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Fossil fuels are propelling Covid-19—and the next pandemic

a Wyoming coal mine
AP Photo/Mead Gruver
Covid-19 has shown how deeply we remain in a 19th century reality.
  • On Barak
By On Barak

Author, senior lecturer in Middle Eastern and African History, Tel Aviv University

We tend to notice the connection between coronavirus and oil only when the energy markets collapse. But as history reveals, since the 19th century, pandemics have depended on fossil fuels to go global.

The novel coronavirus and rapid spread of the Covid-19 respiratory disease is no exception. In fact, this pandemic involves  oil-fueled global connectivity that dates back to the 19th century.

Most people attend only to one side of the equation that connects coronavirus and oil, to the effect rather than the cause: In this perspective, an epidemic closes factories and grounds airline and marine transportation, slows economic growth and reduces the demand for energy. These effects result in declining oil prices and could potentially ignite price wars that collapse the stock markets. While we obsess about what it may do to our bodies and communities, as far as oil is concerned, the virus is an economic abstraction. Even when we do notice the material aspects of this process, these are usually downstream: the clearing of air pollution over Wuhan or the reduction of greenhouse gas emission resulting from economic slowdown. We have grown so justifiably concerned with climate change and so unforgivably accustomed to fossil energy that we notice it only in its absence.

What would an alternative model that connects oil and this novel coronavirus look like, then? Chiefly, it would factor in the true price of the fossil-fueled planetary infrastructures that spread pathogens and causes climate change since the 19th century and on. Coronavirus is not a distress call from mother nature to stop global warming. It is another symptom of the system that produces it, a motion sickness indicating that the carbon-based world we assembled is contaminated in more ways we care to admit.

Reducing both oil and the disease to little more than economic forces obfuscates another side of the equation, in which the virus is a thing in the world. Yet seen this way, tracing the coronavirus as a diagnostic marker that travels the arteries of capitalist globalization can expose the ills of the system. What transformed a local contagion in a wet market in Wuhan into a pandemic within a matter of months is a network that begins with ground transportation within the infected regions and ends with the sea- and air-lines—all powered by fossil fuels.

The virus now demobilizes the very system that facilitated its spread. The dizzying speed of the process, and the fact that it is still ongoing, make it hard to appreciate this, and even harder to draw conclusions. This is also exactly where past pandemics can help us think about the present and future.

In 2019, humanity combusted more coal than in any prior historical moment.

From the Spanish Flu of 1918 and on, comparative cases are put forth by epidemiologists, for which the chemical or genetic similarity of pathogens is the main criterion. But in order to tease out the importance of material infrastructure, the cholera pandemics of the 19th century might be more revealing. Covid-19 and cholera seem to have little in common: The former is a respiratory infection, and is usually mild, the latter is a severe disease that affects the digestive system. One is caused by a virus, the other by a bacteria; cholera subsides during the winter and erupts mainly in the spring and summer, whereas some experts hope Covid-19 patterns are the opposite. Cholera epidemics ravaged the world during what historians call the first wave of globalization, under the sign of coal. What can they teach us about the second wave, in the age of oil and the novel coronavirus?

A quantum leap in global connectivity

Cholera was endemic in South Asia long before the 19th century, when it reached pandemic status in historical canon. Yet with the development of new modes of transportation such as the steamship, its contagion vector was significantly shortened. Cholera can kill within 72 hours; in the past this meant hosts could not travel very far to spread it. The disease, in other words, destroyed its own chain of transmission. But in the age of steamers and the rhythms their dependency on coal forced upon them—unlike sail ships that could spend long weeks in the open sea, steamers had to stop for refueling at coaling stations about once per week—passengers could cross the ocean and infect others before the cholera killed them.

Five waves of cholera erupted between 1817 and 1896, bringing the disease to the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and America. The novel coronavirus takes this principle of rapid connectivity to a new level: civil aviation in China is the fastest growing sector and is expected to become the largest in the world within a few years. Between 1978 and 2016, the number of Chinese air travelers increased from 2 million to 500 million. Since the outbreak of the SARS epidemic in 2002 to 2003, air and ground transportation inside China has increased immensely, by about 700% by some estimates. Today, hosts who carry Covid-19 can circle the world and spread pathogens even without knowing they carry them, as the incubation period is longer than their itinerary. Put differently: The thing that enables the rapid spread of Covid-19 is a fossil-fueled planetary conveyer belt.

Severing travel from the seasons

Unlike sail ships, the steamboat could brave the Indian Ocean even during the daunting summer monsoon, which coincided with the peak season for cholera virulence. What enabled this was a new portable energy source that could be carried below deck, severing dependence on the fickle wind and the seasons. Before the 19th century, neither coal nor cholera could cross oceans. With the emergence of the steamship, both went global.

Global carbonization began in the British Isles and spread to the Ottoman Empire, India, China and elsewhere, carrying multiple invading species—from water mollusks to prickly pear to cholera bacteria—along with it.

Fossil fuels made seasonality more or less irrelevant for travel, and facilitated the movement between cold and warm places in a closed system of bubbles, connecting airports to one another in a sort of artificial archipelago that allows the easy spread of pathogens. Which in turn, has allowed for a pandemic of the scale that we face today.

How capitalist economic ideology adds fire to the fuel

Almost as soon as the first cholera epidemics erupted, different actors in the interconnected system that enabled their spread—like the Ottoman health authorities—sought to combat them with quarantine. This was a time-tested tool for addressing epidemic (the word “quarantine” comes from the Venetian dialect for the 40 days a ship had to be isolated during the plague). Yet this measure was met with fierce resistance, mainly from Britain, in the name of free trade and the freedom of movement. The current articulation of the contrast between property rights and the right to live was born in the 19th century. In the second third of that century, the so-called natural right to open up new markets animated the Opium Wars, waged in order to force China to allow the free trade in opium, so that Britain might improve its payment balance. What allowed the injection of the addictive substance was a new kind of vessel, the SS Nemesis—the first steamer to cross the Indian Ocean and wipe out the boats awaiting it in China’s shallow river entries. Opium and coal addiction blended with one another, infecting China, which has since been able to wean itself only from the former. The detrimental US hesitation to close its borders and enforce the quarantine that would hurt its economy seems to stand on the shoulders of British imperial free trade ideology.

When past is present

The evident similarity between cholera and Covid-19, and between coal and oil, is not coincidental. Despite the ubiquitous assumption that cholera and coal are relics of the past, we remain entrenched in the age of coal and its mentality. And as the 2018 outbreak in Yemen shows us, cholera has not been eradicated. In 2019, humanity combusted more coal than in any prior historical moment. China, in fact, is the global leader in coal-based power plants. Rather than a story of eradicating old pathogens or of energy transitions from coal to oil and perhaps to a post-oil future, and despite the fact that in relative terms, the proportion of coal in our fuel basket is diminishing (and that we’ve built relative immunity to many pathogens), in total terms we see an intensification of coal extraction and use. And we are now witnessing new virulent pathogens, almost on a yearly basis.

As we’ve seen, in many respects oil stands on the shoulders of coal. In all these senses, we are still deep in the 19th century.

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