Colonial Capitalism, Coronavirus and Biodiversity are interconnected issues. But what do these connections look like, and what are their consequences to the wellbeing of our planet and its people?
The Environmental Impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic
Those of us keeping up to date with environmental issues have recently been concerned by the volume of medical waste being improperly disposed of during the Coronavirus pandemic, and by the scarily smooth abandonment of environmental legislation.
But what has been less visible or publicised is the effects of our increased use of disinfectant, sanitisers and antimicrobial medical treatments.
Disinfectant has been used in vast amounts across the globe, particularly in public facilities and outdoor areas through dispersal by trucks, robots and even drones. This mass use of disinfectant has severe consequences.
Disinfectant is used to kill microbes, including viruses and bacteria, by destroying their cell wall and protein structure. However, it can also damage the respiratory and digestive tracts of humans and other animals.
What this means is that those with particular vulnerability to the virus, such as older people or those with existing health conditions, are made even less resilient as they are subject to fumes of disinfectant chemicals.
Wildlife, particularly species increasingly caught up in urban environments, is also affected, with a recent study from Chonqing, China finding that at least 135 animals from 17 separate species had died abnormal deaths following exposure to disinfectant sprayed in attempts to reduce the spread of Coronavirus.
Chlorine disinfectants have been applied to ocean waters, which then reach drinking water supplies and sewage systems which lead to freshwater sources, devastating local ecosystems.
Furthermore, the use of antimicrobial chemicals and drugs has been linked to antimicrobial resistance, which means there is a risk of resistant genes being transferred to or developed in pathogenic microbes.
These pathogenic microbes would be able to resist the antimicrobial chemicals and drugs that we currently rely on. It is estimated that 700,000 people across the globe are killed every year by pathogens which have become resistant to available antimicrobial treatments.
This risk is currently under-researched, but as the types and volume of antimicrobial contamination increase, so too does the risk they bring.
The Hygiene Hypothesis
COVID-19 us undeniably a significant global issue demanding serious response. However, it has caused our obsession with cleanliness and hygiene to reach new heights. We are more hyper-vigilant than ever before, and maybe its too much.
Through scientific progress, we now know beyond doubt that specific diseases are caused by microorganisms including viruses and bacteria.
We also know, however, that certain microbes are crucial in ensuring human health by forming vitamins in our gut, defending our bodies against illness and strengthening brain function. Microbes are also useful in the natural environment, where they are involved in waste decomposition, oxygen production and managing nitrogen levels in the atmosphere.
In 1989, the ‘Hygiene Hypothesis’ was put forwards by British epidemiologist, David Strachan. He proposed that exposure to a range of microbes, particularly in childhood, promotes stronger immune health later in life.
The Hygiene Hypothesis has been supported by data showing increased rates of allergies and autoimmune diseases correlating with societies’ overcautious increase in sanitation practices.
The microbes we want to be exposed to are found in more natural environments, those we naturally evolved in. Exposure can be increased by visiting woodlands, playing in dirt, growing a range of plants and enjoying local produce.
Such activities have been shown to boost lifelong immunity by providing the body with nutrients and mechanisms that promote physical and mental wellbeing.
While it is still important to use sanitary practices, such as washing hands and surfaces, and antimicrobial chemicals and drugs when they are needed, their overuse prevents us from gaining these benefits of natural exposure to beneficial microbes.
What Does This Have to do With Colonial Capitalism?
So why, despite ongoing research around this hypothesis since as far back as 1989, are we so permanently addicted to cleanliness, hygiene and the obliteration of microbes?
‘Hegemony’ refers to certain forms of knowledge or practice that are given social authority over others through the power of dominant groups.
The idea of ‘Medical Hegemony‘ places this in the context of health, by acknowledging the dominance of the predominantly Western biomedical process and its oppression of alternative thought and practices.
In this way, our thinking around health and healthcare has been implicated by colonial power relationships. While there has undoubtedly been great achievements in the history of Western medicine, their dominance is acheived by regularly ridiculing alternative healthcare practices and continuously promoting increasingly corporatised treatment.
Despite the fact that Britain’s medical advancement being based on knowledge and plant species collected from across their colonised empire, 19th Century academics were quick to dismiss the medical practices of less powerful societies as unproven, mystical rubbish.
Not only was this an example of appropriation and oppression of their empire, but it was also used as justification to continue the take-over of other ‘uneducated’ populations which needed to be ‘saved’.
Fast forward a hundred years and this ideology continues. In our current pandemic situation, we are facing a new disease and trying to find new solutions. The need for something new should mean testing all suggestions, yet still, Western medicine is continuously prioritised over traditional and indigenous methods.
