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A Political Ecology Perspective on Global Pandemics

Pawan Kumar,
Ph.D. Research Scholar
Central University of Gujarat

Dr. Kaushalendra Kumar Singh
Associate Professor
Political Science
JNM PG College Barabanki

Off late, the global pandemic/epidemic discourse has been dominated mostly by bio-medical understanding and analysis. However, the emergence of COVID-19 has invited sufficient attention to look at the global pandemics/epidemics from a diverse range of approaches and perspectives. This diversity in terms of interdisciplinary analysis provides a wider perspective to understand structural causes, and, the escalating and devastating effects of global pandemics on humans and nature. Historically, the relationship between global pandemics and ecology are missing in the existing discourse on pandemics. Furthermore, there has been a disconnection between political ecology and associated pandemics such as COVID-19, H1N1, H1N5 and H7N9, Ebola or swine and bird flu, etc. which have occurred in the last couple of decades. A political ecological explanation and way forward against these pandemics, in this regard, are often surprisingly have not been given substantive attention. This paper analyses the global pandemic discourse in relation to ecology and political regimes in terms of explanation and solution. Methodologically, the information will be collected from different sources particularly from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Monthly Review (MR). Finally, it describes global pandemics/epidemics in relation to other global viral pandemics/epidemics as an eco-social crisis. This view not only includes the political economy, but also indicates the threat to the eco-social system as a whole emerging out of the current mode of production and consumption in the age of Anthropocene.
Keywords: Global Pandemics, Political Ecology, COVID-19, H1N1, CDC, Anthropocene

