The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic put the human-wildlife interface under the spotlight. Said to emerge from a wildlife market in Wuhan, China, the outbreak of COVID-19 has caused a global public health emergency that has not only disrupted economies but also claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. COVID-19 has disproportionate impacts on some racial and ethnic minority groups, the poor, and the elderly and these are seen to be a function of social inequalities. As long-standing issues, social inequalities have almost been normalized and taken for granted by citizens and governments alike. However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has reiterated that social inequalities still exist and that they not only spell the difference between luxury and necessity but also life and death. This pandemic, along with the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, reminds us that social inequalities continue to exist and that justice must be pursued in both social and environmental arena. We find that social inequalities existing before the pandemic translate to further disadvantages at the onset of the pandemic. We also find that expert opinion on the pandemic suffers from disciplinary silos that render recommendations atomistic. With COVID-19 said to have originated from a wildlife market shows that the pandemic is not only a health concern but also a social, economic, and ecological issue. Addressing COVID-19 and preventing future pandemics will be contingent on pursuing socio-economic and ecological justice.
The human-wildlife interface of COVID-19
How complex is the COVID-19 pandemic? As a zoonotic disease, the route of transmission of COVID-19 to humans is seen as a function of increased human-wildlife interaction due to environmental degradation. Environmental degradation is almost always linked to questions of human equality. One such group are the communities living within forest frontiers, who often bear the brunt of responsibility for both environmental degradation and conservation. These communities are often tasked with conserving forests and biodiversity in programs such as community-based conservation, which has an inherent assumption that these communities are responsible for forest and biodiversity degradation. This assumption has become more explicit in light of COVID-19, with communities seen as main actors in wildlife consumption and/or wildlife trade. However, these frontline communities are often not the end consumers and are mostly pawns in an elaborate wildlife trade network across the globe. It is often the “Asian super consumers with weird appetites” who are associated with wildlife consumerism. However, the West is equally guilty, what with their penchant for wild animal skins in order to “dress to impress” or “decorate to elaborate” such as using giraffe skins for religious Bible covers.
A knee-jerk reaction in the wake of COVID-19 was to call for blanket wildlife consumption and wildlife trade bans especially in China, where COVID-19 originated. However, beneath such well-intended recommendations lies multi-layered discrimination. Foremost is discrimination against the marginalized or communities directly dependent on wildlife consumption and/or wildlife trade. More often than not, these communities engage in wildlife consumption and/or wildlife trade for subsistence and livelihood purposes. Taking away their access to wildlife is tantamount to cutting off their lifeline. Secondly, the recommendation plays into the narrative that wildlife consumerism is primarily an Asian or, specifically, a Chinese taste. Some researchers note that a wildlife consumption ban might not work in China due to wildlife consumption being rooted in cultural beliefs and recommend that COVID-19 and future zoonoses could better be managed through education campaigns that should “discredit cultural beliefs.” Again, as well-intended as this recommendation may seem, it is dismissive of everyday realities and is characteristic of orientalism or the Western view that the East is backward.
Disproportionate impacts of COVID-19
“Corona orientalism” is not only confined within the academic realm but also plays out in real life in the form of racial discrimination. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increase of racial and physical attacks, prompting United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres to make an appeal to end hate speech and xenophobia globally. Incidentally, China has been found to have discriminatory treatment of Africans in the country in the wake of COVID-19. In the U.S., it has been found that more than disproportionately black. These disproportionate impacts are attributed to undesirable social conditions and structural racism, among others, against black communities. Similarly, vulnerable immigrant communities in the U.S. share the same risk of disproportionate COVID-19 impacts due to limited access to healthcare, fear of legal repercussions for the undocumented migrants, and poverty. This is a trend that extends to the poor and less fortunate in other countries. Due to lack of money, poor people in countries like Peru, the Philippines or Kenya had to improvise masks out of banana leaves or paper cartons to protect themselves from COVID-19. However, these are insufficient in decreasing their risk of exposure to COVID-19.
The elderly is another group that suffers from disproportionate impacts of COVID-19. Over 90% of deaths related to COVID-19 were of individuals aged 60 years or older and more than 50% were over 80 years old. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed society’s inherent ageism, where the elderly are neglected and their needs dismissed. This has been apparent in Sweden’s COVID-19 deaths, which mostly occurred in elderly homes. Even the words of Sweden’s top epidemiologist hint at ageism, saying that it is not a surprise that nursing homes have been open to COVID-19 transmission because there has always been a problem with running these homes safely. This has been highlighted in this year’s World Elder Abuse Day, which pointed to the increase in abuse and neglect of older people during the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) called for decision-makers to develop universal normative standards for the protection of older people, particularly older women. Ageism is compounded by gender inequalities, which further manifest through increased levels of violence against women and children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns and restrictions confining families in houses for prolonged periods of time increase the probability of violence and abuse of vulnerable elderly, women, and children.
Pursuing social-ecological justice
While social justice is more straightforward in defining its subject of fairness, ecological justice has often been interchanged with environmental justice and to whom or what fairness should apply. Environmental justice primarily calls for a fair distribution of environmental benefits and harms to human societies while ecological justice goes further in including non-human elements in its definition of fairness. In the case of COVID-19, it seems more appropriate to pursue ecological justice alongside social justice, given that the pandemic has potentially stemmed from disregard of the intrinsic value of flora and fauna. The social-ecological character of COVID-19 calls for social-ecological justice. This means that proponents of social justice and ecological justice have to work hand-in-hand and, if not, start including elements of the other in their work. Social and ecological justice are often pursued by actors whose disciplines or agenda rarely interact. COVID-19 is a reminder to break that silos and to pursue justice as part of a bigger picture, just like climate justice. Research also could benefit from this perspective, especially in preventing future zoonoses, given that the human health burden and livelihood impact of zoonotic diseases are greater in developing countries but research is so far focused in the developed world. What is needed is a transdisciplinary approach that not only goes beyond disciplines or societal sectors, but also beyond borders. If social-ecological justice is coupled with transdisciplinary research, zoonotic diseases could be addressed earlier on and prevent pandemics. More than the many health lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, we also have social-ecological lessons to learn and to keep so that, in the future, we fight for collective well-being and not just that of a select few.