COVID-19: an opportunity to rediscover ourselves

by Oscar Rea Campos

In 2019 climate change caused enormous damage to the health, nutrition, and homes of millions of people and put marine life and other ecosystems at risk; concentrations of greenhouse gases like CO2, methane and nitrous oxide reached record levels. It’s estimated that, compared to the levels of the last century, the supply of oceanic oxygen has dropped by between 1 and 2%. These statistics, and many more, can be found in the World Meteorological Organization’s Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2019.

Now, in 2020, the average temperature has risen an average of 1.1 C above preindustrial levels. In this context “we count the cost in lives and livelihoods lost to droughts, forest fires, floods and extreme weather events in which we pay a deadly price. We have no time to lose if we want to avoid climate catastrophe,” affirmed UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

In 2019 food security deteriorated in countries around the world as a result of extreme weather events, displacement, conflict, and violence. It’s estimated that approximately 22.2 million people suffered as a result of increased food shortages. “We should be under no illusions, nor should we be indifferent. Climate change is already causing disaster, and there will be more to come,” said Guterres.

A greenhouse in El Alto, Bolivia, where Fundación Comunidad y Axión helps low-income families grow their own food. (MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky)

This is the global context in which, in less than three months, COVID-19 has spread across the globe, and are still struggling to realize the extent to which everything is connected, and to which we are all dependent on each other.

But when we consider technology and human movement, it becomes clearer how all living things in the universe, including the human beings, are enmeshed in intricate webs of relationships, and that nothing exists outside of these relationships. This is the basic thesis of quantum physics.

The spread and deadliness of this virus has exposed the founding myths of our civilization–that the earth’s geological and biological resources are infinite, and that development is the path to happiness—for what they are: nothing more than myths. The indigenous peoples of this planet have known this for a long time. Consider the words of Chief Seattle in 1856: “The earth does not belong to man. It is man that belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites a family; everything is related to every other thing.”

Mountains seen from El Alto. (MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky)

Human beings spend a lot of time thinking about our relationships with one another, but we tend to forget our relationships with other species. Many nations are entering into a period of total quarantine as a measure to stop the spread of the virus and subsequent deaths, which is good. But is it not also evidence that we are only concerned about ourselves in emergency situations?

While of course it’s important to take care of ourselves and others, especially the most vulnerable sectors of the population, it’s also important to come to terms with the consequences of our actions and to ask ourselves, “What have we become? What is the meaning of life? What is life?”

What’s important need not detract from what’s urgent. We can’t stop demanding that our governments show leadership in the fight against COVID-19, that they protect their populations. We must do everything we can to support the urgent search for a vaccine, we must care for each other in solidarity. This we know.

We also know that most of our garbage is never truly eliminated, it only circulates. We know that matter is never lost, only transformed. We know that there are natural limits to economic growth. We know this, but we haven’t internalized it, because our culture tells that the earth belongs to humanity, and our human culture values nothing but money. Societal growth is measured by the number of cars and cell phones sold, even though we know that injustice produces poverty and material and spiritual misery. We know all of this. Why can’t we fix it?

Many of us fear the looming economic crisis, but the slowing of global economic activity in the past months as a result of mandatory quarantines is already having a positive impact—a rapid reduction of pollution and greenhouses gases has been registered in countries across the world. The concentration of nitrogen dioxide, one of the common contaminants in urban areas, has diminished by between 30 and 50 percent in some of the world’s largest cities, as shown by images released by NASA taken since the end of January 2020.

Water gathers on the ceiling of a green house in El Alto. (MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky)

COVID-19 is deadly, but the consequences of climate change, including current levels of air pollution, are even more deadly. In China, for example, where over 3,000 COVID-19 deaths have been registered, an average of 1.1 million people died in 2015 as victims of the “airpocalypse,” the massive cloud of smog that hovers over major urban centers in that country.

What are humans? Biologically speaking, we’re a whole collection of creatures. Millions of bacteria, yeasts, mites, funguses and other organisms live both inside and on our bodies. It’s estimated that  each of our digestive systems hosts an average of a kilogram of bacteria and other species. We live together with them.

According to scientists Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, our past lives in us too. “We share more than 98% of our genetic material with chimpanzees, our sweat is reminiscent of seawater, and we crave sugar which supplied energy to our bacterial ancestors 3 billion years ago. Because of all this, it’s impossible to separate humans from nature.”

Vicuñas, an endangered species in Bolivia. (Photo credit: Edgar Chuquimia Ramos)

We urgently need to protect ourselves against COVID-19, but we also urgently need to recognize that our 7-billion-strong human species is an enormous consumer of food, carbon, petroleum, water, minerals, metals, and silicon. But this isn’t the reason we’re at risk for global ecological disaster. What puts us at risk is the accumulation and unjust distribution of these common resources by a tiny group of human beings.

The current pandemic reminds us that the destiny of human beings is tied to the destiny of other species and that we are part of a global body, because with every breath we connect ourselves to the rest of the biosphere.

Human being cannot continue to dominate nature. We need to understand that we are profoundly immersed in nature, that we are part of it, that life isn’t something to be dominated by human beings, but rather that we are part of life. With or without us, life will continue for billions of years into the future.

As creatures with intelligence, with feelings and with a love for life, we can change the direction of our destiny—both our own destiny and that of the generations to come.

Oscar Rea Campos is the general director of Fundacin Communidad y Axin, an MCC partner in El Alto, Bolivia. (MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky)

Oscar Rea Campos is the director of MCC partner Fundación Comunidad y Axión in El Alto, Bolivia.

This blog post was originally publish by MCC Latin America and the Caribbean.

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