Unpacking the significance of the pandemic

Red Cross woman, August 1944 (public domain image)

The pandemic isn’t even over — in fact, it looks like it’s just getting started! But already we can start asking, what does it all mean? Vegans have already noticed one obvious significance: the pandemic is yet another consequence of eating animals. While we don’t know the precise route the disease took, some people ate or came into contact with some animals (snake? bat? pig?) and now over a million have been sickened and over 60,000 are dead, with no end in sight.

But the pandemic has vast and confusing complexity both of causes and effects, on multiple levels of significance, which are still unfolding. Here are some of them.

1. Economic. This has totally wiped out much of the world economy, and you do not have to look far to find warnings of a “dangerous disinflationary shock” and that GDP could decline by 30%. One researcher, Gail Tverberg (who correctly foresaw the 2008 collapse), makes a convincing argument that the economy will never recover. On the other hand, it is not clear that the destruction of the world economy would be an entirely bad thing. Greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and depletion of natural resources, are almost certainly going to decline as well. What’s wrong with this picture?

2. Politics. The pandemic is already disrupting the Democratic primaries. If the pandemic is still operational in November, we will have to rely on a divided and polarized government to figure out a mail-in ballot system. Otherwise one side or the other will be in a position of questioning the basic legitimacy of the government.

Colorado Coal Miner waiting on black lung screening, 2007. Source: NIOSH (public domain).

3. Social inequality. The pandemic lays bare the brutal nature of the inequality in the U. S. and around the world. What happens to those without healthcare or jobs? How can the homeless “self-isolate”? The immediate economic effects of the pandemic would seem to be to worsen the position of both the rich and the poor, but the poor have very few options, while the rich will just take a hit to their stock portfolio.

4. Political division. How quickly we forget the impeachment! Politics in the United States was already sharply divided, with both sides using their own set of “facts.” Will the pandemic ameliorate this trend and bring us together, or will it accelerate the disintegration of American politics?

5. Psychological effects. Will the pandemic have a long-term effect on our community awareness? What will it do to interpersonal relations? Will it leave us more disconnected than ever, or will it bring us together, as happened to British morale in the Second World War during the blitz?

6. Complexity of causes and effects. The immediate cause was (probably) in or near the Huanan seafood market, but other contributory causes were urbanization, globalization, and bureaucratic and official incompetence. The effects of the pandemic are also complex. Psychological, political, social, and economic factors are all interacting, and we still don’t know either how the pandemic will end, or how we ourselves will react. This complexity and uncertainty then itself becomes part of its significance.

Because the pandemic is truly global in its reach and significance, it will leave a lasting imprint on human civilization (assuming that it continues). But the consequences and opportunities are not entirely negative. More on that in future posts.

4 Replies to “Unpacking the significance of the pandemic”

  1. This one is particularly well-written. And I agree. But it’s hard to say WHERE we are headed. The idea of a universal basic income could catch on. Would that make us more sustainable or less? Robo-workers will become a thing if this goes on too long; but I’m not sure that’s a improvement either. People should start to question our alleged supremacy over nature as a tiny invisible organism kicks our collective can all over the place – but will they? Will there be a labor uprising and democratic socialist revolution in the event of system collapse – or will “Authority“ crack down on us and force us into slave labor or something close to it? I could go on …

    1. To me, the UBI (universal basic income) is a way to achieve social justice. It’s not clear to me whether, in itself, it would stimulate the economy or not. We could achieve sustainability by directly protecting natural resources. The ultimate impact is unpredictable, but the political system was already polarized and the price of oil was already depressed. The shock effect of the new situation hasn’t fully sunk in yet, but hopefully these events will shake the country (and the world) awake.

  2. Keith:

    Thank you for your timely and consistent expert commentary. The vegan community would be at a great loss without your work.

    There is some interesting commentary here on the Wuhan Virology Lab point-of-origin hypothesis:


    Regardless of exact SARS strain origin, when should the World Health Organization (WHO) have declared that dietary animal product consumption is a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), if not a pandemic?

    Another question for vegan nationalists to chew over: when should the first specifically vegan virologists at the World Health Organization have declared this novel Coronavirus a PHEIC and helped alert the media accordingly?


    Do we have a single vegan virologist, bacteriologist or epidemiologist employed at the World Health Organization? Shouldn’t that be a necessary job qualification for at least one major checks-and-balances WHO department, underwritten by highly accountable US dollars, given the long predictability of this unfolding crisis/opportunity?

    The record will show that you and I both issued general vegan warnings, more than a decade ago, about an exponential increase in the risk of zoonotic viral and bacterial pandemics – alongside the risk of accelerated climate change from livestock sector’s methane emissions and carbon sequestration displacements. Now that I am a psychiatrically committed vegan constitutionalist, I am wondering how the intelligence service of a vegan Taiwan might have responded with even clearer world leadership to this SARS strain, apparently originating from an unsafe food market in mainland China:


    Whether or not we are qualified enough to say the email speaks volumes, it still warrants more than a curt “received” from the World Health Organization, in my view.

    The United States and China both desperately want to be seen as human rights champions, in legitimate ways, at least since ratification of the United Nations Charter in 1945. In the case of the United States, this craving for legitimacy is bound up as much in its founding conflict with Europe as in its indigenous Trail of Tears and anti-slavery Civil Rights Wars. So it is that President Trump unconsciously and consciously rebels, in quintessential American revolution, against the “tyranny of taxation” imposed on the US by Eurasian-centered global governance institutions like the World Health Organization. This is true even, ironically, as this same POTUS has been vociferously criticized – impeached! – for behaving, as the left alleges, too much like a “king” himself. He denies the charge and perhaps asks, pointedly, on his way out of office in 2020 or 2024, whether his opposition on the left also rallies to extend term limits and expand powers for “Emperors” Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin?

    Mainland China, for its part, views its record since 1945, including its occupation of Tibet, as a liberation of the human masses. If we agree that capitalism and communism are equally committed to the widest possible distribution of human liberation, can we better understand why a Democratic entrepreneur like Andrew Yang sounded so reasonable talking about Universal Basic Income at the beginning of 2020? (Whether UBI is constructively or destructively stimulating to a national economy would seem to depend on context, e.g., is the nation at an early stage of growth into its carrying capacity, near the peak, or in overshoot?) Sounds like this Taiwanese-American also has a good position on nutrition:


    We must strive to build on common ground with our fellow world citizens in China, in Europe and right next door, but I also very much hope this pandemic will help inspire a growing wave of young vegans to consolidate their power around durable commitments to an explicitly vegan constitutionalism. Liberia and Israel have much to teach about nation-building by exodus, but that is not the only way for abolitionist constitutionalism to take hold in a country.

    Sorry to ramble a bit. Thanks again and I look forward to your upcoming posts.

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