Dominant western medicine can definitely be useful and should not be discouraged, butl alternatives are simply not given equal respect or consideration, with the small exception of WHO Africa’s brief statement that that traditional medicine can have several benefits but must be compliant with scientific reason.
While I agree that any treatment to be given should have some tested basis, there is no reason why traditional treatments cannot be proven, if given the same opportunity for trial and development as is given to synthetic Western options.
The Coronavirus pandemic has exposed another form of inequality within healthcare, as increasing privatisation demands sanitation and pharmaceutical products be bought, often at significant costs.
These costs are not affordable to everyone, particularly those in vulnerable communities across the world. These communities are likely to face additional suffering such as polluted environments, poor quality housing (not ideal for self-quarantine!) and fewer labour rights like guaranteed sick leave.
This inequality is relevant to colonialism in several ways. For one thing, where these communities are within more powerful countries, they generally include a higher percentage of black and ethnic minority individuals from colonised backgrounds than in the national population as a whole.
For another, where vulnerable communities are in less economically strong countries, poor conditions are often directly caused by the exploitative demands of more powerful, historically colonising, nations.
Finally, the inequality of the Coronavirus pandemic has exposed just how deeply ingrained the inequalities within our global society are. These inequalities have not simply appeared as the virus hit, rather they have been built into institutions over the course of history.
Therefore, they cannot be solved with simple sanitisation or medical products, no matter how brilliant they are.
Despite increasing awareness of structural racism and its linkages with both human health and environmental wellbeing, colonial capitalism continues.
Pharmaceutical companies compete for their share in capitalist markets, patenting and incessantly marketing new products and treatments which they assure us are necessary.
Through this process, we have been sold items as ridiculous as antibiotic toothpaste or even lipstick (and they say indigenous herbs are rubbish??). Doctors are lobbied by salespeople to certify their products as promoting various health benefits.
Microbes are portrayed in ways which capture our greatest fears, as one particularly interesting study found when it looked at the history of microbe imagery – finding adverts portraying bacteria as cute (vulnerable enough to destroy), overpopulated (encouraging fears of scarcity), poor (a reminder of what we don’t want to be) and even sexual (evoking a sense of moral judgement).
The short-term profits of these capitalist marketing strategies are prioritised but little consideration is given to the long-term damage they cause to our health and our environment.
For example, in capitalising on antimicrobial products, their overuse increases the speed of resistance developing in pathogenic microbes such as COVID-19.
How Is Biodiversity Involved?
The capitalist growth of antimicrobial production and marketing does not stop at encouraging us to decrease our personal exposure to microbes.
For one thing, antimicrobial properties work their way back into aquatic and land-based food chains through water run off and, yes, our own personal waste too.
For another, antimicrobial chemicals are now being used in larger areas such as the agricultural industry, where crops are sprayed with generalised solution aimed at preventing all pests and diseases rather than addressing a specific problem that has arisen. Resistant microbes can then survive in harvested crops and enter human food chains.
This widespread contamination alters the ability of enzymes to metabolise carbon which effects the biodiversity of the Earth on a microbial level, as resistant microbes survive and thrive while the beneficial microbes we all depend on decline.
The health of our global society relies on thoroughly diverse ecosystems, which provide clean air, fresh water, disease limitation and management of a hospitable climate.
Commonly recognised risks to biodiversity include human activities, often stemming from colonial capitalist devotion to economic growth, such as deforestation, changing land use, and the development of dams, irrigation and increased urban territory.
These activities change the interactions between organisms and the physical and chemical environments they inhabit. Changing interactions encourages the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19.
A Sustainability Nightmare
The declining biodiversity of our planet is linked to the spread of infectious diseases, which is managed through colonial capitalism, which in turn causes declining biodiversity. And vice versa. Maybe.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have noticed that the connections between these concepts are not simple. They are complex, interwoven, and run in multiple directions and circles.
These issues have individual and collective effects on the health of our planet, as well as unequal consequences for individual lives. Individual consequences and planetary impact have an additional set of interactions, as the increased damage of one tends to increase the damage of another.
Frankly, its a sustainability nightmare.
I must admit, I’m not entirely sure how to end this post. It seems to have developed into a depressing ramble, and sadly – I haven’t seen a solution yet.
As a small attempt at positivity, I shall leave you with this:
In being aware of the issues I’ve discussed here, you can make a difference. Recognition is the first step, discussion might be the second.
Times are changing, awareness is growing, and now is the time to take a stand.