This paper proposes a political ecology perspective to understand relations between environment, and the crises like pandemics/epidemics through an analysis of economy, politics, and society dialectically. It is based on analytical conceptualisation, and the arguments are built on the basis of writings and explorations in the areas of ecological crisis, economy, politics, and pandemics by thinkers and philosophers of our times. Then after, the empirical case of this paper is concerned with the question that how the crisis is used by the current mode of production to surpass or to cover up the fundamental causes of the crisis andto avoid the structural transformations to bring about sustainable human-nature relations.
The ‘environmental concern’ was not so prominent in our political debates at parliaments, House of Commons, or in our discourses. It was only during the 1960s and 1970s, the environmental crisis or the threat to natural resources from depletion and over exploitation emerged at the forefront of debates in social sciences and other disciplines(Dobson and Lucardie, 1993).
The ‘environmental concern’ was not so prominent in our political debates at parliaments, House of Commons, or in our discourses. Moreover, as Andrew Dobson in his book The Politics of Nature: Explorations in Green Political Theory claimed that the ‘natural world’ was absent in political theory (ibid). It was only during the 1960s and 1970s, the environmental crisis or the threat to natural resources from depletion and over exploitation emerged at the forefront of debates in social sciences and other disciplines through publication of works such as Silent Spring (1962), The Tragedy of the Commons (1968), The Population Bomb (1968), The Limits to Growth (1972), The Resourceful Earth (1984), and Our Common Future (1987). In this backdrop, the idea of ‘environmental political theory’ ‘political ecology’ or what we call ‘green political theory’ conceptualized natural resource scarcity and conflicts, climate changes, and the occurrence of pandemics and epidemics (Dryzek and Honig, 2009: 773-791).
Political Ecology: Theorising Pandemics
First of all, a political ecological perspective on epidemics and environmental diseases is not new. Frederick Engels in his book “Condition of the Working Class in England” (1845) explored extensively these epidemics in relation to exploitation of working class in England. It has been mentioned in the preface to English edition of the same that:
Again, the repeated visitations of cholera, typhus, small-pox, and other epidemics have shown the British bourgeois the urgent necessity of sanitation in his towns and cities, if he wishes to save himself and family from falling victims to such diseases (Engels, 1945) .
Above passage explains the prevalence of these diseases at the time of the Industrial Revolution, particularly in relation to class exploitation.
Furthermore, ecologists, scientists and philosophers warned about such pandemics. For instance, Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley’s protégé and the zoologist Ray Lankester, in a chapter called “Nature’s Revenges” in his Kingdom of Man (1911), directly linked origins of these epidemics to human alterations of ecological conditions. It has been pointed out that “In his greedy efforts to produce large quantities of animals and plants,” he argued, “… man has accumulated unnatural swarms of species in field and ranch and unnatural crowds of his own kind in towns and fortresses” (Cited in Foster, and Chaudhary, 2020). For Lankester, the root cause of new diseases was associated with “markets” and “cosmopolitan dealers in finance.”
These warnings weretaken for granted in political assemblies and discourses.As Richard Levinsrightly put it that the growing threat of modern epidemics was because “conventional public health failed to look at world history, to look at other species, to look at evolution and ecology.” In this regard, Wallace’s Big Farms Make Big Flu(2016) explores the connections between epidemics, agribusiness and capitalist science. According to him, these infectious diseases have originated due to modern agribusiness farming in larger sense. The genetic modifications in our food needs to be explained in order to understand the threats from these viruses, he wrote:
Pathogens, however, are no mere protagonists, battered to and fro by the tides of human history. They also act of their own volition, ifyou’ll excuse the anthropomorphism. They display agency. And they have by virtue of their evolutionary changes forced agribusiness to the bargaining table, a place where that ilk, given their successes, think they excel (Wallace, 2016: 12-13).
The above quote symbolises the unprecedented human modifications in our food system and structures. These reconfigurations lies the roots of the origin of these deadly viruses and diseases .
Here comes James O’Connor’s idea of ‘second contradiction of capitalism’. Connor proposed two kinds of crisis theory. Firstly, he argued that the traditional exposition of crisis in capitalism was related to the contradiction between production, over-production of capital and economic crisis, and the production relations which are essentially ‘social’. The specific contradiction is between the production, and realisation of value and surplus value. In other words, an antagonism exist between the production and circulation of capital. Here, the agency of social transformation or socialist revolution was working class (O’Connor, 1988).
Secondly, while deriving from Karl Marx’s views on fertility of soil and capitalisation of agriculture, Connor proposes his own ‘ecological’ theory of crisis . The ecological theory of crisis proposes that the contradiction is between production relations and forces and the conditions of production. Here, under-production of capital and economic crisis, and the process of crisis-induced restructuring of production conditions and the forces of social reproduction. (ibid).
In other words, the processes of first crisis (over-production) and second crisis (under-production) are not mutually exclusive rather these are dialectically linked with each other. These dialectical relations between two forms crisis helps to explicate the decline of traditional labour and socialist movements, and the emergence of ‘new social movements’ or as agencies of socialist transformation (ibid).
Today, the under-production is discussed in the form of production conditions constituting the concepts of space and environment, and including that of ‘urban space’ which might be defined as ‘urban capitalised nature’ (ibid). This urban capitalised nature and other forms of spaces are roots of structuring and restructuring the relations between people and environment in the form of commodified or capitalised materiality and sociality. Therefore, it can be argued that pandemics are resulting out of second contradiction of capitalist or neo-liberalism today.
Evolutionary biologist, epidemiologist, and phylogeographer, Rob Wallace, the author of Big Farms Make Big Flu (Monthly Review Press, 2016), has argued, together with his team of scientific colleagues, that both the origin and spread of COVID-19 can be seen as related to the circuits of capital (Wallace, et. al., “COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital,” Monthly Review, published online March 27, 2020). Capitalism itself is the main disease vector.
Adding to the debate on ecology and pandemics, Vandana Shiva’s globalisation’s new wars (biodiversity wars, seeds war, and water wars) leads to further argument that COVID-19 or other related diseases can be understood as globalisation’s new wars. As she pointed out that: “This war has its roots in an economy which fails to respect ecological and ethical limits: limits to inequality, limits to injustice, limits to greed and economic power. It is a war that is bounded neither by place nor period; it remains open-ended. Its declaration is that of a permanent war, against not just one regime but all peoples, including the citizens of US and UK, who do not see themselves as part of the “coalition” which has invaded the homes and countries of others” (Shiva, 2005: vii).
Adding to the current debate on pandemics, she argued that:
Firstly, our lockdown moment is reminding us that the earth is for all species, and when we step back and make streets “car-free”, air pollution is reduced. Elephants can come to the suburbs of Dehradun and bathe in the Ganga at Har Ki Pauri in Haridwar…The second lesson is that this pandemic is not a “natural disaster”, just as climate extremes are not “natural disasters”. Emergent disease epidemics are, like climate change, “Anthropogenic”–caused by human activities. Science is informing us that as we invade forest ecosystems, destroy the homes of species and manipulate plants and animals for profits, we create conditions for new diseases. Over the past 50 years, 300 new pathogens have emerged. It is well documented that around 70% of the human pathogens, including HIV, Ebola, influenza, MERS and SARS, emerge when forest ecosystems are invaded and viruses jump from animals to humans. When animals are cramped in factory farms for profit maximisation, new diseases like…The third lesson that the virus is waking us up to is that the health emergency is connected to the emergency of extinction and disappearance of species (Shiva, April 5, 2020).
The first quote of Vandana Shiva reflects that on how political economy takes for granted the environmental crisis. The politics of globalised commoditisation around pandemic covers up the root causes of such diseases. Further, she clarifies that roots of these pandemics are in our current state of economy, politics and environment. These pandemics must be theorised in relation to questions of social justice, and environmental justice. And finally, she argued all emergencies (health emergency, disappearance of species, and the climate emergency) are “rooted in a mechanistic, militaristic, anthropocentric world view of humans as separate from, and superior to other beings who we can own, manipulate and control. It is also rooted in an economic model based on the illusion of limitless growth and limitless greed which systematically violates planetary boundaries and ecosystem and species integrity” (Shiva, March 18, 2020)
Empirical Case: COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 has resulted in a global tragedy in terms of human deaths, economic disaster and state of everyday life. The contagious pneumonia emerged in Wuhan in December 2019 and eventually named as a novel coronavirus. Cluster of cases and deaths has turned into a global pandemic by the second week of March 2020. Globally, there have been 27,486,960 confirmed cases, and 894,983 deaths, as of 9 September 2020 (See; WHO 2020a, 2020b, 2020c). This pandemic has brought a tensed complexity and anxiety across nations by bringing devastation to the everyday life of citizens, public health, and the economy.
Table No. 1. Deaths Related to Pandemics in 21st Century

