Climate change, disease, solidarity, and learning from from the Global South

Climate change can often be annoying to talk about because of the scope of the problem. Literally the entire surface of this planet is changing, which means everything about our lives is being affected in some way. There are direct effects on our bodies, changes to the behavior and location of the fish we eat, to the weather events we deal with, and to the lands where we grow crops.

One of the changes that has long been predicted is a shift in the ranges of various diseases. Just as scientists were warning us for decades about the danger of a global pandemic like the current COVID-19 outbreak, they have also been warning that as the climate warms, we’re going to start seeing diseases that used to be confined to regions like the tropics, spreading to new areas as the temperature becomes more hospitable to the diseases themselves, or to the vectors – like mosquitoes – that transmit them.

An example often given is malaria, the spread of which is generally limited by where the Anopheles mosquitoes can easily survive. That has meant that historically, cities like Nairobi, Kenya, have had little problem with malaria, despite the prevalence of that disease throughout the country at large. Nairobi has a pretty high elevation, and consequently low temperatures, and the mosquitoes that spread malaria don’t do well in lower temperatures. As the climate has warmed, the highlands of east Africa have started to see an increase in malaria.

A word of caution here – it’s easy to assume that current disease ranges are the result of natural factors, but it’s often more complicated than that. When Europeans first began colonizing the Americas, there was malaria in Boston, MA. The current absence of that disease in the United States has far more to do with a mass poisoning campaign than with the protection of a cooler climate, and that obviously applies to regions further south as well. If malaria spreads up into the United States again, it may be aided by changes in weather patterns helping the mosquitoes spread, but that will be a return to their historical territories.

That said, climate change forecasts are about probability and general trends. All the data seem to point in the same direction – warmer global weather will mean a broader array of diseases threatening the population of the global north. While that concern hasn’t been totally ignored, I’d say it has been addressed with slightly less urgency than the threat of a global pandemic was, and I think we can see the degree to which that has been a problem. As with all the other dangers of climate change, this is one that we can predict, and that we can prepare for. It is sometimes said that diversity is our strength, and this is one example of how that can manifest.

Countries in Africa, Latin America, and south Asia have long experience in wrestling with the challenges of living along side disease, and many have done it with few resources, and under economic and/or military attack from colonial countries like the United States. When it comes to dealing with widespread infection as a factor in daily life, there’s a lot we in the north could learn from people who have been dealing with high temperatures for their entire history.

As we work toward greater solidarity as a species, that knowledge and experience is something that we should be valuing highly, and paying for.

There’s a great deal of concern right now about how the COVID-19 outbreak is going to affect Africa, primarily because of the lack of resources suffered by most countries on that continent due to ongoing exploitation. It’s a valid concern. At the same time, that manufactured poverty has forced Africans to cope with a variety of persistent diseases under difficult conditions.

For one thing, a for-profit system that shuts people out of health care for lack of money, like the one used by the United States, will not be sustainable as new diseases crop up. Without treatment being available based on need, the working population will have high death rates and constant loss of work time as people are infected, re-infected, or insufficiently treated. For those diseases – like malaria – that can be cured, taking a partial course of medication to save money will not only result in a relapse, it will also accelerate the rate at which the organism causing the illness evolves a resistance to the treatment.

It will also mean that those who can’t get treatment will become reservoirs for disease, re-infecting other portions of the population as they try to go about their lives, or seek emergency room care. America is already crippled by its healthcare system, all for the benefit of a few rich ghouls, but that will get far, far worse as the climate warms, diseases spread, and new diseases arise. I owe my life to the socialized medical system of Tanzania, and the thought of facing a dual diagnosis of malaria and typhoid in the United States is frankly horrifying.

Senegal has been making some ripples in western media in the last few days for their rapid development of a cheap COVID-19 test kit, using facilities designed around dealing with HIV and Ebola, and for their ambitious and comprehensive approach to dealing with the outbreak at a population-wide level, using many of the tactics being advocated by experts around the globe – social distancing, widespread testing, quarantine, and financial/material aid to ensure that those who need to be in isolation can afford it.

Macky Sall, the current president of Senegal, offers an important message:

Returning to COVID-19, it should be remembered that we are confronted with a pandemic, i.e. a worldwide epidemic. Efforts made so far in the four corners of the world have not yet revealed all the secrets of this great unknown, which has exposed the limits of all national systems, even the most sophisticated ones. All countries, taken by surprise and overwhelmed, found themselves in a kind of rescue situation, revealing the each other’s shortcomings on a daily basis.

