The COVID-19 Pandemic and Systems Change for Health in the Anthropocene

Does the current coronavirus outbreak provide us with a window of opportunity for a more balanced, healthy, and sustainable way of living? Katharine Zywert, co-editor of Health in the Anthropocene, addresses this question in our latest blog post.

***

When the WHO declared a global pandemic on March 11, I was in the early stages of writing my dissertation about health systems in the Anthropocene. The first chapters were going to present an argument about the interdependence of human and planetary health. I was making the case that ecological disruptions would push our economies and social institutions into a phase of creative destruction. As our brittle systems gave way under the pressures of climate change, we would be given a window of opportunity (or perhaps a series of windows) to realign the broad scope of human activities around a new goal: securing human health and equity without surpassing planetary boundaries. Now, only three weeks later, what once felt like a fringe position almost seems self-evident. Economies are contracting rapidly around the world as we try to contain the worst impacts of COVID-19. The pandemic has exposed the fragility of our globalized world while at the same time bringing to light a novel capacity to collectively mobilize against a global threat. Living through a pandemic offers a very immediate, tangible experience of the importance of a strong social safety net, the effects of climate change on health, and how crucial it is to build local resilience. The experience is ubiquitous in a way that no other recent shock to the system has been. Even the relatively wealthy and privileged are affected, no one is immune, and everyone is facing disruptions to life as we knew it.

In the edited collection Health in the Anthropocene, my co-editor Stephen Quilley and I talk about the potential for such shocks to lower the threshold between alternative steady states of the global social-ecological system. Because shocks do not stay put, but rather initiate changes that cascade from one scale to another (eg., a climate crisis precipitating a health crisis, precipitating economic crises, precipitating social crises, precipitating further health crises), there is tremendous risk and potential contained within times of upheaval. The shock we are experiencing now could contribute to tipping our social-ecological system toward one of two likely scenarios: 1) the collapse of existing structures and institutions in ways that exacerbate inequity and suffering, or 2) the flourishing of new, healthier and more sustainable ways of living.

Because shocks to the system make paradigm-level change more likely, the pandemic opens up space to nudge the social-ecological system in a more benevolent direction. A good starting place is to use this time of social isolation to listen to the system, track what is arising, and lend support to promising initiatives. Doing this could help the ideas, practices, networks, and structures that are now gathering momentum to have a lasting impact on future social-ecological arrangements. So far, the following trends hold great potential to catalyze the transition to a more sustainable world:

  • Expanding community care networks. Communities are self-organizing to support their most vulnerable members. Mutual aid groups and neighbourhood pods are showing up in communities around the world. Neighbours are picking up groceries, prescriptions, and other essentials for people who are elderly or otherwise vulnerable to transmission. The organizers of these pods are coming together to learn from one another, solve common challenges, and talk about the future of mutual aid.
  • Providing for basic needs. National governments around the world are implementing or considering universal basic income policies. Approaches range from temporary emergency relief for those who have lost employment to more permanent schemes. Basic income has been waiting in the wings for decades, but is now rapidly gaining support (and conservatives are now on board) as the economic impacts of the pandemic deepen.
  • Prioritizing local resilience. The pandemic has raised serious concerns about supply chains for food, household items, and essential products like PPE and ventilators. Efforts to build more local resilience include retooling existing production facilities and leveraging the disruptive potential of 3D printing. There is also a resurgence of interest in gardening to improve food security and reskilling to improve mental health and wellbeing.
  • Leveraging economic contraction. The pandemic has become a natural experiment in forced degrowth. Some of the long-theorized environmental benefits of economic slowdown have already become apparent. Restrictions on travel and economic activity have massively reduced emissions and consumption around the world. This has immediate health implications for the 4 million people who suffer from chronic diseases linked to air pollution.
  • Galvanizing change makers. Doctors, activists, community organizers, frontline service workers, parents, artists, academics, and so many others are increasingly seeing this time as a pivot point that must be leveraged toward the positive systems changes they have been working for their entire lives and careers. Conversations about how to ensure we don’t return to normal but spring forward into a better, more resilient world are proliferating so quickly it is hard to keep up. Change makers across sectors, professional boundaries, and ideological divides are preparing themselves for the long road ahead with renewed commitment.

The list above skews toward the shamelessly hopeful. This is somewhat out of character for our research team, as we are often accused of presenting a gloomy vision of the future. I believe people get this impression from our work because we insist that humanity cannot meet wellbeing and sustainability goals without significant systems change. To us this means a profound reorientation of the capitalist economy including significant economic contraction and a resurgence of community and family reciprocity, both of which will place constraints on individuals and perhaps make individualism itself untenable. Because we take a systems lens, we also often stress that all new approaches will entail wrestling with paradoxical, complex problems. For instance, consider the tension involved in valuing planetary health or even population health over individual health. We can see glimpses of this reality as doctors work to establish triage guidelines in ICUs that are increasingly overwhelmed with patients all needing access to a limited number of ventilators. A less individualistic world with a smaller economy will be better in many ways and more difficult in others.

Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic is the deepest shock to the system I have witnessed in my lifetime. Much remains to be negotiated, suffering will touch us all, and positive gains are not inevitable. However, as a shock to the system, COVID-19 undeniably opens a window of opportunity for more equitable, healthy, and sustainable ways of living to rapidly gain ground. It is already happening all around us. In the years to come, it will be our collective task to help these alternatives take root.

***

Click here to find out more about Health and the Anthropocene.