“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” So begins Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book “The Social Contract.” I’ve been thinking about that line because suddenly, unexpectedly, freedoms I have taken for granted my entire lifetime have been taken away. And I fear those things that have been lost will be hard for us to gain back.
Like others in many countries, in Israel, we are in an almost total lockdown. Our right to move freely has been rescinded; unless we are going to buy food or medicine, we cannot stray more than 100 meters from home. The government has authorized the Shabak — the Israeli equivalent of the FBI and Homeland Security combined — to use compilations of data to trace our every movement. Our right to physically be with people is gone. The simple joy of sitting with others has evaporated. Walking into a drug store on March 26, I had to submit to a quick temperature test. The inner workings of our body now are subject to public scrutiny.
“Leaders across the globe are invoking executive powers and seizing virtually dictatorial authority with scant resistance,” Selam Gebrekidan of the The New York Times reports.
“We could have a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures following close if not on the heels of a health epidemic,” said Fionnuala Ni Aolain, United Nations Special Rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights.
Of course, it’s all for good reason — flattening the curve, saving lives. I’m for all of it, and trying to do my part to overcome my rebellious nature and keep to the dictates as best as I can. Yet I can’t help thinking that just like after 9/11, after the pandemic days are over, nothing will ever be the same. There will be no returning to normal. The reason? Like global warming, if we don’t act, viral pandemics are here to stay.
This one was predicted. We were warned and warned again that the outbreak of the next pandemic viral disease was only a matter of time. The same people who told us then are telling us now: This is not the last pandemic; the next one is on its way.
Power has its own inherent logic. Rightly or wrongly, it will take advantage of fear and create rules and regulations that will close upon us like virtual prison walls
This time, we’ll believe the warnings, because of the loss of life and treasure our societies have suffered. Post-9/11 meant new security regimens during travel, new government institutions, two long wars and a new ubiquity of surveillance. I fear some version of the kinds of controls governments have instituted during the coronavirus crisis will become the new norm, because we are fighting a nearly impossible-to-detect enemy, and our breath and saliva have become potential vectors for transmitting death.
Power has its own inherent logic. Rightly or wrongly, it will take advantage of fear and create rules and regulations that will close upon us like virtual prison walls. I don’t know exactly what shape these regulations will take, but I can feel the hot, sticky air of their breaths upon our necks. Will surveillance become constant and written into law, so governments know where we are in case we are identified as a virus carrier? Will we become subject to periodic lockdowns, until it becomes harder to say with certainty whether the reason is biological or political? Will we become more and more guarded and isolated, as 6 foot distancing becomes the new normal? Will the poor, who are more likely to live in crowded apartments and neighborhoods, be subject to additional rules that mark them as pariahs?
“It is far from clear what will become of the emergency laws when the crisis passes,” the New York Times article continued, quoting Douglas Rutzen, then-president of the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law. “In the past, laws enacted in a rush, like the Patriot Act that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, have outlived the crises they were meant to address. Over time, emergency decrees permeate legal structures and become normalized,” Rutzen said. “It’s really easy to construct emergency powers. It’s really difficult to deconstruct them.”
It is crucial to support human rights groups that monitor government strictures and advocate for our freedoms. However, we also must explore another path if we want to preserve our liberty: preventing or minimizing new pandemics. This involves something that is difficult to do: Changing the way we conceive of and act toward the natural world and to our fellow humans whose livelihood depends on the graces of Mother Nature. It involves standing up to the powerful economic forces of multinational corporations and to the politicians they support and promote.
What we urgently must do to reduce the likelihood of a series of pandemics, some potentially more deadly than COVID-19, is understand the preciousness of our wildernesses, forests, jungles, deserts and mountains.
