6. 22. 2021

Pandemic and Planet

Sudipta Saha

It was only a few months after the global climate strike
perhaps the largest-ever worldwide mobilization for action against the climate crisis that the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the world. One crisis overlaid another. The parallels between the pandemic and the climate crisis are numerous; both can be understood as manifestations of the larger crisis of capitalism. By tracing some of the intersections between the two, can we learn something that might help us confront both?


Capitalism as both origin and terrain

Over the past couple of decades, the climate justice movement has articulated an analysis of climate change that centres capitalism and colonialism as fundamental causes. Capitalism relies on the continual exploitation of people’s labour that transforms natural resources into things of market value. It is a grow-or-die system that, at its core, assumes a never-ending expropriation of the natural world to be used in its production process. It funnels most of the proceeds from environmental and human degradation to a small capitalist class: the world’s richest 1% are responsible for twice the emissions of the poorest 50%. Racial capitalist development has always relied, and continues to rely, on violence, slavery, and the dispossession of Indigenous lands to satiate its need for constant growth. At the same time, it offloads the effects of environmental destruction disproportionately onto those most exploited in the first place: Black, Indigenous, and poor communities around the world. White supremacist ideology is used to rationalize such development.

Racial capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy are fundamental causes not only of climate change, but also of the pandemic. Extractivism and land dispossession have led to greater human disruption of ecosystems, increasing the risk of zoonotic spillover events, where a novel pathogen is transmitted from non-human animals to humans. Climate change itself, with its extreme weather events and shocks to existing ecosystems, may increase the risk of those spillovers. 

Those fundamental causes of climate change and the pandemic have also shaped the terrain of racial and economic inequality on which crises are unfolding. The communities most affected by racial capitalism are also those that have been made most vulnerable to ecological and epidemiological crises, while the rich are able to mobilize resources to protect themselves from extreme weather events (for example, by building flood protection or relocating) and shelter at home from SARS-CoV-2 (or even move across the world to outrun it). It is no coincidence that residents of formerly “redlined” districts – predominantly Black communities in the US that were first excluded from receiving housing loans, then targeted for predatory lending – are disproportionately affected not only by extreme heat and flooding, but also by COVID-19. And by the social disasters that have followed, like evictions.


What the models hide

Despite the systemic origins of both the pandemic and the climate crisis, responses to them often centre on something much narrower: their modelled hypothetical trajectories. Every few years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) publishes reports that model how different incremental climate interventions might lead to different futures. Mainstream environmental organizations will often use these projections to emphasize the urgency of the crisis and set the scale of their demands. The incremental logic of such climate and economic models is also reflected in policies like carbon pricing that attempt to assign a market price to the industrial outputs causing climate change, but fail to address how the levels of climate harm that capitalism requires will destroy the planet. Significant rhetorical energy is spent on organizing evidence to convince people to “listen to the science.” This assumes that the problem lies with individuals or the state not understanding the science, or not taking it seriously enough because the effects of environmental degradation seem far off.

This focus on predictive modelling has intensified during the pandemic, as we have been constantly updated with epidemiological models depicting possible trajectories of new COVID infections and deaths. Though successfully integrated into pandemic responses in some parts of the world (New Zealand is a primary example), modelling alone has often failed to elicit an adequate public health response from capitalist states, which has resulted in mass preventable deaths (as in the United States, Brazil, and India, all horrific disasters). Such models are vital tools that can help us understand the crises we are facing. But when we rely on them too heavily, we forget that models are just that: abstractions of the real world, imbued with assumptions and constrained by statistical necessity to limit the scope of the causes under investigation. As such, they can mask the structures of oppression that form both the origin and terrain of the crises, as well as the political contestations unfolding in the struggle to respond to them. 


Personal responsibility, social murder

Many mainstream environmental organizations have historically been focused more on convincing individuals about the need for action than on organizing collectively against the forces of capital at the heart of the climate crisis. This individualized focus is accompanied by the assumption that mass action on climate change is difficult to generate because the effects of global heating seem abstract, and far in the future. Similarly, even though the evidence is clear that COVID-19 can be thought of as an occupational disease that propagates significantly through workplace transmission, many political leaders have continued to blame not the bosses creating unsafe working conditions, but the workers suffering and dying. 

