An ACB statement on Human Rights Day, 21 March

The COVID-19 outbreak illustrates the complex interactions between deforestation, reduced biological diversity, ecosystem destruction, and human health and safety, in large part driven by the globalised agricultural and food system. Further, with the threats posed by climate change, we can expect greater exposure to existing and emerging pathogens.

We are living in a time of great global upheaval, change and uncertainty. A time where the massive political, social and economic imbalances in the world are brought into sharper relief. South Africans are bracing themselves for when COVID-19 spreads through our population, across the country. The deep-rooted, visceral fear stems from the fact that in our grossly unequal society, millions are malnourished and immune-compromised, through rampant non-communicable diseases and HIV/AIDS, making much of the society predisposed to critical infection, with limited options for comprehensive healthcare through the public or private health system.

The extent of the climatic, ecological and economic crises are vast, and these past weeks have shaken the world to its very core, as to what a global crisis looks like in these late days of hyper-capitalism.

While South Africa will commemorate Human Rights Day by paying tribute to the heroic struggles to realise equal human rights for all, we are facing a global pandemic. We are forced to pay attention to ourselves and our actions, to be still and physically isolated, in order to prevent the spread of this infectious disease, and to protect all of society, especially the most vulnerable. In this time we need physical isolation but social solidarity.

The air of collective care smells sweet, yet there is a sharp underlying fear of imminent catastrophe, as well as residual hope that perhaps this is a time when the current unjust, unsustainable and insatiable economic system may be disarmed and neutralised.

The ability to respond to this crisis reflects a discordant reality in South Africa. Not only does it expose the vastly unequal access to healthcare and essential treatment, but also entrenched workplace, transport, water and sanitation inequalities. Just the simple act of staying and working from home is a privilege available to only a few. Underlying this is the perpetuation of an apartheid economic and social system, over the past 25 years. Human rights remain at the level of the abstract, and are not translated into material reality for the vast majority of the South African population. While the announcement by President Ramaphosa of measures aimed at curbing the spread of the virus are essential, these have not been matched by a package of economic interventions aimed at supporting households and small businesses to cope in these desperate times, and ensuring that the economy does not further shed jobs in a context of already excessive unemployment and low wages.

We are witnessing a range of global responses to the coronavirus spread: lock downs, forced isolations, curfews, travel bans and the provision of treatment, varying by country and institution. In some cases, we are seeing de facto military rule take root to mitigate against spreading infections. While these measures may seem to be in the public interest, we must nevertheless be cautious and vigilant. Refugees and migrants across the globe are likely to be the worst affected, and we may see increased gender-based violence, putting women and children at greater risk, with further economic disparities expected.

It is a time to demand greater protection for the rights of workers and the material realisation of the rights to healthcare; sufficient food and nutrition; clean water; and education, as well as the rights of children, migrants and women – rights that are at the heart of the South African Constitution.

However, while we are seeking immediate solutions to the imminent threats we face, we need to acknowledge and address the elephant in the room. We are facing multiple existential crises, with the same root cause: humans have altered the face and function of the Earth, and the Earth is responding on multiple fronts.

We need to look beyond the anthropos, the human, beyond the Anthropocene, as the coronavirus is only a symptom of a much deeper cause –a parasitic, patriarchal, individualist neo-liberal capitalism – with little value for the sacred, the interconnected, the relational, the interdependent.

Ecosystem disruption and pandemics

There are many examples of how ecosystem disruption causes diseases and outbreaks, as described in depth in some early warning reports, such as the UNEP report, 2016. Most pandemics in fact, including HIV/AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more, have their roots in environmental change and ecosystem disturbances. These infectious zoonotic diseases originate from animals, wild and domesticated. These diseases are magnified through the erosion of ecosystem health, deforestation, biodiversity loss, ecosystem destruction and the removal of essential, natural, protective barriers.

COVID-19 represents a new symptom of the same underlying issue. Industrial agriculture’s invasiveness continues to stretch into new frontiers. The extent of biodiversity and habitat loss, deforestation, and replacing complex ecosystems with monotonous landscapes of industrial monocultures, genetically uniform plant and animal species, and segregated and concentrated human settlements, constricts the life-functions of the Earth and greatly reduces human resiliency.

Despite the extensive scientific evidence, the neo-liberal response has been to develop new technological band aids, that deepen inequalities and suppress diverse voices, knowledge systems and practices that are urgently required at these times.

We see the same discourse regarding malaria treatments, where there is ample evidence showcasing how deforestation to make place for monoculture plantations exacerbates malaria. However, rather than responding to the underlying causes, new, controversial, experimental extinction technologies are being pushed by misguided Gates Foundation-funded initiatives, such as the Target Malaria Project, in an effort to profit from public health crises (see the ACB’s paper on gene drives). We are seeing similar responses to this current crisis, with disaster capitalism, and privatised and enforced vaccines, which overlook the root causes of our maladies and grief.

There is a desperate need for us to shift from economic systems based on rapacious extractive accumulation of wealth to co-existence with one another and nature. Biodiverse, smallholder food and farming systems; traditional communities and their knowledge systems; respect for farmers’ rights; social and ecological justice; agroecology and food sovereignty; and keeping wild spaces intact, must underpin this transformation.

On Human Right’s Day we honour those who fought for freedom for all, but we must demand the practical realisation of the rights entrenched in our Constitution, for all humans, for all species, and for the Earth, our home, and that which we depend on.

Artwork: Trance by Aleta Armstrong (Yebo! Gallery)