From The New Yorker (Kate Brown):
Microbial webs have bridged the spaces between human beings and other species for all of our history. Long before anyone knew what a single-cell organism was, cultural practices maximized the exchange of microbes: as people farmed, foraged, tended livestock, fermented their food, dipped their hands in common bowls, and greeted one other with a touch, they engaged in rituals that bound them together with their neighbors and other organisms. This was probably not accidental. A wealth of evidence shows that, when we share microbes with other people and organisms, we become healthier, better adapted to our environments, and more in synch as a social unit.
The interconnectedness of our biological lives, which has become even clearer in recent decades, is pushing us to reconsider our understanding of the natural world. It turns out that the familiar Linnaean taxonomy, with each species on its own distinct branch of the tree, is too unsubtle: lichens, for example, are made up of a fungus and an alga so tightly bound that the two species create a new organism that is difficult to classify. Biologists have begun questioning the idea that each tree is an “individual”—it might be more accurately understood as a node in a network of underworld exchanges between fungi, roots, bacteria, lichen, insects, and other plants. The network is so intricate that it’s difficult to say where one organism ends and the other begins. Our picture of the human body is shifting, too. It seems less like a self-contained vessel, defined by one’s genetic code and ruled by a brain, than like a microbial ecosystem that sweeps along in atmospheric currents, harvesting gases, bacteria, phages, fungal spores, and airborne toxins in its nets.
In the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, this idea of a body as an assembly of species—a community—seems newly relevant and unsettling. How are we supposed to protect ourselves, if we are so porous? Are pandemics inevitable, when living things are bound so tightly together in a dense, planetary sphere?
The history of civilization has hinged on the building and demolition of boundaries between species. Early agriculture disregarded most of the natural world in order to cultivate only the most productive plants and animals; this allowed populations to grow and cities to flourish. But crops and livestock, once they were concentrated in one place and cultivated in monocultures, became vulnerable to disease. As cities and farm operations grew, people and animals crowded closer together. The result was a new epidemiological order, in which zoonotic diseases—ones that could jump from animal to human—thrived.
At first, these diseases remained confined to the places where they originated. Then globalization arrived. John McNeill, an environmental historian at Georgetown University, speculates that the first wave of the cholera outbreak of 1832-33 was the first true pandemic; it reached every inhabited continent by hitching rides on caravans and ships. More infections followed, often affecting the crops on which people depended for food. In the early nineteenth century, potato plants in South America suffered from a blight; the culprit, a mold called Phytophthora infestans, sailed to Ireland in 1845, where it led to a million deaths. In the eighteen-sixties, a tiny aphid-like bug called phylloxera migrated from the United States to Europe, nearly pulping the French wine industry; in the nineteen-sixties, Panama disease eradicated the world’s favorite commercial banana, the Gros Michel. In 1970, the fungus Bipolaris maydis decimated the American Corn Belt before spreading worldwide; another fungal infection, wheat rust, has caused countless famines worldwide.
And yet the upsides of industrial agriculture were hard to resist. In the nineteen-fifties, the Green Revolution churned out so many cereal crops that the United States began giving food away; when its techniques were exported to the rest of the world, they defused the “population bomb.” In the sixties, the American-led Livestock Revolution vertically integrated the production of animal products, creating a parallel increase in the consumption of meat. By the seventies, big poultry companies were churning out so many chickens that they had to invent new products—chicken nuggets, chicken salad, chicken-based pet food. Large corporations bought up local producers of poultry, pork, and beef; feedlots grew to the size of fairgrounds; hen houses dwarfed neighborhood strip malls. Farms went from being small operations with an average of seventy chickens to factories housing thirty thousand birds. In the eighties, with the Blue Revolution, the industrial farming of fish expanded, too. From 1980 to 2018, the global production of animals for consumption grew about one and a half times faster than the world population.
Barns packed with animals are good places to breed pathogens. Monocultures, in which all animals are genetically similar, offer few speed bumps to transmission. “You got fifty thousand chickens in a barn,” Rob Wallace, the author of “Big Farms Make Big Flu,” told me. “They are all genetically the same and you are growing them for a turn-around time of six weeks. That is all food for flu.” Normally, pathogens evolve to be harmful but not deadly: they want to co-opt hosts without killing them, so that they can continue their spread. But, in the fast-paced world of an industrial hen house, where birds come and go quickly, pathogens select for the most virulent strains, no matter how deadly. Within the uniform predictability of modern agriculture, the unpredictable emerges.