The first lesson to be learned from this major crisis – where the infinitely small shakes the whole world – is that in the face of cross-border threats, big or small, rich or poor, we are all vulnerable.

The new world order that I am calling for requires mutual trust and a sincere willingness to cooperate on issues of common interest and shared values, while respecting our differences and diversities.

The second lesson is that COVID-19 reminds the world of its own contradictions. We are indeed living in an era of paradoxes. The earth is certainly round, but something, somewhere, is not right.

Humankind is constantly making progress in all directions, pushing back the limits of science and technology every day, including the conquest of space. Meanwhile, on earth, there is a shortage of masks, test kits, personal protective equipment, beds, ventilators; so many products, materials and equipment that are crucial for the treatment of patients and protection of health workers, true heroes engaged in a risky and potentially fatal struggle against an enemy invisible to the naked eye. It is therefore time to come back down to earth!

And thirdly, without being exhaustive, the COVID-19 pandemic, just like the threats to the environment and the scourge of terrorism, confirms the objective limits of the nation-state in responding to cross-border threats.

Let us come down to earth and return to the wisdom of the elders, as invited by our compatriot Cheikh Hamidou Kane, who, in his best-selling novel L’Aventure Ambiguë, published 59 years ago, delivered this premonitory message: “We did not have the same past … but we will have the same future, strictly speaking … the time of singular destinies is over … no one can live on self-preservation alone.” (L’Aventure Ambiguë, page 92).

This means that any nation-state, whatever its power and means, can no longer be self-sufficient. In the face of global challenges, we all need one another, especially when our common vulnerabilities are added to our individual frailties.

So the time has come to learn from our mistakes and our limitations, to redefine the order of priorities, to give full meaning to the real economy, by investing more in agriculture, sustainable energy, infrastructure, health, education and training, in order to achieve a development that cares for the well-being of all of humanity.

The time has come to work together so as to bring about a world order that puts human beings and humanity at the centre of international relations.

Africa, as the cradle of humanity and a land of old civilisation, is not a no-man’s land. Nor can it offer itself as a land of guinea pigs. Gone are also the doom scenarios that try to draw an apocalyptic future for the continent. This continent has undergone far more perilous and crueller trials. It has remained resilient and is standing stronger than ever!

The time has come to consider public health issues on equal footing with peace, security, the environment and the fight against terrorism, and other cross-border crimes.

The new world order that I am calling for requires mutual trust and a sincere willingness to cooperate on issues of common interest and shared values, while respecting our differences and diversities.

Above all, it demands a new mindset that recognises that all cultures, all civilisations, are of equal dignity; and that there can be no superior civilisational centre that dictates to others how to behave and how to act.

As a wise old African saying has it: “The rainbow owes its beauty to the varied shades of its colours.”

With respect to global public health issues, this new world order will have to exclude all forms of discrimination, stigmatisation and prejudice, especially towards our continent.

What is important today is to learn the lessons from the crisis and to pool our resources and our intelligence in order to confront, in the same spirit of human solidarity, our common enemy: a silent killer which scoffs at borders, ideologies and differences between developed and developing countries.

Though lagging in development, Africa abounds in quality human resources, including eminent experts, practitioners and competent researchers, who contribute daily to the progress of medicine.

With the establishment of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, which works in conjunction with relevant national agencies and qualified laboratories such as Institut Pasteur in Dakar, whose origins date back to 1896, the continent has a qualified scientific network connected to the global alert and management mechanisms for international health crises.

The leadership of the World Health Organisation is also to be commended. It would be more effective in fulfilling its mission with an increased mobilisation of resources in its favour, better support for its Global Alert and Response System, and greater support for national public health systems.

[…] (See the link above for Sall’s full remarks and more news and information from The Africa Report)

Every major challenge shows the same pattern – while some people will always seek to exploit others for personal gain, humanity, as a group pulls together and works together to face challenges. It’s how we’ve survived, and reached our current level of scientific understanding. If we are to truly deal with this pandemic, it will require global cooperation, despite historical, economic, and political disputes. We will have to work together, and adjust our societies to account for the fact that we are a global species. Nobody is exempt from this disease.

And future outbreaks will come. It really is a question of when, not if. As changes in climate force animals to seek out new territories, and as habitat destruction drives them out of old territories, they will come into greater contact with humanity, and with that will come diseases we’ve not seen before. Global solidarity and a society designed to work for all of humanity, not just a handful of monarchs and aristocrats, will be essential to our survival as a species, as we learn to cope with a planet that is increasingly unlike the one on which we evolved.

Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

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