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Coronavirus, a sign of the times?

The spread of the coronavirus was exacerbated by air travel. The virus itself crossed over from animals to humans because of the unsanitary conditions in which animals and human beings co-habited. Chris Chatteris says that the coronavirus serves as a warning that the way we live is not sustainable in the long run. In order to avoid ecological collapse will require us to live and work in more environmentally friendly ways.

Until the pandemic has run its course, we won’t be able to catalogue all its lessons, but some are already fairly obvious.

It’s clearly not a good idea to eat bats and pangolins. Of course, we knew of the dangers of eating wild animals from the Ebola and HIV epidemics. How not to raise domestic animals is also something these viruses should teach us. Most of us remember Swine Fever and Bird Flu, but who remembers what caused Mad Cow Disease?

Maybe what we are discovering is that we have to learn these lessons several times before we finally take action. The Chinese government claims to have shut down 20,000 wild animal farms, but have they really and if so, will the ban last?

A very clear lesson is the fragility of the globalised economy and, in particular, how air travel, the symbol of globalization, has proved to be at the heart of the problem, spreading the virus rapidly from Asia to the other continents. Here in South Africa, this is as clear as anywhere. The first cases picked up were people who had travelled from or through affected countries.

The rational thing for the world to have done, once the contagious nature of the virus became known, was to immediately ground all international flights. Obviously, that could only happen on another economic planet, so apparently essential has air travel become to the economy of the 21st Century.

A very clear lesson is the fragility of the globalised economy [is responsible for] spreading the virus rapidly from Asia to the other continents.

But there’s no escaping it; what the world has to think hard about for the next big virus[i] is precisely the problem of rapid, global transmission by air. Should we, can we, create a global protocol that actually grounds all international flights if necessary? Should the world’s growing ‘airport class’ be persuaded to cut back on its air miles and depend more on the internet in the interests of making the economy less vulnerable in future? One thing we can certainly take away from this crisis is that many of the trips, meetings and gatherings that were cancelled were perhaps not as essential as we thought. No one died because they missed a conference, a workshop or even a pilgrimage!

A mild warning

The fact is that so far, this pandemic is a rather mild warning if one focuses just on the health issue. Most people recover and the death toll looks as if it will be small in comparison to past epidemics like the so-called Spanish flu or the Bubonic Plague. I do wonder whether the absolutely massive dominance that the issue has enjoyed in the media is precisely due to the fact that it affects people who can fly and cruise around the world and whose assets are in stocks and shares. Coronavirus certainly threatens a certain privileged lifestyle. The contrast with the media awareness of diseases like TB or malaria couldn’t be starker.

Of course, Coronavirus does also infect and affect the poor, and if it gets into the informal settlements of this country, it is going to be very difficult to contain. The aged and infirm of the townships, and especially those with respiratory diseases, will be at very high risk. The death-rate may well rise dramatically and the loss of income to the poor will be much harder to absorb than for wealthier people.

Within the broadest picture, that of the environment, I think the pandemic mediates to us the most urgent question of our age, namely can we continue to live like this? Environmentalists have noted that the precipitous drop in economic activity, particularly in China, has caused a dramatic fall in the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being pumped into our longsuffering atmosphere. Is Mother Nature telling us that we cannot have our cake and eat it?

Environmentalists have noted that the precipitous drop in economic activity, particularly in China, has caused a dramatic fall in the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being pumped into our longsuffering atmosphere.

We know that our expanding, globalised, consumer economy, which depends on the burning of vast quantities of fossil fuel, will lead to ecological collapse. This pandemic suggests how that collapse might come about. So, either we make some urgent changes in the way we ‘make a living’ on this planet or we risk global catastrophe. We can change our technology and make it cleaner, certainly, but can we accept the idea that we should slow the economy down and produce less ‘stuff’, i.e. material things that we do not really need? Can we stop running around the world so much and focus more on a leaner, greener and more local economy? Can we be more modest in our lifestyle aspirations? Can we share more? Can we accept that, actually, we cannot ‘have it all’?

We have been warned, relatively mildly this time it seems. However, if we ignore this warning, the next one might be rather more severe.    


[i] See https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/18/tip-of-the-iceberg-is-our-destruction-of-nature-responsible-for-covid-19-aoe on how the human invasion and exploitation of wilderness areas creates the conditions for animal to human transmission of serious diseases.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Chris Chatteris SJ
Chris Chatteris is a Jesuit priest who is the handyman at the Seminary in Cape Town, combining the tradition of the ‘worker priest’ with teaching and spiritual direction of seminarians. On the handyman side his current project is to ‘green’ the seminary and he has installed such things as heat pumps, rain tanks and recycling systems. He does some writing, last year authoring a book entitled Vocations and what to do with them, a handbook for vocations directors. He also writes a monthly column for the Southern Cross reflecting on the Pope’s intentions, plus occasional other articles elsewhere. Chris was born in Zambia and went to Jesuit schools in both Zimbabwe and Britain and, having been unable to beat them, joined them in 1968. He studied philosophy, theology, French and education, and spent a very formative time in France, part of which was at the L’Arche Community of Jean Vanier fame. Chris has taught in French and British schools and worked in British and South African parishes, including a mission in KZN at the time of the transition from apartheid to normality. He has also worked as the novice director of Jesuits, in the theological formation of young religious at St Joseph’s Theological Institute, Cedara and, briefly, at the Jesuit Institute.

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