When Friedrich Engels wrote about the deaths of working-class people in Manchester in 1845, he used the term “social murder.” He assembled evidence that such deaths were the result of conditions created by capitalism, and that the capitalist class knew this and chose not to act. The same has been true throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. And the ruling-class inaction we are witnessing now should put to rest any notion that similar inaction on climate change is due to its effects being “abstract.” Unlike climate models, COVID-19 infectious disease models were and are predicting cases and deaths in the immediate future, yet most political leaders have opted to tolerate a significant amount of sickness and death to keep the circuits of capital flowing. Consider that right now, in the United States, there are roughly 300 deaths from COVID-19 every day yet CDC guidance, messaging from the Biden administration, and the rollback of benefits and eviction moratoriums have all pressured workers to return to workplaces that are often unsafe. Meanwhile, the wealth growth of billionaires in the United States has accelerated during the pandemic. Inaction on climate change, like inaction on COVID-19, is not a failure to recognize the gravity of these crises, but a problem of valuing wealth creation over human lives. Deaths from both crises are social murder.



Proposals to work towards “Zero COVID” – that is, to work to suppress the virus rather than tolerate it until it threatens to overwhelm health-care systems have been dismissed as impractical, too difficult to implement. Achieving near-total viral suppression in a given region might require closing workplaces, ensuring safe conditions in workplaces that can’t close, mass deployment of resources towards testing and personal protective equipment (PPE), decarceration, and eviction bans. It does not bode well for the struggle against climate change that many political leaders across the world have shied away from such decisive action to prevent mass death (especially following the pandemic’s first wave), while most civil society organizations have found no tactics able to push those leaders towards a more humane policy response.

While in rich countries like the US and Canada, vaccines may seem like a miracle technological endgame that appeared virtually overnight, they are in fact based on principles and technology developed through decades of public investment in science around the world. Yet intellectual property regimes have circumscribed most of the world’s access to vaccines by turning them into commodities. States in the Global North have cut deals with monopolistic pharmaceutical firms to get priority access, while staunchly defending those companies’ right to make obscene private profits on the back of public funding. And not even a fair deal on vaccines would turn them into a systemic solution. They are temporary fixes that need to be designed afresh as new diseases emerge and existing ones mutate. The Global North’s decision to allow the COVID-19 crisis to continue in most of the world increases the risk that virus variants requiring redesigned vaccines will emerge; that decision thus has the perverse effect of increasing potential future profits for the pharmaceutical monopolies. From the climate crisis to this pandemic to the next, relying on capitalism for answers is a recipe for disaster.


What do we do?

The dual crises of COVID-19 and climate change have intertwined origins, they’ve exacerbated existing inequities in similar ways, and they have often been met with the same kinds of technocratic, incremental responses. This affinity between struggles has implications for how we confront both.

For one thing, the inadequate response to COVID-19 should temper any hope that climate change’s apparent remoteness (the idea that it’s an “abstract,” “future” crisis) can explain climate inaction. The experience of the pandemic should make us question whether organizing strategies focused on making climate change more “real” to the public or policymakers are the answer. We have seen a sustained acceptance of mass death, especially when those dying are elderly, disabled, Indigenous, Black, migrant, racialized, feminized, and poor. Capitalist states and political leaders across much of the world have protected capital during the pandemic, even at the cost of an enormous number of preventable deaths. This experience should clarify that the fight for climate justice is a fight against capitalism and white supremacy at its core, and not about convincing elites of the moral virtues of action.

We should also understand this pandemic itself as a sub-crisis of the climate crisis. Given that it is all but certain we will continue to see new zoonotic spillovers, as well as new variants of SARS-CoV-2 – phenomena that can be considered offshoots of climate change climate justice organizing should articulate an analysis that ties these threads together. A focus on suppressing infectious disease then becomes inextricable from fighting for climate justice.

And as the vaccine monopolies demonstrate, technological advances either to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or to protect against extreme weather will tend to be exclusionary, favouring those in the rich world, and geared towards maximization of private profit. It is important to remember that dangerous ideas like geoengineering, which green capitalism posits could save the planet (and also make a lot of money), are not analogous to vaccines that have been studied and tested for more than a century. Green capitalism is not the answer. We need to fight for public investment in science and technology, and fight to make the benefits of that research accessible to everyone especially those most gravely threatened by the pandemics and climate crises capitalism has wrought.

Just as the climate justice movement must engage with lessons from the pandemic, so too can public health learn a lot from the former. Climate justice organizers have not shied away from identifying capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy as root causes of the climate crisis. Those who strive for health justice should make equivalent connections, since those same forces degrade human life and lead to sickness and death. Climate justice and health justice may seem more closely entwined today than ever, but they have always been so. The more we insist on the enduring links between these struggles, the better we can identify our common enemies and stitch together our efforts to fight back.

Sudipta Saha is a public health researcher interested in the political economy of health. He is involved with Climate Justice Toronto.