COVID-19: Pandemics and Population Growth

All any of us are reading about these days is the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. The Democratic Primary? Harry and Meghan ditching their royal crowns and moving to Canada? It truly seems as if those previously all-consuming stories have been forgotten and replaced with articles about TP altercations, sports cancellations, and how ineffectively we’ve been washing our hands our entire lives. Heck, Tom Brady was even able to announce his departure from the Patriots without much of an internet fuss.

Since we’re all up to our bloodshot-glued-to-screens-eyeballs in news about how quickly this virus is spreading and the myriad ways our lives will continue to be affected by isolation orders from governors and the CDC (although not so much from our commander in chief), this post doesn’t cover any of that. Rather, it looks at how we got here in the first place—all the way back to how the first people contracted what we now call COVID-19.

Basically, we’ve treated animals terribly for all time, and every now and then it bites us. This time it has drawn blood.

Sonia Shah, author of Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, said in an interview with organization Direct Relief:

Ebola, Zika virus, SARS, West Nile virus—there are any number of novel pathogens that have emerged in the past few decades that come from the bodies of animals.

Animals and people are coming into new kinds of contact because of a variety of reasons, the biggest one being that we are essentially destroying so much wildlife habitat.

What that means is a lot of animals are going extinct, but the ones that remain have to crowd into ever-tightening little patches of habitat that we leave for them. That’s more frequently not in some distant, intact forest. Instead, it’s our farms and gardens and our towns and cities.

We humans have pushed our way into all types of habitats, forcing interactions with wildlife that harm them and us; gathered up the exotic species that people will pay top dollar to eat and stacked them in cages to bleed and defecate on each other in wet markets; and farmed them in cruel, unsanitary conditions that allow livestock feces to find its way into our food and water.

Mad cow? I’d say more like mad human.

Why are we pushing into wildlife habitats? Because we need more space to build communities, more natural resources to sustain our lives and livelihoods, more wild game to feed more people. In short, because of rapid human population growth. Which is the same reason we’ve taken to farming livestock in such horrific conditions. We’re no longer eating meat produced at our local family-run farm. We’re eating meat that’s been factory farmed, sometimes thousands of miles away, in huge, depressing feedlots—because that’s the only way to produce enough of it for our massive population, which still grows by 80 million people a year.

As you stream live concerts, organize your sock drawer, again, and wash your hands until they chap, remember that we got ourselves into this mess, and with the right amount of determination we can prevent global pandemics like COVID-19 from continuing to happen for all of the rest of time. What we have to do:

  1. Give every person, everywhere, access to affordable contraception. This will slow the growth of the human population by allowing people to exercise their reproductive rights. Win-win.
  2. Start treating animals with respect. Slowing habitat loss, cracking down on illegal poaching of exotic species, and employing sustainable farming practices are strategies that will prevent zoonotic diseases from infecting humans.

In the meantime, stay home and wash your hands!

14 thoughts on “COVID-19: Pandemics and Population Growth

  1. Thank you for this master work of an article. I cannot take a walk anymore without running into healthy people freaking out about this mysterious pandemic. Many of them are cowering in front of fast food restaurants. I say no more.

  2. We are intruding into animal habitats and we need to value non-human lives, too. However, the real problem that is staring us in the face is that there are just too many humans on the planet. That means that we have to live closer to one another because there is limited habitable space and people find jobs and friends in cities. A novel infection placed into humanity, is like a single spore placed into a petri dish. It expands exponentially until it runs out of people to infect or food on a petri dish. Of course humanity is somewhat smarter than a petri dish. I hope and believe that we will mitigate the problem by more, faster, and better tests, perhaps a vaccine (only if it can be made to work quickly), social separation, and other good ideas.

    Just as many have ignored the problem of overpopulation, ignoring the presient predictions of “the Population Bomb”, many at all levels of government and society refuse to accept many areas of science that could lead to a better and sustainable future for my grandchildren and all grandchildren, including the opportunity to head off adverse climate change. There is synergy – many of the solutions proposed such as eating low on the food chain would address these and many other similar and looming problems.

  3. Thank you for saying it. I’m appalled at the number of times I read educated people fronting the idea that human population isn’t the problem with regard to degradation of the planet, its resources, or influence on things like pandemics or extinction. They reject it outright and the narrative always goes back to argue over which resources we plunder and how we need fewer plastic bottles, but more N95 disposable masks- policy that takes us nowhere as we add more humans to the count. I agree its time to look at policy, but for once look it in the eye, not in the periphery. The straightest line between where we are and where we need to be is headcount- not discovering some miracle pollutant free energy source, outlawing straws, Facebook shaming the wet markets for a week during quarantine, or taxing everyone to reduce our environmental footprint.

