Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for December 2020

This gloomy year comes to a close with a glimmer of light in the form of remarkable vaccines developed and coming on board at an unprecedented rate. These vaccines are safe and offer hope to many.

However, there are serious questions about who will have access to them, and how soon; and lurking behind  all this is the all-important question of whether the exclusive pursuit of “technological fixes”, apart from giving rise to new sets of problems, can ever be a substitute for addressing the deeper moral, ecological and political challenges the world has been ignoring and which have exacerbated Covid-19.

As the global population waits for vaccines to become available, the human costs are mounting, in lives lost, long-term disability, economic collapse, children dropping out of schools, and lost livelihoods. Further, the WHO has repeatedly warned that several viruses, likely to cause pandemics similar to what we have been experiencing this year, are on the horizon- unless we take preventive measures.

In the early months of the pandemic I pointed out that the rapid spread of Covid-19 was a result of our global interconnectedness combined with deteriorating global cooperation. And that it exposed the growing health and economic disparities within nations, with the people whom we typically ignore (because they are invisible to us in “normal” times) at the forefront of caring for the victims and helping the rest of manage the effects of lockdowns. Once mass immunizations spread, and the threat of Covid-19 recedes, there should not be any return to such “business-as-usual”, whether within or between nations. It has to be a wake-up call to political, business and intellectual leaders.

The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Workshop (27-31 July 2020, held virtually) warned that an estimated 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts. Of these, 631,000-827,000 could have the ability to infect humans. Five new diseases emerging in people every year, any one of which has the potential to spread and become global.

The underlying causes of pandemics are the same global environmental changes that drive biodiversity loss and anthropogenic climate change.

The Report of the workshop highlighted several drivers of pandemic risk. Pandemics have their origins in diverse microbes carried by animal reservoirs, but their emergence is entirely driven by human activities. These include agricultural expansion and intensification, and wildlife trade and consumption. These bring wildlife, livestock, and people into closer contact, allowing animal microbes to move into people and lead to infections, sometimes outbreaks, and more rarely into true pandemics that spread through road networks, urban slums and global travel. Land-use change is a significant driver of pandemics and includes deforestation, human settlement in primarily wildlife habitats, the growth of cash crops and livestock production, and urban sprawl.

Earlier this year I ready of poor people in Kenya, whose hunger has worsened because of lockdown measures, resorting eating giraffe meat and that of other endangered species.

However, it is our unsustainable global consumption habits, driven by demand in developed countries and emerging economies, as well as by demographic pressure, that have to change.

“The business-as-usual approach to pandemics is based on containment and control after a disease has emerged and relies primarily on reductionist approaches to vaccine and therapeutic development rather than on reducing the drivers of pandemic risk to prevent them before they emerge”, states the Report.

Scientific and economic analysis warns us that unless we make transformative changes in our taken-for-granted “lifestyles”, the costs of climate change coupled with more regular pandemics will prove disastrous for the entire human race. This will be a century of crises, notwithstanding technological breakthroughs, many of them more dangerous than what we are currently experiencing.

We now know what it’s like to have a full-on global-scale crisis, one that disrupts everything. The world has come to feel different, with every assumption about safety and predictability turned on its head.

How can faith, “seeking understanding” as always, direct our walk into the darkness of the future? The moral theologian Oliver O’Donovan raises this question and answers in terms of Christian hope: “No act of ours can be a condition for the coming of God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom, on the contrary, is the condition for our acting; it underwrites the intelligibility of our purposes.” (Self, World, and Time, Vol.1, 2013)

And here is the novelist Marilyn Robinson, a sane public voice in the midst of religious and secularist obscurantism: “[B]y nature we participate in eternal things- justice, truth, compassion, love.  We have a vision of these things we have not arrived at by reason, have rarely learned from experience, have not found in history. We feel the lack. Hope leads us toward them.” (“Considering the Theological Virtues”, What Are We Doing Here?, 2018)

This is not a time for nostalgia and myths of national sovereignty. If we ever needed globally-minded statesmen and stateswomen, as opposed to mere politicians, it is now.



December 2020