PAUL COLLINS. COVID-19. A chance to rethink the deeper moral and human issues

We are part of nature and the most important lesson of COVID-19 is that it reminds us of our sheer vulnerability.

We’ve heard a lot about the economic consequences of COVID-19, but little about the deeper moral and human issues. While frightening, it’s a unique opportunity to think about better responses to the big issues that challenge us all.

The virus’s technical name is SARS-CoV-2, or coronavirus 2019, or COVID-19. It is one of a number of viruses common to people and animals. At the time of writing the primary source of the virus in unknown. Certainly, bats have genetically similar viruses and these can infect an intermediate animal that then passes the virus on to humans. The geographic source seems to be Wuhan, China in late-2019. The initial zoonotic, or animal-to-person infection has subsequently spread person-to-person. It’s the speed of this spread that’s of real concern.

Pandemics have always been with us. The best-known historical plague was the Black Death of the 1340s-1350s which spread extraordinarily quickly from China to the Middle East and Europe. Reliable estimates are that more than fifty per cent of Europe’s population died, with the virus spreading directly from person-to-person.

Then there was the so-called “Spanish Flu,” the influenza outbreak of 1918-1919. This particular H1N1 strain infected some 500 million people and more than 50 million died, more than in World War One. Most of those infected were young, healthy adults under the age of forty. This pandemic was particularly bad in India where up to eighteen million people died.

The hard facts are that nature is a self-correcting system and a pandemic is the most common way it uses to restore balance and keep species’ numbers in check. With a current world population of 7.7 billion, we face the risk that nature will intervene forcefully to restore balance in the earth’s life systems.

With global warming and massive biodiversity loss, some re-balancing of human numbers is needed. Because it de-stabilizes us and makes us vulnerable, COVID-19 gives us a chance to re-examine deep-seated issues that we assume are irrefutable, like much of contemporary economic theory underpinning over-consumption and “limitless” growth in a finite world. Pandemics shake our certainties and force us back to the moral basics.

One long-term lesson from COVID-19 is that it confronts us with the fact that our lives are rooted in the biological structure of the world, that we are not separate from and over against nature, but an intimate part of it. We need to embrace ecocentrism and biocentrism, so that we develop a sense of seeing ourselves as part of the world, rather than seeing nature as something we can use as we wish. We are part of nature and the most important lesson of COVID-19 is that it reminds us of our sheer vulnerability.

It also destabilizes us enough to face something we constantly sweep under the carpet, over-population. The moment population is mentioned politicians run a mile and we keep putting off confronting the fact that we are consuming resources at a totally unsustainable rate. For sure, social justice and equity between nations is part of the solution, but we simply can’t hide from the fact that there will be 9.8 billion of us by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100. Over-population is a reality and growth fantasists notwithstanding, these numbers are unsustainable. This is vividly illustrated in Sub-Saharan African in countries like Niger where the fertility rate is 7.2 children per woman, with girls unable to finish even primary school.

Until now the pandemic has largely impacted the developed world. Its impacts on the developing world, particularly Africa, seem to have been minimal. But with more than one billion people, Sub-Saharan African countries have minimal health care with many people weakened by HIV, tuberculosis and infectious diseases. It will be hard to maintain social distance to prevent the virus spreading in Africa’s crowded slums and public transport.

Africa remains an unknown for the spread of the pandemic with Ethiopian WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, saying his “biggest concern” was COVID-19 breaking-out where there were weak health systems. However, given the fact that most COVID-19 deaths occur among older people, the one advantage Sub-Saharan Africa has is its youth bulge with the median age under twenty, whereas in Italy it is 47.3 years.

In Australia some of the most responsible responses to the outbreak are coming from large corporations and from government departments that are encouraging staff to work from home and setting up the IT to make that possible. Distinctions are being made between business critical and non-essential meetings, with critical meetings being held via webinar, or web conferencing through the internet in real time. Air travel, both domestic and international, will certainly decrease with a welcome drop in the enormous amount of CO2 (1.3% of human caused greenhouse gases) omitted by aircraft.

Some have pointed out that the adjustments that have been forced on us by the pandemic may well change the way in which large organizations and businesses are run, as people become increasingly at ease with working from home via the internet. The need for large office buildings may well disappear as new ways of working and communicating evolve.

This is all very well for large organizations, but smaller business operations will not have the resources to do this, especially when much of their business is face-to-face. Those impacted by the 2019-2020 bushfires need particular support and help. Governments have made promises and are stepping-in with what results only time will tell.

Finally, a word about distancing and fourteen-day home quarantine and other public health requirements. It’s clear that we’re morally obliged to self-isolate and maintain social distance when that is a public health requirement. Here our responsibility to the community and to other people becomes a central issue.

Above all, we need to maintain good humour. In the end it’s a good laugh that will save us.

Paul Collins has just finished writing a book on population.

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Paul Collins is an historian, broadcaster and writer. A Catholic priest for thirty-three years, he resigned from the active ministry in 2001 following a dispute with the Vatican over his book Papal Power (1997). He is the author of fifteen books. The most recent is Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world (Public Affairs, 2018). A former head of the religion and ethics department in the ABC, he is well known as a commentator on Catholicism and the papacy and also has a strong interest in ethics, environmental and population issues.

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