Coronavirus, the Environment, and Us

Updated: Apr 22, 2020

We’re all experiencing it right now. We never thought that we would, but we are living through a pandemic. All conspiracy theories and political hoop-lah aside, there is a lot to be learned, and so much has been exposed as it is cast into the public spotlight.

There are so many issues surrounding COVID-19 worldwide and even more so in the United States. With such a media focus on political failings, economic collapse, and an overstressed medical system, I wanted to talk about something a little bit different.

The environmental implications surrounding the coronavirus pandemic are blaring. From the origin of the virus to the lower CO2 emissions, we can’t ignore our interconnectedness with the natural world. It is hard to conceptualize it sometimes because we live in such manufactured and digital environments. Still, humans are killing the planet, and our environmental destruction seems to be our undoing.

Epidemics and Pandemics Are Preventable

What must be stressed is that the origin of the Coronavirus is not that different from the source of many other illnesses that cause epidemics and pandemics throughout our history. After all, even the 1918 Pandemic has an avian origin.

That’s not the only one either. Just to name a few other diseases that originated from human interactions with animals, take a look at H1N1, SARS, MERS, HIV, Zika, Ebola, and the Bird Flu. The WHO even has stated that over ¾ of all epidemics in the last few decades originated with animals.

Our behavior towards the animal kingdom is setting us up for the transmission of these zoonotic diseases. (A zoonotic disease is a disease that has jumped from animals to humans.) Sometimes these illnesses will transmit directly from one animal to a human. Still, in many cases, like SARs and COVID-19, the virus was transferred from one animal host to another animal host and then eventually to humans.

We put ourselves in these situations. COVID-19 is thought to have originated in a wet market for wildlife trade in Wuhan, China. H1N1 and the Bird Flu came from animals in factory farming conditions. Beyond those engineered conditions we force animals to live in, we have influenced massive declines in biodiversity worldwide.

As deforestation for the sake of ranching and other habitat loss linked to climate change continues to be funded and supported by governments across the globe, wildlife is migrating to the remaining wild spaces. Their movement often requires multiple species to live in much closer contact. Many species that would have never otherwise met in their natural habitats now live together on small swaths of land.

The main overarching factors involved in the origins of many of these infectious diseases, including Coronavirus, seemingly comes down to human destruction and animal suffering.

What’s Meat Got to Do with It?

It goes without further elaboration that our fascination with consuming animals for food, entertainment, and other materials has put us in harm’s way. Perhaps it is the Earth’s way of punishing us for our intentional destruction of the natural world.

It is a horrible thing that is happening to so many people across the globe, and what’s worse is that I fear it was all preventable.

That’s an intense claim, I know. There is no real way of me knowing how things could have been, but it is still a thought I’m sure more than just I have had.

Here’s the thing, animals, both wild and domesticated, often don’t choose to interact with us, and they most definitely do not choose to be held captive by us. One of the largest industries in the world is animal agriculture—the source of 222 lbs of meat consumed and 646 lbs of dairy products each year by Americans.

Documentaries like Cowspiracy and Meat the Truth, have dug deep into the corruption and environmental tolls the animal agriculture industries inflict upon the planet. While these are important issues to discuss, I’m not going to detail them in full here. I’ll keep it short and to the point, but feel free to watch those documentaries for a more detailed introduction to the topic.

What we need to discuss are the conditions in which the majority of the animals live before they are slaughtered. Kept in close proximity to each other in less than sanitary conditions, it is a breeding ground for disease. Many livestock owners give their cows and pigs antibiotics to prevent the spread of disease. This just further amplifies the issue by helping the diseases mutate until they are no longer eliminated by medicine.

On top of that mess, we have the issue of deforestation and habitat loss we mentioned earlier. Nearly 1/3 of global habitat and biodiversity loss are linked to animal agriculture. Almost 75% of all Brazilian Rainforest destruction is paid for by the livestock sector. Then, further adding to the pollution, livestock in the United States produces 13 times the sewage of all Americans, which pollutes the air and the water.

Environmental Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic

The main benefit of such a catastrophic pandemic is that it has required much of the world to slow down. Yes, medical workers and government officials are feeling the brunt of the stress, and many people are sick. Still, those of us that do not have jobs deemed “essential” or that can work from home have a distinct advantage in being able to have time to reflect and revamp what our daily lives look like.

Essentially, the lockdowns have put many economies on hold. This has had an evident detrimental impact on many nations, including the United States, but it is necessary. As we have taken a step out of the norm and are no longer moving around as much as usual, things have begun to change environmentally around the globe.

The Good News

I’m going to start with some of the benefits of human social distancing. One major headline has been in regards to better air quality in cities like Los Angeles and New York City and the lower CO2 emissions due to less need for transportation.

At the start of the year, China’s emissions were cut by 25%, and compared to this time last year, New York City has seen a fall in pollution of about 50%. These are the types of statistics that are popping up across the globe as cities begin to implement strict regulations to try and control the spread of the virus.

These sudden and drastic changes to our social interactions are likely only giving temporary relief from air pollutants, though. We may bounce back with more veracity making this lull in pollution seem as if it never happened. However, it does shed light on our ability to minimize emissions.

It has come at a cost, but there has been evidence that an eco-friendly, sustainable economy can support our fight for a carbon-neutral society. It’s not impossible, and it has been discussed for over a decade. Now, due to a catastrophic pandemic, indisputable evidence that it can be done has come to light.

