Not another pandemic: Are we walking into a new crisis?

Aileen Bowe

Photo by Giovanni Calia from Pexels

The last thing that anyone wants to read about is the possibility of another epidemic on the scale of COVID-19. And yet, scientists and epidemiologists are warning us that this may very well be the case.

This article discusses the likely impact of COVID-19 on the arts sector and lessons that we can learn to prevent a recurrence.

Impact of coronavirus on the arts

Since the beginning of the crisis, many people have spoken about a sense of unreality or disassociation from daily life. The strangeness of what has happened has affected everyone, and people have struggled to make sense of it.

The virus has brought about substantial changes to the arts and culture sector, some of them in detrimental ways, including the loss of earnings for artists while stay-at-home orders were implemented and social gatherings prohibited.

Already, we’re seeing signs in media productions that will act as part of our zeitgeist for future audiences. You can see in reality shows which were filmed during the height of the pandemic how the unnatural positioning of people on screen and super-wide camera shots are some of the ways that social distancing has impacted production.

It’s important to realise that the impact of COVID-19 will take a long time to process, both collectively and in terms of artistic responses. In the middle of any catastrophic event, it is impossible to look back and reflect because it’s too late to do anything except react. But it is useful to look ahead to consider how COVID will be framed and what lessons artists and scientists alike will draw from the crisis.

Origins of the coronavirus pandemic

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Although not yet confirmed, early indications show the likelihood of the SARS-CoV-2 virus coming from a zoonotic source. Zoonotic diseases are those that originate in an animal and eventually make their way into the human population. Generally, they mutate during the jump from one species to another, and often with catastrophic consequences.

According to the World Health Organisation, there are approximately 200 forms of zoonotic diseases (or zoonoses). Other examples of zoonotic diseases include HIV, Ebola, salmonella, BSE, anthrax, bird flu, Lyme disease, the Zika virus, and rabies.

One of the first studies to draw the link between coronavirus and climate change was published in January 2021. This looked at the example of bat populations in China and how their habitats and ecosystems had changed significantly in the last 50 years. This has forced animals to migrate from their traditional homes and come into closer contact with people.

This also meant that bat species were more at risk of developing and transmitting evolving forms of diseases. Bats are known to be carriers of over 3,000 variations of coronaviruses. Although bat diseases do not directly jump into humans, there is evidence that three deadly coronaviruses originally came from a bat species, which moved into humans by means of an intermediary animal.

One of the lead scientists in the 2021 study, Professor Camilo Mora, stated, “The fact that climate change can accelerate the transmission of wildlife pathogens to humans should be an urgent wake-up call to reduce global emissions.”

Ironically, data has shown that the impact of coronavirus in 2020 caused the largest ever drop in CO2 emissions. However, this has made little impact on the overall rise of greenhouse gas, and greater decreases are needed.

Future warnings

Artists present the world as it is back to us in new forms that make us consider events in new ways, question existing statuses, and explore alternative ways of thinking. Creating art that responds to the climate crisis is one of the ways artists can hold up a mirror to many of society’s current anxieties and fears.

But where do we begin with a crisis like COVID-19 which feels so novel and so alien? Looking back at the 1918 flu epidemic is one instructive place to begin. The aftermath of World War I (which killed 40 million people), political instability, social issues, and the flu epidemic (which killed 50 million people) coalesced into a profoundly turbulent period which was characterised by hopelessness and despair.

Interestingly, some of the themes of the time, including Dadaism, anarchism, and nihilism, do not seem to be the predominant themes of our current era. Rather, there is a determined hopefulness and a refusal to accede to an impending climate disaster seen in many forms of contemporary artistic creations. The horror of what could happen is infused into depictions of our future as something to be acted on, rather than a reflection of current despair.

Similarly, the impact of the 1918 pandemic undoubtedly influenced the culture of the 1920s. The curator of decorative arts and design at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art told Time that: “The rise of modern architecture and design in the 1920s was inextricably linked to the prevailing discourse on health and social hygiene.”

How will contemporary artists bring together the strands of a once-in-a-generation pandemic, climate change, and our future existence on this planet?

Climate change will cause a human migration crisis

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It’s not possible to discuss the impact of zoonoses without discussing how climate change is a major contributor of migration.

Animals and people are being forced out of their homes due to uninhabitable conditions and the availability of elements essential for life, including food, water, and shelter, are being increasingly threatened. It is predicted that global migration patterns will shift significantly in the coming years.

In fact, it has been estimated that there will be a staggering 1,000,000,000 people forced to migrate by 2100 as a direct result of climate change.

The 2041 Foundation, founded to promote the protection of Antarctica, argues that over the last 5,000 years we have established a society that has been optimised for the prevailing environmental conditions (established at the beginning of our current Holocene epoch). As a population, we have largely thrived and used all the resources of the planet available to us.

However, an increase of 2-3◦C is likely to cause a “great rearrangement” of our society. This is likely to include large-scale migration, the restructuring of the food supply chain, and the potential abandonment of cities. What does this mean for future immigration trends? Looking at existing climate change refugees and their treatment is surely indicative of things to come.

The United Nations Refugee Agency has stated that climate change is the “defining crisis of our time.” It’s not necessary to look too far for evidence of how the most vulnerable populations bear the brunt of climate catastrophe. Hurricane Eta displaced millions of people in Central American countries in 2020. Already an area with high levels of migration, many people are left with little option but to seek asylum in other countries.

Unfortunately, international protections for asylum exist on the basis of a small number of criteria. These include being persecuted because of your race, religion, nationality, political opinion, gender, gender identity, or sexuality. We have yet to reckon with the issue of climate asylum seekers in any real way.

These people, who are termed environmental or climate migrants, also exist here in Europe. Some of the countries which have seen climate-related displacement include Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Spain, France, Germany, Moldova, and Portugal due to wildfires, storms, and floods. It has been estimated climate change has already displaced over 695,000 people in Europe.

Legal protections for ‘climate refugees’ do not yet exist in some countries and there is a strong need for laws to be updated to get ahead of this future crisis.

One area where protections have been enshrined in law is the African Union’s legally binding Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, recognising climate change as a man-made situation which causes displacement. The EU, as yet, has no such recognition.

What we can do

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There is a well-established link between using art to raise awareness and provoke change. Multidisciplinary approaches to exploring key themes is one way that artists can present complex issues to audiences to inspire change.

This is the attitude taken by the World Health Organisation and other related groups on the One Health approach. This framework brings together human, animal, and environmental health under the One Health umbrella.

It calls on individual professionals across relevant sectors to collaborate on detecting, responding, and preventing zoonotic outbreaks, public health threats, and ensuring the consistency of the food supply chain.

Aside from a scientific perspective, it makes sense for us to conceptualise the world in this way and democratise all living elements on the planet – too long have we prioritised endless human expansion over the need to respect animals and the wider environment.

It’s heartening to have organisations like Julie’s Bicycle and Staging Change leading the way in making changes within the arts sector that will have lasting impacts. Many innovations seem obvious once they become commonplace, but being the first to fight for changes that will benefit the planet is not easy.

Julie’s Bicycle has stated that “[T]he creative community is uniquely placed to transform the conversation around climate change and translate it into action.”

The idea that a tiny virus, imperceptible to the human eye, could transfer from a bat host to an intermediary animal before jumping into a human, could be the cause of the entire world changing in just a few weeks is an incredible thought. We look towards artists to help us make sense of what has happened, and only time will tell if it can have the effect of contributing to a movement that results in real progress regarding the climate crisis.

Aileen Bowe is a writer and correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that provides legal aid to forcibly displaced persons.

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