Covid-19: the tip of a deadly iceberg

The most important issue in terms of the Covid-19 pandemic is the one least discussed, writes Alan Thornett

This is the ecological dimension: i.e. disastrous and destructive relationship between human beings and nature. The scramble a vaccine is important because lives have to be saved but it is not the fundamental answer to the problem.

This problem has been highlighted today by a devastating new report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The report was the work of 22 scientists from around the world. It convened to discuss the links between degradation of nature and increasing risks of pandemic. The experts concluded that escaping the era of pandemics is possible, but that this will require a seismic shift in our relationship with nature at all levels.

The report makes the point that: “Covid-19 is at least the sixth global health pandemic since the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, and although it has its origins in microbes carried by animals, like all pandemics its emergence has been entirely driven by human activities… It is estimated that another 1.7 million currently ‘undiscovered’ viruses exist in mammals and birds – of which up to 850,000 could have the ability to infect people.”


It goes on to say that there is no great mystery about the cause of the Covid-19  pandemic – or of any modern pandemic. “The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment. Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people. This is the path to pandemics.”

This is driven by both Western industrialised agriculture – not least intensified meat production and deforestation – and by Asian wet markets and the bushmeat trade.

The report concludes that the risk of pandemics can be significantly lowered by reducing those human activities that drive biodiversity loss and through measures that reduce unsustainable exploitation of high biodiversity regions in order to reduce wildlife-livestock-human contact and help prevent the spillover of new diseases.


As I have argued previously the crucial point for an ecosocialist understanding of this pandemic is to recognise that it is first and foremost an ecological issue. It represents a direct threat to the future of life on the planet – human life in particular – on a par with the other threats such as global warming, the pollution and acidification of the oceans, the mass extinction of species, and fresh water depletion.

Preventing this threat involves not just a vaccine but a fundamental change in the relationship between human beings and nature. The old norm of trashing nature to destruction is no longer an option. Meat eating and air travel in particular simply cannot continue at the old levels. The starting point, however, must be a completely new relationship between human beings and nature. This means both major structural changes in the way human society is organised alongside big changes in the way we all live our individual lives and manage our personal impact on the planet.

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