    Fewer footprints. The simplest solution, and I once read something about the simplest solution being worth a look- or something like that.

    We do it with wildlife, setting bag limits during hunting season, keeping populations in control so they are “manageable”- what we’ve never done effectively is manage ourselves. No one wants to talk about it because it makes you a monster if you do, unless you’re talking about keeping the deer off our highways, but our population is clearly the problem. We lack the ability to see whats good for the goose is good for you and me and our future if we are to have one. China gave it a shot, but it failed because it was based on the flawed concept that “everyone is entitled to one.” If we’re truly the “evolved” species, its time to recognize that there are just too many of us and maybe we don’t all NEED one. Condoms are fine as a voluntary means of kicking the can down the road- but not the solution. The global population grew by 2.5 billion in the wake of AIDS to present, at a time when condoms were often free in price and of stigma, and abundant- sitting in fishbowls at the exits of nightclubs or schools and being dropped out of a C130 courtesy of the Gates Foundation. This is less about prophylactics, and more about psychology. We really do need to get past the idea that we all need to spawn, that our progeny will lift us from our personal shortcomings or carry on some family legacy. We don’t and many never should. Prisons overflow with populations who will frequently point their condition being aided by abusive or absentee parenting. Those are people who didn’t want it. That’s a $75 billion a year condition we find ourselves in- condoms everywhere.

    So, policy. I don’t know about globally, but I know that if our government in the US took a big chunk of that $75 billion a year that we lock people up with and instead offered 4 years of advanced education or an equivalent starter grant (with some entrepreneurial support) for a business or non profit to a young adult in exchange for a surgical solution to stop pregnancy, the vast majority of young men would take that deal without a second thought. I would have, every man I’ve posed this concept to has said they would’ve- in a heartbeat. I’m not sure how the young ladies would feel- but it takes two to tango and I’d bet the idea would have some level of acceptance, especially if the boys are taking advantage. No penalty for not playing along, just not in the program and you get to keep your parts in play. If you are participating, you can even bank some seed in case you become financially stable and realize you really WANT to bring children into this world, but the “accidental” parent situation would cease to be a problem. Prison populations would fall, you’d have a more educated citizenry, and the only people bringing new people into the world would be the ones who REALLY REALLY want it. Our demand for resources will finally, for the first time in millennia, start to turn in the other direction- for once we would be asking less of our host planet and everything that calls it home.

    Why won’t this ever happen? Also sadly, simple.

    -Politicians can’t get behind it, cause, you know- they like their job and would like to have it forever. This means they need to represent the opinions of the majority of the populace (think Walmart shoppers). And this opinion isn’t that of the 51% or even .51% and can’t find a voice because:
    -These are the ravings of a monster. This is THE sacred cow, the right to breed. You can lose your right to drive, vote, own a gun, walk the streets freely, but nothing can prevent you from bringing another little someone into the equation. No one with the voice to reach the masses would relegate themselves to the role of pariah because of the ultimate reason:
    -Religion. Its the gift that keeps on giving, without question. We’re still bombing one another over it- and maybe that will continue to be our only real, albeit incidental, efforts at population control.

    Good luck time travelers- we’re going to need it.
    Thanks for letting me rant.

    • You said, “The global population grew by 2.5 billion in the wake of AIDS to present, at a time when condoms were often free in price and of stigma.”

      However, stigma from condom use has not gone away. From The European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Health Care:
      “Among other social factors, gender inequality, lack of a dialogue among partners with regard to condom use, and the stigma attached to the condom could all lead to unprotected sexual intercourse. Personal factors such as aversion to the condom.” You can read more here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5387121_Barriers_to_condom_use

      You then say, “This is less about prophylactics, and more about psychology. We really do need to get past the idea that we all need to spawn.”
      Again, this ignores the fact that, “Worldwide, an estimated 44% (90% uncertainty interval [UI] 42–48) of pregnancies were unintended in 2010–14.” – The Lancet, Global Health.
      https://www.thelancet.com/journals/langlo/article/PIIS2214-109X(18)30029-9/fulltext

      You then advocate for a policy of voluntary “surgical solution to stop pregnancy” and I shudder at that idea, thinking of the millions of women forced or coerced to undergo sterilization procedures, targeted largely at Latin women. “There has been a long history of subjecting marginalized women to forced and coerced sterilization.” https://publichealthreviews.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40985-017-0060-9

      Then, you talk about incarceration rates. “Prisons overflow with populations who will frequently point their condition being aided by abusive or absentee parenting.” Can you provide some data on that? You fail to mention the U.S.’s for-profit prison model and how policies like the 3 strikes law disproportionately affect people convicted of non-violent offenses. More on that here: https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/uploads/6adf045b-0442-4e7f-92fb-d2b6aa3ddadb/ideas_three_strikes.pdf

      To conclude, instead of shaming people for wanting kids or advocating for government policies that promote sterilization, let’s look at the systemic barriers, gender inequalities, and power imbalances in society that contribute to unintended pregnancies.