Better air quality and lower emissions are not the only good things coming from the pandemic, though. Since China has released the information that the Coronavirus originated in a market that supported wildlife trade, there has been more attention to restrictions and bans that should be put in place.

A crackdown on wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, has been a long time coming. While many animals are thriving in their habitats without human interaction, some may be more susceptible to poaching. However, if the poachers have nowhere to sell the animals or their body parts, it could slow down the needless killing.

The wildlife trade has been pushing numerous animal species to the brink of extinction for years. With the widespread exposure of the horrors of wildlife trading, conservationists are hopeful that more bans and restrictions will be put into place. Vietnam has already shown signs of slowing down its illegal wildlife trade economy.

The current restrictions that China has enacted have only been temporary so far. Although this brings hope to some, the illegal wildlife trade shows no sign of slowing down. In the first month of the ban, they went online to try and continue sales. Plus, there’s no saying that these bans will even stick, and with the current loopholes, it is impossible to tell how effective restrictions will be.

The Bad News

Okay, so the good news wasn’t all completely good, but it was existent. Now, onto the actual negative impacts, the virus has had on the environment. First, we will start with an easy one that is right to the point and a rather necessary evil for the time: plastic waste.

With such a surge of illness, there is no wonder that a surge of plastic use has also occurred. Medical professionals depend on disposable items like masks and gloves to keep them safe from infectious diseases. So, I won’t dwell on this because there isn’t really a way around it at the moment. They need PPE, and they should have PPE for their safety despite the environmental repercussions.

There has been more plastic waste on an individual level as well. As people panic buy things, or get PPE for their families, they are using more disposable items. Food packaging, for example, is on the rise as more people purchase frozen produce instead of fresh. Plastic water bottles and cleaning supplies sold in plastic bottles are flying off shelves. There’s also a push to use single-use plastic bags instead of reusable ones. Many of us are still going to the store once a week. We can still make conscious buying decisions to cut down on waste.

So, moving on, let’s talk about food waste. You may have seen in the news that farmers have had to ditch milk and tons of produce due to school, event, and restaurant closures. This is such a terrible loss. Not only for the farmers but also because this food can be put to use right now. There are millions of people in need of economic assistance, and food security, and this food waste could be donated to help them.

Now, I will say that many farmers have already taken this step in donating food to shelters, and even communities have helped to give back for their generosity. Still, this is another corner of the crisis that the government could help to streamline. There is minimal support for these farmers and many families that have no current income.

The final topic in my list of bad environmental news is the release of the EPA’s “COVID-19 Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Program” on March 26, 2020. Now the Environmental Protection Agency picked a particularly useful name for this document, as it sounds like it would be holding everyone accountable against existing environmental laws.

The bad news is that it actually is providing loopholes and leniency for corporations, CAFOs, and oil companies to pollute the air and water even more than they already do. You can go ahead and read the document yourself. I linked to it above.

It does an excellent job of explaining that they want government agencies, tribes, regulated entities, contractors, and non-government organizations to act in good conscience during the COVID-19 pandemic.

These entities have to write to the EPA why they’re dumping hazardous waste illegally and why it is related to the pandemic. Then, they’ll essentially receive leniency from the existing environmental laws. Not only that, but the NRDC (National Resource Defense Council) asked the EPA to provide public documentation of any entity that polluted under this Assurance Program, and the EPA said no. Now, the NRDC and other environmental groups are suing the EPA.

This denial of public record essentially gives corporations a free pass to cause immediate harm to already over-polluted parts of the United States. It puts clean water directly in harm’s way, and it does not provide the public with the information they need to stay safe.

While the EPA may have had good intentions writing up this document, they have opened up a door for corporations to take advantage of the pandemic for their economic gain.

What Should Our Takeaway Be Then?

There’s so much happening right now, and so much of it is dismal and depressing news. Everyone is feeling the brunt of isolation or being overworked. These are distinctly different battles, but they are difficult in their own way.

Those of us that are stuck at home have an advantage, though. We have time, and we have resources to make a difference. Sure, we don’t all have medical training and can’t help on the front lines, and we aren’t all essential workers, but we can change as individuals to better ourselves and our world.

The thing is, this pandemic was preventable. It is a result of greed, destruction, and the dissemination of our home. The Earth’s resources are being depleted for the sake of the economy, but now the economy has collapsed.

We have a chance to take a look at the failings of the “great” United States of America and pick up the pieces as we move forward to build something better.

It will be a hard road ahead, but each one of us can play an integral part in societal change. On an individual level, you can stop supporting animal agriculture and habitat destruction by becoming vegan. You can make more deliberate and conscious consuming decisions in regards to packaging and ingredients. You can choose a more sustainable method of transportation. You can choose to have a garden to produce your food. You can support local farms, restaurants, and businesses instead of corrupt corporations. You can vote in government officials that will enact change on a local, state, and federal level.

One a corporate level, companies can choose to continue telecommuting a few days a week to cut back on employee travel and office resources. Employers can choose ecologically friendly companies to source from. Manufacturers can work closely with environmental advocacy groups to find solutions to lessen or eliminate their pollution.

The government has a lot of policies to rewrite and a lot of refocusing to do to regain the trust of their people again. The good news is that we have the right to vote, and we can influence policies in the local government, state government, and federal government. We can educate ourselves and become better informed about what is really happening in our world.

In the end, it comes down to the culmination of individuals to influence social change. We don’t have to wait around for the government to make the change for us. So, let’s take the opportunity we have right now to begin.

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