Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Anyone out there panicking? Eating copious amounts of raw garlic? Fighting in the aisles of the supermarket for the last loo roll? Clearly there is some major panic buying going on – today, Tesco have announced rationing of basic shopping items, Costco are rationing toilet roll and it seems you can’t buy hand sanitiser anywhere. I was going to write “for love nor money” there, but I’ve actually given away some of my substantial (and accidentally accrued) stash for love this week, and it seems that £15 will get you a 60ml travel bottle of hand gel on eBay today… tomorrow, that will probably cost £20…

Honestly I have no idea what level of anxiety and fear is warranted, really. The WHO seem to be taking things pretty seriously; the Director General says this must be “top priority for every country”, with “early, aggressive measures”, to stop transmission and save lives, but expresses concern that “in some countries, the level of political will does not match the level of the threat we face.” Of course Trump is not concerned at all, Boris seems to have disappeared over the last couple of days and our (very) new chancellor says the NHS will get everything it needs (like usual?), so it’s all cool. Plus it’s just like a bad cold, anyway.

I’m not an infectious diseases expert, any more than I’m an expert in climate science, so my opinion on how scary this may or may not actually get is largely irrelevant. But I am an over-thinker of the highest order, so of course this has all got me thinking.

What if the planet has just had enough of all these humans?

I read this excellent blog piece earlier in the week, which outlines how, whilst coronavirus is not directly caused by climate change, there are various factors at play on a warming planet which make infectious diseases more likely to emerge and spread throughout humanity. Covid-19 is a zootonic virus, originating from animals. The impact that humans are having on the planet, for example through deforestation and global heating, is changing animals’ migratory patterns and bringing them into closer contact with humans, thus increasing the risk of transmission of these diseases. This article explains the science better than I can, and this one outlines other elements of climate change which are compounding factors in the spread of infectious diseases.

So it seems that Earth is unprepared for increasing disease pandemics. Which is bad news, because it could get a lot worse, as melting permafrosts could release ancient viruses and bacteria that humans haven’t been exposed to for thousands of years.

And we may well have evolved into a society which is too selfish to contain these diseases. Will people obey instructions to self-isolate or adhere to advice to practice social distancing? Or will people be unwilling to sacrifice their freedoms for the greater good? You and I, dear reader, may be fairly fit and healthy people in our prime (or perhaps not!), but the elderly, infirm and people with compromised immune systems need to be protected.

Probably controversial bit from the above article below, which struck a chord with me:

“Doing whatever is necessary to stop the virus spreading is, much like vaccinating your kids against measles, not just about protecting your own interests but putting the wellbeing of the herd first. The trouble is that we all know what has happened to vaccination levels across the west, as a minority of parents seemingly decided the herd was someone else’s problem.”

Will people stay off work, keep their kids at home (and my god the thought of two weeks housebound with a two year old makes me shudder)? Or have we all had enough of experts?

Is there a silver lining? Is it even appropriate or moral to talk about this, when people are dying? Well. Maybe there is. There’s been a dramatic reduction in emissions over China due to the economic slowdown and travel restrictions put in place to try to control the epidemic. Whether this will be negated by a subsequent increase in production at a later date, as a form of bounce back, is of course unknown. There’s also been huge numbers of flights cancelled – great if you live in the flight path, like us. It may of course go both ways, though – locally, I noticed this week awful traffic jams across Blackheath, even worse than normal, but virtually empty buses – so maybe people are driving rather than risking proximity to others on public transport.

Anyway, back to my original thought for this post, inspiring the title. The Gaia hypothesis is not something I know much about – I have had this book in my “to read” pile for about a decade. Maybe this will spur me on to finally read it. The basic idea is that the planet, Mother Earth, is a synergistic, self-regulating and complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet. So perhaps Gaia has had enough of the parasitic human race and is ready to cull some of us? Perhaps the emergence of these viruses is the planet’s way of protecting herself from the damage being done unto her.

Of course, like climate change itself, these pandemics will disproportionately affect the poor and vulnerable once they take hold. (Lots of memes are going around at the moment saying that the only reason the rich care about coronavirus is because the economic impact will affect them, whereas they don’t care about global poverty, starvation, all the other deaths from cancer, suicide etc. I think this is a bit of a simplistic red herring, personally, but I haven’t fully thought it through).

And the numbers pale into insignificance when we compare them to the number of deaths we KNOW will be caused by global heating in the coming decades. This is a social and global (in)justice issue too, of course.

So could we use this as a warning, and work together as a global community to manage this crisis, learning lessons for the future challenges that face our species? We could look at how the panic surrounding coronavirus is causing people to change their habits, reduce their consumption, stop flying – and examine how to replicate these push factors to bring about behavioural change to reduce the impact of humanity on the planet.

Or we could implode into greed and individualism, get distracted from climate change and make it worse by manufacturing billions of plastic bottles of hand gel, which will end up in the ocean.

Buckle up, folks. Only time will tell.

Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos on Unsplash

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