Lessons from the Virus and doing development differently

Whilst there was more than one reason for China in late March 2020 to abandon setting a target for GDP growth-the most familiar indicator of development- for the first time in decades, it did foreground the role and importance of development in debates and sense making around Covid-19.

VOV, VOVworld, lessons, from the Virus, doing development, differently, lessons, from the Virus, doing development, differently Dr Michael Spann

School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland

With the effects of the pandemic continuing to resonate, socially, politically and economically the current pandemic can be seen as an opportunity to hit the ‘reset button’ on development and engage in critical insight around what is needed to build more inclusive institutions and communities and ‘do development differently’. In short, Covid-19 may be a catalyst to question the climb up the ‘development ladder’ towards an ‘ideal type’ of modernisation at the expense of social and ecological relations. If the pandemic is considered as a highly visible warning shot across humanity’s bow due to prioritising economic growth premised on a narrow conception of development, it is indeed time for actionable conversations about development between policy makers, donors, the private sector, scholars and communities.

This is especially because ‘planetary health’ experts consider the continuing negative changes to the structure and function of the Earth’s natural systems to be a growing and recurring threat to human health (Whitmee et al 2015). Moreover, one major challenge identified by eminent ‘planetary health’ scholars is a conceptual one. That is, the over reliance on GDP as a measure of progress and development leading to externalising environmental harms and current and future health for present day economic gains. Whilst this is not a new finding, the integration of human health, environmental sustainability and development has been brought to the forefront by the Covid-19 pandemic, especially in regard to the emergence of the virus.

The New Normal?

Beyond the finger pointing, blaming and conspiracy theories around Covid-19, examining the emergence of Covid-19 through the lens of development and political economy uncovers two things. Firstly, the connection between health and environmental sustainability and secondly, why pandemics like Covid-19 could become the ‘new normal’. This ‘new normal’ is because the virus did not emerge in a vacuum but can be seen as a consequence of the deepening of market centred growth and globalisation expanding into new frontiers. Thus, the analysis and focus on the culture of the Chinese eating ‘wild animals’ (which also happens around the world) makes the political-economic drivers of the emergence of the virus invisible.

These political-economic drivers help to illustrate China’s ‘second leap’ in its march towards modernisation in the 1990’s led towards a rapid expansion of agricultural production. Part of this was the ‘livestock revolution’ where China’s livestock population almost tripled. Following a well-worn path of development, industrial food conglomerates emerged as did investment opportunities for both domestic and foreign capital as pork and poultry was packed into ‘factory farms’. As has happened in ‘factory farms’ in ‘developed countries, pandemic potential due to a lack of genetic diversity in industrially farmed livestock increased (e.g. forms of avian flu) but the agricultural expansion also had some far reaching social and economic impacts that underpin the current pandemic (Wallace 2016).

As had been the case in other countries as they climbed the development ladder, independent smallholders-especially in the pork and poultry sectors- were forced out of the market due to the liberalisation of the economy, government subsidies and lax environmental regulations. Quite simply, their traditional crop and livestock production system became economically unviable (Bai et al 2018). Apart from those who chose to become contract farmers to one of industrial food conglomerates, other farmers found the only way to make a living was to raise local breeds and wild species to sell (Fearnley 2018). Increasing shortages of land near the expanded farms also meant more people were pushed to live closer to forests and use them to make a living. This increased contact between humans and wildlife and land clearing compounded by changed livelihood strategies involving wild animals increased the risk of the emergence of zoonotic diseases-ones that jump from animals to humans.

It is also important to note that 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals. In other words, the political and economic drivers of the increased risk of pandemics, that is, people seeking new livelihood strategies are extremely important to consider as they are found globally. In short, economic and political factors connected to development are some of the reasons people turn to activities like poaching, animal trafficking and illegal mining to make a living. This is course leads to more degradation of ecosystems and chances for virus spillover events. Worryingly, reports from many countries indicate such illegal activities and resulting deforestation has been on the increase since the onset of Covid-19 due to a lack of government presence, economic pressure and increased urban-rural migration as people seek refuge in isolated places that can still provide the opportunity to make a living.

Ironically, many people returning to rural areas from cities had previously been pushed out of rural areas by the effects of development activities like the expansion of industrial agriculture. Even if it is accepted that ecological changes, clearing of habitat and creating pathways for virus spillover events between species have led to increased rates of emerging diseases, development strategies like the industrial expansion of agriculture and their associated environmental and social dislocations are still seen as viable to help people on the pathway out of poverty and for countries to climb the ‘development ladder’.

As such, more ‘Disease X’s’-the name given to unknown pathogens by the WHO that can cause serious international harm- might indeed become the ‘new normal’ unless we heed this wake-up call and consider other conceptions of development and ways of living that consider the well-being of individuals, communities and nature.

Well-being and taking a pause

Even as the above might suggest all doom and gloom, this is not the whole story. Amidst the continued economic, social and political shocks of the pandemic, many people have taken the opportunity to pause, to live a little slower than normal, and rediscover and reconsider. When images of people marvelling at Himalayan peaks not seen for decades because of pollution made headlines around the world this created ‘discursive space’ around the quality of life that comes from a healthier environment and how to achieve this whilst also having an economy to benefit from in various ways- not just economically as a passive participant.

Whilst such images might just be considered clickbait they can also transfer into individuals and communities asking for more input around policy decisions on projects that affect natural ecosystems – such as major energy or transport infrastructure projects and industrial-scale farming.

In the UK, a large number of people worried by disruptions to global supply chains turned to gardening which has led to more social cohesion, a feeling of community and not just being consumers. Some people for the first time as well considered the inequalities and dependency on global supply chains which, as has been shown, can be greatly disrupted by workers getting sick at distribution and food processing centres; at borders and ports where new protocols have been imposed, and at airports where grounded flights are no longer available to carry fresh produce.

Even in Solomon Islands (where there have been no cases) a group I work with-The Bushmen Farming Network- took the opportunity presented by Covid-19 to highlight people’s growing dependence on imported food like rice and instant noodles and initiated projects around rediscovering local food and sustainable cultivation techniques. This will have long term development impact as people will be informed by values, social relations and practices that were being forgotten in the relentless need to bolster GDP. Ironically, the global economic and social shocks of Covid-19 might be a catalyst to harness a wider range of values and practices to build a more inclusive and equitable future.

Resources used

Bai et al. (2018), China’s livestock transition: Driving forces, impacts, and consequences. Science Advances: 1-11.

Fearnley, L. (2018), After the livestock revolution: Free-grazing ducks and influenza uncertainties in South China. Medicine Anthropology Theory 5 (3): 72–98

Wallace, R. (2016), Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science. NYU Press.

Whitmee et al. (2015), Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch: report of The Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on planetary health. The Lancet 386 (10007) 1973-2028

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