Part of the warning we received years before this latest outbreak is that our devastation of Earth’s wild places and the influence of climate change are at least partly responsible for the pandemics we are experiencing. By now, most of us know that COVID-19, like the majority of new disease-causing viruses entering human bodies, are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted to humans by animals. This was the case for AIDS, Ebola, Marburg, SARS, MERS and swine flu, and is the case or COVID-19. In all likelihood, the next pandemic will be zoonotic as well.
According to zoological, epidemiological and environmental researchers, what’s happening is simple: As humans clear land and cut down trees, as hilltops are blown up to create mines, as agriculture’s center of gravity moves from small village farms to giant, mono-culture agro-businesses, wild animals lose their habitats and begin to die out. Some are caught and sold, in an international market that trades in wild animals for food, medicine or as exotic pets. As small farmers are marginalized or pushed off their land by agro-business, they seek protein wherever they can find it, including in bush meat. The end result of all this: The viruses that inhabit displaced or dying species seek new hosts — and find them in human beings. As John Vidal wrote in Scientific American, “We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”
As the network of global markets stretch farther into the hinterlands, as is the case with Wuhan, China, the viruses transmitted from animals to human beings quickly are transported to places all over the globe. As Andrew Liu wrote in n + 1 magazine, “What the global spread of the novel coronavirus from Wuhan suggests is that the culprit here is not the unique circumstances of a particular place, but rather the now-extensive commercial connections that bring ever more of these kinds of places closer and closer together, into a larger and larger whole. In recounting the story of the novel coronavirus, it becomes increasingly clear that its movements have thus far mimicked the pathways of the 21st-century global market.”
Climate change accelerates this process. It causes drought, which threatens and destabilizes animal habitats. Because the timing and extent of rainy seasons no longer is reliable, it sends desperate villagers who relied on the now-irregular rainy seasons into the bush to hunt or scavenge for meat. It exiles villagers into all kinds of provisional living conditions, without water or toilets, often sharing space with rats or other pests, as they seek new kinds of work. According to the World Health Organization, global warming itself will accelerate the spread of diseases such as malaria while creating avenues for new viruses to penetrate humanity.
What we urgently must do to reduce the likelihood of a series of pandemics, some potentially more deadly than COVID-19, is understand the preciousness of our wildernesses, forests, jungles, deserts and mountains. We must realize wilderness is essential if we are to restore balance to a relationship with nature that has spun out of control. The ravaging of the natural world, the destruction of habitat, must end. We need to take on the role given to Adam when he was placed in Eden: to be devoted to, and to guard, the biodiversity of this beautiful Earth.
We also must realize human beings living as farmers in remote villages are part of this natural balance. Placing our food system in the hands of voracious agro-businesses translates into massive destruction of natural habitats, and the poisoning of the soil and the groundwater. If we want to stop pandemics, it makes sense to encourage each country, or at least each region, to retain self-sufficiency in food, instead of or alongside growing for export. Government programs to help small farmers in the global South have been massively cut over the last few decades. They need to be restored. Farmers must be helped to grow more and sell more so they survive climate change, stay in their villages, help feed their countries, and fend off the threat of takeover by agro-businesses.
Most of all, we have to transform the economy so it no longer is based on fossil fuels. We need to shore up international cooperation and the sharing of knowledge — but take a step back toward self-reliance when it comes to food, medicine and essential goods so local infections don’t immediately infect the world as a whole.
For years, those forces promoting a global economy unrestrained by restrictions or regulations have used the language of freedom to defend their ideas. We all love freedom, but now the choice is ours: Freedom for people, or freedom to exploit and destroy nature for short-term gain? Do we keep the same rules of the game that have allowed huge corporations the freedom to upend the balance between man and nature and put us all in biological and political danger?
The easy course is to allow increasing restrictions on our freedom to try to save us from ourselves while the economy continues to “grow.” But there is another possible choice — a proactive one. Resist the lockdown of humanity. Become vigilant, thoughtful caretakers of our planet and its life before freedom becomes just another word for “nothing left to lose.”
Micha Odenheimer is a journalist, rabbi and social entrepreneur.