Sources: Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP). COVID-19 and Peace, Sydney, June 2020, p. 6.Availablefrom: (accessed on: 13/09/2020).
The COVID-19 has been the most disruptive epidemic in terms of death as compare to other 18 epidemics of 21st century. This has been measured by Positive Peace Index (PPI). However, relationships between populations during different epidemics in different years are not comparatively explained and highlighted. In various reports of the CDC, it has been pointed out that these influenza diseases are frequent and seasonal. Along with that, it is recommended and suggested that there has to be pre-pandemic preparation in terms of public health securities, treatment, and leadership. However, these recommendations and suggestions were not taken seriously in relation to COVID-19 pandemic.
Construction of Crises
In case of coronavirus, there are certain pertinent questions that this sections tries to answer while developing a political ecology perspective based on empirical evidences of COVID-19 and other related diseases to understand pandemics in relation to eco-social crisis.
This paper argues that there is the crisis is inherent in current mode of production and consumption e.g. neo-liberal capitalism and liberal democratic politics. This crisis is essentially permanent in capitalism. There are two kinds of crisis namely: ‘crisis from within’ and ‘external crises’. The pandemics can be theorised as ‘external crises’ associated essentially with ‘crisis from within’ e.g. in our current system of production and distribution. In other words, external crises are not delinked with crisis from within. However, this short term solution to the crisis are motivated moves of neo-liberalism wherein the questions pertaining to fundamental and structural causes of crisis are not important, rather, neo-liberalism uses these crises to envisage other way around for sustaining it.
This section develops arguments and the perspective in the form of pandemic, people, and politics (ecological, economic, social etc.). In this regard, David Harvey’s exposition of the pandemic in relation to neo-liberalism is important. He explains problems of pandemic in relation to neo-liberal assault on nature. In other words, he links Covid-19 with the attack on neo-liberalism. Recently, in his influential article on COVID-19 argued that:
“If I wanted to be anthropomorphic and metaphorical about this, I would conclude that COVID-19 is nature’s revenge for over forty years of nature’s gross and abusive mistreatment at the hands of a violent and unregulated neoliberal extractivism”.
In this way, pandemics are linked with neo-liberalisation of nature itself. His other works are also important in the context of how neo-liberalisation of nature (in geographical sense spaces) and other natural resources (including internet commons, knowledge commons) causes these pandemics. Further, the crisis leads to the suffering of a majority of people who are already marginalised. In this sense, he further states that:
“To begin with, the workforce that is expected to take care of the mounting numbers of the sick is typically highly gendered, racialized, and ethnicized in most parts of the world. It mirrors the class-based workforces to be found in, for example, airports and other logistical sectors. This “new working class” is in the forefront and bears the brunt of either being the workforce most at risk from contracting the virus through their jobs or of being laid off with no resources because of the economic retrenchment enforced by the virus”.
For instance, the fact that during the cholera epidemics of the 19th century, there was an emergence of the birth of a public sanitation and health movement that has lasted to this day which was supposed transcend class differentiation. But it was not clear that weather this health movement was intended to protect everyone or the certain classes. In other words, Harvey deconstruct the myth that infectious diseases do not acknowledge class or other social barriers and differentiation. In the context of COVID-19, social divide and economic impact can be seen in the form of massive loss of jobs in the public and informal sector labour. Further, there is this slogan of ‘work from home’ which leaves us to the question that who can work from home and who cannot?
In this sense, it is clear that the pandemics creates social and economic divides. Turning to politics of pandemic, we need to explain how and why vulnerability of vulnerable gets accentuated in times of external crisis like coronavirus? In this regard, GiorgioAgamben, looks at lockdown as a ‘state of exception’ and an unmotivated emergency (Agamben, 26, 2020) .
Therefore, the viral epidemicscan contribute into the construction of state of exception in certain cases like COVID-19. It is a form of mass panic and misdirection by the statewhere state becomes sovereign to extend prohibitive emergency over a mostly willing and anodyne population.
This leads to the argument that how state in the backdrop of security in times of epidemicsignores and even suspends human rights and civil liberties.This can be proposed as the crisis of liberal democratic politics wherein the division between judicial, legislative and executive powers on which liberal democracy has been based are suspended and imperfectly. The justification for this state of exception come in the backdrop of bio-politics whereinthe protection of our biological existence becomes rhetoric.
Furthering the argument from the problem to security of people, SalvozŽižek looks at the pandemic as an opportunity to look forward for structural causes of the pandemic, and structural transformation to resolve ‘crisis from within’. In other words, we have to have solutions beyond ‘crisis from within’ not even in ‘external crises’. Further, his philosophical argument for the possibility of an alternative mode of production, distribution, and consumption comes in. This can be done by any political regime. There is no exception about it and he argued, “Coordination of production and distribution will have to take place outside the coordinates of the market” (Zizek, 2020: 12).Evidently, Žižek (2020) in his book Pandemic: COVID-19 Shakes the Worldargued that this has never happened in the history wherein full democracies taking this authoritarian move against the norms and regulations of the market enshrined in the ‘Washington Consensus’.
This has always been the warning by so many scientists, ecologists, and environmental activists warning about outbreak of such pandemics because of the planetary crisis caused by capitalism. In this sense, production and distribution must take place outside the market domain. He is suggesting that nationalisation of natural resources must overcome our mastery over nature. Because he said “Inthe larger order of things, we are just a species with nospecial importance” (ibid, p. 14).
This section takes the argument further into empirical site relating to the ‘external crises’ in general and neo-liberal use of pandemics to create new-social. The above section tried to explain that pandemics are resulting or occurring due to eco-social crisis. This section is pertaining to the question that how eco-social crisis is the structural cause of these pandemics and whenever our ‘system’ is not able to resolve the crisis, it uses ‘state of exception’ to surpass the reality, arguments and movements for structural transformations.
This has been the case due to transition from normal crisis in the market (inequality social and economic) to corona crisis (environmental crisis). The following figure depicts the relation between pandemics and eco-social crisis.

