The human costs of the pandemic are mounting in lives lost, economic collapse, children dropping out of schools and lost livelihoods. But there is now 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.
Yet 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 intensified and spread COVID-19. Unless these challenges are addressed, we will both face a high risk of more pandemics and fail to learn and grow from this one.
Here’s the reality: The World Health Organization (WHO) has repeatedly warned that several viruses similar to COVID-19 are on the horizon unless we take preventive measures. Five new diseases are emerging in people every year, any one of which has the potential to spread globally. Furthermore, the 2020 Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Workshop warned that an estimated 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts. Of these, up to half of them could have the ability to infect humans.
What are the underlying causes of these pandemics? While their origins are in diverse microbes carried by animal reservoirs, their emergence is driven by human activities. These include agricultural expansion, land-use change, and wildlife trade which bring wildlife, livestock and people into closer contact, allowing animal microbes to move into humans. This can lead to infections, sometimes outbreaks, and more rarely into true pandemics that spread through road networks, urban slums and global travel.
Here is the bottom line we must face. Many of the drivers of pandemics are similar to those that drive climate change. It is our unsustainable global consumption habits, driven by demand in developed countries and emerging economies, as well as by demographic pressure, that must change. Scientific and economic analyses warn 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. Notwithstanding technological breakthroughs, this will be a century of crises, 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. Yet we must remember that the conditions of going “back-to-normal” are what allowed for the COVID-19 pandemic in the first place. As the Intergovernmental Platform warns: “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.”
“Once the threat of COVID-19 recedes,
there should not be any return to ‘business-as-usual’
whether within or between nations.”
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” (in Self, World, and Time). And hear the novelist Marilynne Robinson, a sane public voice in a time of religious and secularist deception: “[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” (in What Are We Doing Here).
This is not a time for nostalgia or national posturing. Once the threat of COVID-19 recedes, there should not be any return to “business-as-usual” whether within or between nations. If we ever needed globally-minded statesmen and stateswomen, as opposed to mere politicians, it is now.
Dr. Vinoth Ramachandra lives in Sri Lanka and is the Secretary for Dialogue & Social Engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He holds a doctoral degree in nuclear engineering from the University of London. His books include Gods That Fail, Faiths in Conflict, Subverting Global Myths and, most recently published Sarah’s Laughter: Doubt, Tears, and Christian Hope. His blog is https://vinothramachandra.wordpress.com/.