditional range, and 17% of the species analyzed, including jaguar and ocelot, would be so significantly impacted that it could disappear from the United States. The wall could also impact low-flying species, like the endangered Quino checkerspot butterfly and the ferruginous pygmy-owl. It will also “partition indigenous homelands, devastate communities and endanger binational cooperation,” biologist Joseph Cook, historian Samuel Truett and I wrote in an op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal.
To bring attention to the violent wall building project and the biodiversity crisis in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, last fall, my cohorts and I organized an expansive transnational project, Species in Peril Along the Rio Grande, which included a main exhibition at 516 ARTS in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and nearly a dozen associated exhibitions, murals and public art projects, as well as extensive public programming in northern Chihuahua (Mexico), west Texas, New Mexico and southern Colorado. It was likely the first time that communities across a large region spanning two nations engaged the biodiversity crisis with a creative response in such an expansive and distributed manner with a shared concern and generosity.
As Species in Peril Along the Rio Grande was underway, Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, with his colleagues in the U.S. Congress, introduced two important biodiversity legislations. In October 2019, with Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, the “Udall-Bennet Thirty by Thirty Resolution to Save Nature,” which aims to establish a national goal of conserving at least 30 percent of the land and 30 percent of the ocean within the territory of the United States by 2030. And in November 2019, with U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego of Arizona, the “Udall-Gallego Tribal Wildlife Corridors Act of 2019,” which would support wildlife management efforts by Indigenous Tribes.
The pandemic may have saved Alaska’s Arctic and also slowing down the burning of and production of fossil fuels more broadly—contributing positively to mitigation of the climate crisis at the moment. But there is no halting of the construction of the border wall.
“While New Mexicans are being asked to take extraordinary precautions to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration and its contractors continue to build the border wall, wasting federal resources and putting the lives of New Mexicans at risk,” Kevin Bixby, Executive Director of the Southwest Environmental Center wrote in a recent op-ed in Albuquerque Journal.
Let us also not forget that last year Trump made a strong push to gut the Endangered Species Act!
In summary, Trump is doing his damnedest to derail not only mitigation of the climate crisis but also biological annihilation.
As I was wrapping up this article, on April 20, Senator Udall joined two leading scientists for a press call to discuss the “Nexus of Coronavirus and Nature Crises.”
Grassroots community mobilizations from the bottom, with projects like Species in Peril Along the Rio Grande, combined with policy initiatives at the top, like what Senator Udall has been doing in partnership with scientists and conservation organizations—is laying the necessary foundation toward developing a national biodiversity action plan for the United States.
Historians may look back on this pandemic and consider COVID-19 not merely one that killed many people but also one that helped spark actions to mitigate biological annihilation, which may save many more human and nonhuman lives in the long run.
This article first appeared in Species in Peril.