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Because of how fast the coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads it is impossible to give an accurate update on infections and deaths. As of this writing on March 11, there were more than 100,000 infections globally, with more than 4,000 deaths. Here in the U.S. the number of known cases continues to grow rapidly. At least 900 people have the virus in 38 states and Washington, D.C., with at least 29 deaths. In California we have confirmed 157 cases and two deaths.
This is not the first time humanity has been attacked by an invisible microbe or virus with devastating consequences. We survived the plague, developed a vaccine for the flu, and will in time develop a vaccine for this coronavirus. While I have no medical training, it’s clear to me that until the vaccine is developed, “best practices” are those prescribed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC): Wash your hands a lot, bump elbows instead of shaking hands, stay home if you’re sick, avoid air travel, and stay out of crowds. This advice is especially true for at risk populations, including the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.
This viral attack is teaching us two other things: The incompetence of Donald Trump and his administration has reached a dangerous level, and we must now add the spread of infectious diseases to the existential impact of climate change.
As with everything in this time of Trump, the virus has been politicized by the president and his administration. Donald Trump has told us that his administration’s response to the virus, like his call with the president of Ukraine that led to his impeachment, have been perfect. He’s called the virus a hoax, told us it has been contained (when it clearly is spreading), that anyone wanting a test can have one (they’re not available), and called the Democratic governor of Washington, where the outbreak was the most severe, a snake. Perhaps the most disturbing is the report that he had the CDC warning that told seniors not to fly removed from its website, thereby endangering the lives of thousands. Voters should factor this kind of incompetence into their calculus in deciding who to vote for in November. But there is a profound irony in his insult of Governor Jay Inslee which should not be missed.
In his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination Washington Gov. Inslee made climate change, something Donald Trump denies, his top priority. One of the byproducts of climate change is the advent of infectious diseases like COVID-19. We have been conditioned to think about climate change in terms of melting glaciers, sea level rise, fires, droughts, species decline, and human displacement. However, the World Health Organization has concluded: “Changes in infectious disease transmission patterns are likely [a] major consequence of climate change.”
We humans have no immunity to COVID-19 because we’ve never seen it before. We have, however, seen something similar: Ebola; which since the 2018 outbreak has killed more than 2,200 people and infected 3,400 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
While scientists think that climate change with its extreme weather events plays a role in Ebola outbreaks, they are unequivocal about climate change pushing animals and people closer together, allowing animal viruses like Ebola to jump from animals to humans; especially from bats known to carry dozens of viruses.
One known mode of transmission of Ebola to humans is eating infected animals. According to the scientists studying Ebola: “with climate change … [putting] increased pressure on food security in Africa, food shortages push more people to alternative sources and consumption of bush meat, like bats [and primates].” Due to climate changes, bats and primates have come into closer contact. Ebola in bats jumps to primates.
Animal diseases comprise roughly 70 percent of all human infections. Experts have for years, been telling us that the climate crisis will accelerate the transmission of animal diseases to humans due to changing weather patterns causing animal migrations into closer contact with humans. I believe that science will reveal that this coronavirus, like Ebola, is an example of this chilling phenomenon.
COVID-19 is now part of a pattern of increasingly frequent epidemics that have coincided with globalization, population growth, and climate change. Our world is global, connected regardless of whether or not one wants it to be. In our connected world, outbreaks of infectious disease can move from a remote village to a major city on the other side of the world in under 36 hours. We are now traveling more for both work and pleasure than ever before. In 2018, there were 4.2 billion air transport passengers up from 310 in 1970. This kind of mobility helped propel coronavirus from China to more than 60 countries in two months.
Clearly, during this outbreak, our first concern has to be our health and the health of others. However, both Trump’s incompetence and climate change are existential threats to life as we have known it: Trump to our democracy, global warming to our way of life. While protecting ourselves and others from the virus, it’s important to consider these impacts.