Zoonotic diseases can seem like earthquakes; they appear to be random acts of nature. In fact, they are more like hurricanes—they can occur more frequently, and become more powerful, if human beings alter the environment in the wrong ways. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that three-quarters of the “new or emerging” diseases that infect human beings have originated in wild or domesticated animals. In addition to the familiar pathogens—Ebola, Zika, avian flu, swine flu—researchers have counted around two hundred other infectious diseases that have broken out more than twelve thousand times over the past three decades. It’s no small feat to cross the species barrier; these numbers speak to the scale of our agricultural system.
In piecing together the origin story of the coronavirus pandemic, many narratives have pointed to Chinese “wet markets,” at which live animals are sold. But no matter where the viral “spillover” occurred, it was made more likely by widespread trends. The single best predictor of where new diseases will spring up is population density. The misnamed Spanish flu of 1918 most likely emerged on Kansas farms, where people, animals, and birds lived in close quarters. One study found that, from 1940 to 2004, infectious diseases materialized most in densely packed areas, such as the northeastern United States, Western Europe, Japan, and southeastern Australia. In recent decades, as most manufacturing work has shifted to Asia, people and animals there have begun living more closely. Early cases of avian flu, in 1996, and sars, in 2002, were found in animals in Guangdong Province, among the most densely settled place in history, in terms of people and livestock.
Hubei Province, north of Guangdong, where the city of Wuhan is situated, has become a major manufacturing center in the past decades. As Wuhan grew, it sprawled into the surrounding countryside and forests; people were pushed off their small farms and moved into the city’s vast slums. The slums served as a bridge between wild and urban spaces. To get by, residents ventured into the neighboring forests; they hunted and raised wild game, trapping, caging, and breeding pangolins, alligators, bats, civets, and other roaming animals on a scale that blurred the line between domestic and industrial animal husbandry. By harvesting animals from the forests, they flushed out pathogens, drawing them into a thriving city that was just a flight away from Singapore or Sydney.
In 1975, the dean of Yale’s School of Medicine told his students that there were “no new diseases to be discovered.” They were thinking about sanitation, vaccines, and antibiotics; they couldn’t see the new threats posed by urbanization, industrialization, and industrial agriculture. The images that emerged from Wuhan in February—people donning P.P.E. to leave their apartments, dogs in protective gear—speak to our new, paradoxical reality: technologies that have made it possible for more and more of us to inhabit the earth have also made it less hospitable to human life. The citizens of Wuhan looked like earthbound astronauts, launching not into space but onto the streets of their home city. Soon, we may all look that way.
Infectious diseases are only one aspect of a larger, ongoing health emergency. Two-thirds of cancers have their origins in environmental toxins, accounting for millions of annual fatalities; each year, 4.2 million people die from complications of respiratory illnesses caused by airborne toxins—forty-five thousand in the U.S. alone. Marshall Burke, an assistant professor of earth systems at Stanford, has estimated that the reduction in pollution from the shutdown of factories in Wuhan has saved between fifty-one and seventy-three thousand lives in China–twenty times more people than the virus has killed in Hubei Province as of March 8th. “We have created a set of dangerous environments, and we can’t just keep imagining that we can exclude them or put them elsewhere,” Anna Tsing, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told me. The big lesson of the virus, she said, is that “there is no place to run.” In an effort to expand our reach across the planet, we have cornered ourselves.
The sars-CoV-2 pandemic is an unfolding, global tragedy. It’s also an occasion for thinking, in broad terms, about the currents in which we swim. The philosopher Emanuele Coccia argues that we inhabit not Earth but the atmosphere, which he describes as a sea of life; as swimmers in this sea, we cannot be biologically isolated. Neither can our ecological practices. Researchers have found that antibiotic-resistant microbes from animal feces float downwind from Texas feedlots. Pesticides from tropical banana plantations end up in chilly Lake Superior. The spores that caused the 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain may have been stirred up by dust storms in the Sahara. And yet those same storms help deliver nourishing phosphorus to the Amazon rainforest. The air helps pollinate our plants; it also transports radioactive particles, fungal spores, bacteria, and viruses. The quality of our air matters, too. New research suggests that dirty air increases the risk of serious complications from the coronavirus: reducing pollution in Manhattan by just one unit of particulate matter could have saved hundreds of lives.
