When Pfizer-BioNTech announced its breakthrough vaccine, 1.1 billion doses were immediately purchased by Japan, the European Union, and the United States. Canada’s government secured access to hundreds of millions of doses of various vaccines—for its 38 million people. Meanwhile, the Gavi COVAX Advance Market Commitment was made to share vaccines and inoculate the poorest fifth of the world’s population through an aid program funded by the wealthiest.
But the People’s Vaccine Alliance, comprised of Frontline AIDS, Global Justice Now, OXFAM, and Amnesty International, warned about the ongoing impact of hoarding by rich nations. The Alliance estimated that seventy countries in the Global South would inoculate fewer than 10 percent of their populations in 2021, because wealthy countries had bought so many supplies for their own use.
Then word spread of changes in the genetic structure of COVID-19’s spike protein. Such mutations are to be expected—they are the reason for annual revisions to vaccines against influenza—and may eventually render viruses less perilous. But the new mutations may prove to be more effective, deadlier, and more resistant than their predecessors. The sense of an indestructible, endlessly protean organism taking over the globe merged with incomplete knowledge, governmental incompetence, unfair allocation of vaccines, and controversial quarantine and lockdown policies.
Delays in manufacturing and supply, the proliferation of misinformation, diverse regulatory processes, plutocratic norms, and the increased severity of the crisis all worked against the technical efficacy of vaccines translating into real and rapid relief. These problems derived from a mixture of untrammeled capitalism and under-resourced governments—the product of five decades of deregulation, eroded unionism, and billionaire self-interest.
The crisis of COVID-19 is an indictment of neoliberalism’s hegemonic status in politics, international organizations, academia, think tanks, and the bourgeois media. We must acknowledge the profound global inequality over which this dogma has presided—and its disastrous environmental impact. For the current crisis is not purely microbial. It is equally ecological.
Consider the tragic cull of mink in Spain, the Netherlands, and Denmark. That was necessary because COVID-19 had been transmitted to humans from animals (zoonotically) in a way that threatened treatments and vaccines—and the mink variant, C5, was robustly resistant to antibodies created to counter it. At a more profound level, culling was necessary because of the mink husbandry designed for the fashion industry. Any animals escaping this savagery may infect other species, thereby generating a permanent reservoir of variants with the capacity to be transferred to us.
The International Livestock Research Institute recognizes that animal-to-human transmission is heightened by unsustainable demands for meat, intensive farming, and animal exploitation combined with climate change. Of the 1500 known human pathogens, two-thirds are zoonotic. The current crisis is just the latest in a long line of diseases imperiling human life as a consequence of meat and fashion capitalism’s industrial ways: eighty billion animals are slaughtered for food and clothing every year.
There are other severe environmental impacts associated with COVID-19: Oil prices initially plummeted because of lockdowns, but many natural resources remained in demand and carbon emissions rose sharply in the second half of 2020. The impact of hydrofluorocarbon gases, freezers, vehicles, and airplanes storing and transporting vaccines and hundreds of millions of masks, syringes, and vials turning into waste is daunting. And even the construction of putatively green infrastructure as part of a recovery from the virus will require massive use of fossil fuels for work and travel.
No wonder Goldman Sachs gleefully proclaims the pandemic “a structural catalyst for a commodity supercycle.”
Without nature, there can be no humanity, while changes in the material world caused by people and their tools compromise the survival of the planet’s most skillful and willful, productive and destructive, inhabitant. Us.
Nature’s duality—that it is self-generating and sustaining, yet its continuation is contingent on human rhetoric and despoliation—makes both sides vulnerable. This terrifying time, this year of the mask, may yet prove providential for the environment, if we learn the lesson that human economic priorities have helped produce the disaster, not just evolution.
For that, we need a COVID Charter that addresses the social inequality and environmental peril that are both indexed and increased by the pandemic.
Toby Miller’s A Covid Charter, a Better World will be published by Rutgers University Press on May 20, 2021. For more information or to pre-order a copy, visit the book’s page on the RUP website.