When people are inflamed with reckless passion, overwhelmed by corrupt ambitions, entranced by wrong ideas, rainfall decreases. Food is hard to come by. The crops fail and are mildewed and stunted. Because of this many people perish. — The Buddha, Anguttara-Nikaya 3.56 (One Earth Sangha)
The original epicenter of the global SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, has been scrubbed clean, sanitized, and closed down. It will be almost impossible to find “patient zero” due to COVID-19’s low overall mortality rate and the possible lack of symptoms among the earliest people infected. While experts and the general public are growing more familiar with social distancing measures, public masks mandates, lockdowns, and other methods to limit the spread of the virus, the question remains: how was such a virus able to infect humans in the first place?
To summarize the most likely explanation: at some point in mid-to-late 2019, the virus was passed from a bat to an intermediary host, possibly a Malayan pangolin or rat, before coming into contact with a human cell receptor. However, mapping the genealogy and transmission of COVID-19 provides only one perspective on the conditions that ripened for its transmission from animals to humans. As early as April this year, when the pandemic was hitting the US hard and spreading throughout Europe, scientists and environmental organizations were giving prescient analyses of why COVID-19 was able to catch the world off guard.
According to a blog post by the French Development Agency, which works to combat poverty and promote sustainable development, pathogen-bearing species are not the problem. The issue is with “ecosystems whose state of degradation means that they can no longer dilute the chances for transmission to humans.” (ID4D) Related conditions, including ecosystem disturbances, the animal trade and industrial livestock production, climate change, and even the way we live (leading to comorbidity and weakened immune systems), are all factors that have made us vulnerable.
Instances of zoonotic diseases have risen in recent decades. According to the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), the “exploitation of natural resources to respond to the growing human population’s increasing demands for energy and animal-based foods” has led to about 50 per cent of emerging zoonotic diseases being caused by increased human-to-non-human contact over the past century. Changes in land use, agricultural practices, and food production also constitute responses to the demand for energy and animal foods. Specifically in the case of bats, the degradation of tropical forests, which are rich in wildlife diversity, poses an especially high risk for the emergence of new diseases. Human interactions with these regions include the extraction of fossil fuels, logging and agriculture, and hunting wild animals for consumption or for sale. All of these activities point to the fact that mankind has drastically underestimated or ignored our involvement in exposing ourselves to zoonoses. Pandemics are only going to grow more frequent from here unless we radically change course. There should be a similar sense of urgency to that retained by some societies toward the climate crisis.
In the Anguttara-Nikaya, the Buddha directly tied failing harvests and ecological disasters that lead to hunger and death to “corrupt ambitions” and “wrong ideas.” While the disasters he listed do not include pandemics, there is a striking similarity between his critique of the harm that corrupt ambitions and wrong ideas can inflict, and of the idea that human activity likely triggered the conditions leading to the current pandemic. The source of corrupt ambitions and wrong ideas, of course, are the Three Poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion:
“A greedy person doesn’t truly understand what’s for their own good, the good of another, or the good of both. When greed has been given up, they truly understand what’s for their own good, the good of another, or the good of both. This is how the teaching is visible in this very life, immediately effective, inviting inspection, relevant, so that sensible people can know it for themselves.” (Anguttara-Nikaya 3.54)
We have become accustomed to human history and circumstances shifting—no longer in a matter of centuries or decades, but now in a matter of years. For many, there is little concern given except to the outlook for the current business quarter. Our actions are accelerated, and the consequences, whether we desire them or not, also rebound on us more immediately. Time has accelerated to the point that many segments of human society see little point in planning for the long term. This is also reflected in social media and in accelerating technological innovation. Nowadays a smartphone is considered obsolete in the space of a year, while fashion is also a particularly destructive industry when it comes to disposable seasonal cycles. Then there are the heavy industries, which provide us with the raw materials of our consumption, devouring ever more natural resources without regard for biodiversity.
With this short-term mindset focused narrowly on development and expansion, it is all but impossible to minimize the chances that pathogens and viruses will be kept in check by diverse and resource-rich ecosystems like rainforests. If current trends continue, and “growth” and “productivity” continue to be shallowly understood as simply “more, more, more,” the continued destruction of ecosystems such as that of the Amazon Basin may very well set up the conditions for the next global pandemic and other eco-disasters.
Behind all of this is the question of whether we are prepared to accept slower and more limited economic growth in return for sustainable development and equitable prosperity. Can the decision makers and power brokers of the world recognize the folly of greed and identify it in their hearts?
The Buddha asked: “When there’s greed in you, do you understand ‘I have greed in me’? And when there’s no greed in you, do you understand ‘I have no greed in me’?” (Anguttara-Nikaya 6.48) He would go on to ask the same questions with regard to hatred and delusion. Nature, through increasingly severe warning signs, has been asking us this very question in relation to our collective greed, hatred, and delusion. Through natural cause and effect, COVID-19 became nature’s way of sending a globally disruptive reminder to show us that a tiny mutating virus can plunge the global community and human civilization into chaos and insecurity. We have used and continue to use the Earth unsustainably, and the reminders of this reality are only going to grow more frequent and more devastating.
COVID-19 has been no less humbling and damaging than the more lurid portrayals and imaginations of pandemics in Hollywood disaster movies. We have been forced to look hard at ourselves this year, for now humanity has no bad guys to blame, no external forces to rally against. How societies and communities choose to come together to prevent further such disasters will require a recognition of the role human greed is playing. Without the mindful humility to build a shared global future, discerning our greed, hatred, and delusion at a macro and policymaking level, we will, in the Buddha’s words, continue to misunderstand what’s for our own good, the good of another, and the good of both.
Changing Our Climate for the Better (One Earth Sangha)
Origin story: what do we know now about where coronavirus came from? (The Guardian)
Pandemics: the environmental origins of COVID-19 (ID4D)
Planetary Health and COVID-19: Environmental Degradation as the Origin of the Current Pandemic (ISGlobal)
Anguttara-Nikaya 3.54 (Sutta Central)
Anguttara-Nikaya 6.48 (Sutta Central)