Self-isolation is key if we are to stop the pandemic—and yet the need for isolation is, in itself, an acknowledgement of our deep integration with our surroundings. To fully respond to what’s happened, we need to reflect on the worldwide ecological networks that bind all us together…
Kate Brown is a professor in the Science, Technology, and Society program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her latest book, “Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future,” was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award.
From The Denver Post Editorial Board via The Greeley Tribune:
Closing all but the most essential businesses in Colorado is a drastic measure. We understand why unrest is bubbling among those who are unemployed and entrepreneurs who could lose their businesses. Talk online of protesting Gov. Jared Polis’ stay-at-home order by congregating in a large crowd downtown is misguided, however, and we urge people not to participate.
Those protesters should be allowed to gather — it’s their constitutional right even if it violates the state’s lawful stay-at-home order. But those who attend should know that the people they will hurt the most are our paramedics, nurses, doctors and other health care workers. Those battling this virus daily in close proximity will help everyone regardless of how the individual contracted the virus.
The alternative to stay-at-home orders is allowing the highly contagious new coronavirus to rip through our communities as rapidly as it did in Lobrardy, Italy, and New York City where thousands of patients needing urgent medical care swamped hospitals. In the hardest-hit regions of northern Italy, patients were sent home to recover alone, refused even basic medical treatment like IV hydration and oxygen. Many of those who died at home were not counted among the official Italian death toll of more than 22,000 people since the first case presented on Feb. 18. Although the rate of increase has declined in Italy, as a result of a strict nation-wide, stay-at-home order, every day hundreds of new coronavirus cases arrive at hospitals and hundreds of people die.
The argument that society should shelter its most vulnerable while a virus spreads makes no sense until we know how strong residual immunity is to SARS-COV-2, and how long that residual immunity lasts. Scientists do not know the answer to those questions yet. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that antibody tests to detect the immunity of several thousand health care workers in Wuhan, China, where the virus originated, indicate less than 2% of the population may have immunity at this point. At least 50% of a population (preferably higher) must have immunity for herd immunity to work.
And, as we’ve seen throughout America, we have proven particularly bad at protecting our most vulnerable. Tragically Colorado has seen outbreaks at dozens of nursing homes and other non-hospital health care facilities resulting in at least 40% of the deaths in Colorado.
The fallacy that the coronavirus and the respiratory illness it causes, COVID-19, only affect older individuals or those with pre-existing medical conditions is still rampant. That lie was started by Chinese authorities in their authoritarian effort to prevent people from panicking and fleeing Wuhan, but it does not hold in democratic societies where the free press reports daily on adults in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s without any known pre-existing conditions dying of the virus.
The stories of healthy adults dying and children becoming gravely ill are likely statistically very small, but they are horrifying nonetheless. Too many of those stories are about our health care workers, perhaps because they are being exposed to a heavy viral load, but really scientists don’t know why otherwise-healthy hospital workers are dying.
Until we know more about this virus, it would be the height of callous indifference to let it spread without attempting to slow it.
We are glad folks are advocating for the government to reopen businesses and restart the stalled economy — it is something that must occur eventually.
But the truth is this virus is quite bad, likely 1% of those exposed to it are dying and perhaps an even higher percentage. The population of Colorado is about 5.8 million. If half our population contracts the virus, that’d be a staggering 29,000 deaths.
Mayor Michael Hancock and Gov. Jared Polis saved thousands of lives by shutting down businesses and ordering people to stay at home on March 23 and March 25 respectively.
We urge Coloradans, as difficult as it is to watch savings dwindle or to rely on donations and food banks to get by, to hold on for as long as experts on infectious diseases and health care instruct us to. It’s likely at least a few weeks longer, possibly more. But the number of hospitalizations and deaths in Colorado are increasing at a much slower rate.
The economy will have to reopen. It’s far too late now for containment, thanks in large part to China’s effort to hide the severity of this virus, so mitigating the death toll is the humane, responsible and prudent course of action.
— The Denver Post Editorial Board, April 17