Source: Author’s Composition
The above figure provides a description of a political perspective to understand global pandemics. As in earlier discussion of this paper were explored two crisis theory of capitalism wherein the argument or the perspective was built for explaining pandemics as eco-social crisis.
In a study by Tricontinental Institute for Social Research (TISR) titled “CoronaShock and Socialism” the difference in combating COVID-19 by countries with full democracies and countries with socialist governments (may be referred as authoritarian). This difference is reflected in the form of availability of science-based, public sector, public action, and internationalist approach resulting less of a catastrophe, than in full democracies (Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, 8 July 2020).
The capacity of regimes (authoritarian or democratic) in terms of containment of epidemic seems to be determined by the availability of public health systems as well as national plan and strategy to prevent, stop, and end epidemic. If we draw an attention to past epidemics, at least from the aftermath of World War 1 (1918), there were major scientific strategies and public health plans adopted by governments across various countries which made the prevention of epidemics (say influenza) possible (CDC 2020).
In sum, to end the discussion,”maybe this is the most disturbing thing we can learn from the ongoing viral epidemics: when nature is attacking us with viruses, it is in a way returning us our own message. The message is: what you did to me, I am now doing to you” (Zizek, 2020: 81). In conclusion, this paper proposes that pandemics are resulting due to eco-social crisis. An eco-social crisiscaused bycatastrophe capitalism (Foster & Chowdhury, 2020). Eco-social crisis comprises of two kinds of inequalities namely: economic inequality and social inequality. As it has been noted that because of neo-liberalism, its use of the crisis, and due to corona virus, the early lockdown has resulted into turning half of the world’s employable population (1.6 billion out of 3.3 billion workers) – all informal workers – lost 60% of their income (workers in Africa and the Americas registered an 80% decline). Consequently, food insecurity, worsening inequalities, and joblessness, decline in GDP and growth rates will be resulting into conflict and war like situations in post-pandemic scenario. This has created a possibility of billions of people becoming a surplus population, unnecessary for capital accumulation.

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