Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Coronavirus and Global Relationships
distributed 3/6/20 - ©2020

I'm going to assume that you've heard about the global outbreak of a coronavirus. It also may be safe to assume that you're getting tired of round-the-clock news coverage that tells us not to panic.

I'm going to say very little that will overlap with those routine reports. (Wash your hands well and often. Cover coughs and sneezes. Done.) Rather than talking about the disease itself, I want to look at some elements of this "public health emergency of international concern" that can deepen an eco-justice perspective. In many ways, news about the virus outbreak informs an ethical theme that I've been emphasizing for a couple of years: "The world is inherently relational."

In three different ways, the coronavirus shows us what is always true about the world, and our life as members of Earth community.

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Briefly, there are two things that are not true about the coronavirus.

1) There is no causal relationship between the Corona beer brand and the virus. Snopes tells us how some misleading research that was poorly reported made beer drinkers look really dumb. Most who said they wouldn't buy that brand just don't like the taste.

2) In the US, Chinese people and Chinese restaurants are not any more likely to spread the disease than other people or places. Apparently, though, many Chinese restaurants have seen substantial drops in business. Consider eating out for some Cantonese or Szechuan as an act of solidarity and support for businesses that have been unfairly harmed.

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This viral outbreak reminds me that humans are very much a part of the animal family. The SARS-CoV-2 virus has its origins in bats, and jumped species to infect humans.

The Center for Disease Control tells us that "Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in people and many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats. Rarely, animal coronaviruses can infect people and then spread between people." They refer to other recent outbreaks of this strain that we might know as MERS and SARS.

Thinking back a bit farther, you might remember other flu variants that spread from livestock and generated global alarms. In 2009 the H1N1 "swine flu" infected people around the world. A couple of years earlier, the H5N1 "bird flu" was "ravaging poultry in apocalyptic numbers and killing 6 in 10 humans known to have contracted it." That one, fortunately, did not spread widely.

We humans like to think of ourselves as different from all other animals, but we are biological creatures who share DNA and immune systems with other species. We can share infections with bats, pigs, poultry, and others.

In the midst of all of the very legitimate concerns about human-to-human transmission of the virus, let's also remember that our species is biologically related to lots of other critters. In this world that is inherently relational, we are part of the entire web of life.

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The spread of SARS-CoV-2 around the planet within just a few months is a vivid reminder that we are part of a global human family. Especially in our modern era of easy and far-flung travel, we're closely connected with people of every nation.

The disease first appeared in Wuhan, China, and that country took extraordinary steps to limit the spread of the disease. As we all know by now, though, it has been carried to most -- but not all -- parts of the world. The March 5 daily situation report from the World Health Organization says that COVID-19 is now found in 85 countries, with five of those as new additions to the list within the previous 24 hours. (There's an informative map at the bottom of the first page which hints at the countries that are not active parts of the global community.)

With untold millions of people traveling domestically and internationally, there's simply no way to prevent the spread of such diseases. At many airports, both departing and arriving passengers are screened for symptoms or exposure to the virus, even though prior experience shows that screening has almost no impact on the course of an outbreak. Some forms of screening can be helpful in gathering contact information if an infection did spread on a particular flight.

The coronavirus also is a reminder that we're closely connected within our own communities. At work or in school, we spend long hours with lots of people. In stores and restaurants (of all types!), at theaters and on mass transit, we're in close contact with strangers. Concerns about getting infected can make us more attentive to the number and variety of people that we encounter every day.

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The economic and environmental impacts of the spreading disease show us other ways in which we're all connected -- for better or worse.

In China, factories have been shut down because of the virus, and because of that there is a dramatic drop in air pollution, evident even in satellite monitoring. In ordinary times, severe nitrogen dioxide pollution from northeastern China impacted populations around Beijing, and spread much farther. The air and people are healthier because of those idled factories.

Globally, reductions in travel and manufacturing have cut the use of fossil fuels, and as a result there are lower emissions of greenhouse gasses. Oil prices have dropped with reduced demand, which is leading to less oil production. The world's atmosphere is benefitting from the virus, at least in the short term.

You've probably heard of other indicators of global relationships that become evident with the disease. When China's factories shut down, businesses around the world are impacted. Supply chains for electronic devices, car parts and clothing now have shortages. We've had some idea of China as a major manufacturing hub, but this makes it quite vivid.

Locally, too, there are dramatic reminders of the connections within communities, and the powerful impacts that ripple through them. For example, when schools close, parents have to stay home from work, losing income and disrupting workplaces.

Those impacts, of course, are not spread equally in our society. A commentary yesterday from Sojourners says:

Economic, social, and political inequality affect everything -- including how we handle the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19: who gets it, how they are treated, the chances for recovery, job security, etc. ... As always, those who are in poverty, those suffering from illness, immigrants, and/or refugees are the most likely to be severely impacted.

Jim Wallis offers prophetic insights and moral guidance about US politics, our national institutions, and our personal responsibilities. His commentary is worthwhile reading.

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The news surrounds us with details about the coronavirus outbreak -- where it is, how many have died, who gets testing kits, and whether hand sanitizers help (not so much).

Stepping back just a bit from the breaking news can give us bigger and longer-lasting insights. The spread of SARS-CoV-2 can reminds us that "the world is inherently relational." We are in relationship with all animals, with the global human community, and with the world's extended economy and ecology. That's worth remembering.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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