  4. Very true – too many people in this world and too few educated people – and we/the whole world suffers from this.

  5. I agree with respecting wildlife 1000% but have to speak on the contraception aspect, here in the US it’s fine in most family’s for it to be available, but in other areas of the world and even in some homes here, it is not due to religious beliefs or other reasons. It is affordable to those who want it in the states thanks to programs like planned parenthood etc, which costs are based on income, so those with low to none can get it either very cheap or free, but that isn’t helping. My belief is in some minds of society here, more children = more money from the state..and then do you even know how much it cost to keep child given up for adoption in state care? I was one of those children until I turned 18 and the amount of money per year spent to keep me in state group homes was more than it would have cost to send me to the most pristine boarding school in the US (by my research) and then there’s religious reasons where family believe the more children is (I can’t speak on their why’s because I am not a scholar in those subjects, I just know that there are beliefs where more children is good. I do believe we are over populated, but how do we fix this without mandating laws such as 1 child per family. It’s a difficult subject, but I think the root of it is education and that I truly believe lacks in our country. I was awakened once by a night of research that took me down a rabbit hole where the basic notion of what it was saying is the dumber we are the less resources we use so society wants to keep us under educated sheep…. is this correct, I can’t answer for sure but I do see the change in society in the short 35 years I’ve been alive, not to mention the difference from the 50’s and 60’s. So what can we do? How do we solve this???

  6. I absolutely and wholeheartedly agree with this article. Congratulations for addressing the elephant in the room, the thing that no-one else seem to have the courage to address – the ‘divine right’ of people to reproduce. Having 1 child, or even 2 is fine, but more than that I see as irresponsible and selfish, even if you can support them.

    I agree with one of the above comments that organized religion is partly to blame. Anti abortionists are often religious fanatics, although this can be political too. A woman should have the right to do whatever she like when it comes to her body.

    I don’t know what the answer is, or if there is even an answer. Maybe nature is the only thing that can save this planet and the human race?

    • Thanks, Wendy. Because, when given full autonomy over their bodies and childbearing decisions, so many women choose to have no children or only one child, it shouldn’t be a problem at the population level when women choose to have three or four children—it would still average out to replacement level. Of course, millions of women around the world don’t have autonomy over these decisions, which is the primary reason fertility rates remain so high in many places. Even in the United States, with our low fertility rate of 1.7 children per woman, 45% of pregnancies are unintended! That’s why we work to expand affordable, voluntary access to modern methods of contraception and the education to use it properly (because what good is birth control if user error causes pregnancy anyway?). Aid-dependent countries need and request funding from the U.S. to expand contraceptive access, and as long as Population Connection exists, we’ll fight to make sure those funding requests are honored!

  7. It’s refreshing to find a website voicing the concerns of most intelligent beings regarding population growth. Nature itself will, and always has to a certain extent, hit back at most forms of over abundance in many forms as a natural control. We dont have the predatory control found in the animal kingdom and cannot, because of our own selfish nature and the desire to have offspring, no matter what conditions we live under, control our own balance as a society. China practised eugenics in the past to control it’s own population in favour of male offspring, a totally unnatural approach to the situation, and is now short of females in it’s society. They now import women at every opportunity, legally or otherwise, to make up the deficit. The empowerment of males in certain societies and it’s political system leaves a lot to be desired. Testosterone rules the world comes to mind

  8. Like many of the others responding to this article I feel so utterly at a loss as to why the world leaders, WHO and World Banks are not all working to encourage population control! There is no way humans will accept having their life styles reduced and more and more people around the world are understandably striving to improve their standard of living. The only way we can possibly reduce our devastating impact on the planet is for there to be less of us. There has got to be a global movement towards being more responsible – one person one child.

    • The global fertility rate has already declined to 2.4 children per woman, on average, which is a huge accomplishment given how high it was only a few decades ago. Demographers project that if every woman were able to plan each of her pregnancies, the global fertility rate would reach replacement-rate. So there’s no need for coercive government-mandated programs. Universal access to a variety of safe, affordable contraceptives and the education to use them properly and manage side effects is the key to solving our population challenges!

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