A letter from our President, Bob Spaulding 4/22/2020

Earth Day - 22 April 2020

Dear friends,

The arrival of Earth Day amidst the COVID-19 pandemic got me thinking and, in turn, has led to a literature search regarding the environment and the proliferation of viruses. The confluence of ecological change and microscopic pathogens running amok among us are not independent occurrences. Recent ecological research has clarified their interrelationship and, I think, it portrays an important backdrop for both the intermediate and long term future within which we must exist.

There is increasing academic discourse among environmentalists, epidemiologists and sociologists regarding the origins of epidemics and the after effects felt by the human population. Those deeply involved in this discussion paint a sobering picture. Kurt Vonnegut said, "If people think nature is their friend, then they sure don't need an enemy." A professor of ecology and biodiversity at Columbia University said essentially the same thing, "Nature is not your friend — it does what it does." I am going to try to weave together my train of thought regarding these quotes in the following paragraphs. Apologies in advance for being longer than usual.

While I was online with yet another Zoom meeting, Tova was getting ready for the about-weekly sortie to the grocery store. We both had inventoried the refrigerator, took stock of canned goods and dried fruits, fresh vegetables, and sharply focused our attention on the depletion rate of toilet paper...yes, absolutely, get more of that. Interestingly, it strikes me that it has taken this damn COVID-19 virus to make other things, important things, more apparent. One of those important things is our environment and our interaction with it. For example, the internet is replete with satellite photography taken over major urban centers around the planet showing significantly decreased air pollution, the direct consequence of us not driving as much. More cars and humankind at home will slow down environmental destruction.

Are your recycling bins getting filled more slowly? Let's examine that question. We're driving less ergo we are shopping less, or perhaps better said, more efficiently. And in part, is it because we are better at using what we have and just wasting less? We have many bins at home to manage waste — trash, recycling, plastic bag recycling, etc. We had been so busy trying to fit our waste into these bins to make this Earth greener. Now we avoid buying, not because we want to, but because we can't. We produce less waste, not by choice, but due to COVID-19. Social distancing guidelines and personal fear of being exposed to the coronavirus has resulting in limiting the number of trips in any given week into large public places like stores. It took a pandemic to put us in our place and see, to some extent, how our daily activities and routines are adversely affecting our world. (In full disclosure, however, the number of empty wine bottles in our recycling bin is up.)

How many of us as kids heard that it is a sin to waste food. Clergy often speak about sustainability and spirituality. In these COVID-19 days, many of us now and in the weeks and months ahead will waste less food. As supper time approaches Tova and I look over what's left in the refrigerator and ask what can we make with that. This is in preference to going out to the grocery store. In fear of attempting to navigate another war-like situation with other food shoppers, we have become rather more rationing with food supplies at home and being very careful. I guess that it required Mother Nature to give us such a practical, mandatory lesson on food management.

For the time being, we are trapped in a "new normal" (how I am beginning to hate that phrase!) It is not particularly pleasant to mull over what that means. Epidemiologists are asking us to get prepared for the long haul. The COVID-19 virus will most likely not just go away; the effects might be dissipated over many years to come. A recent Harvard University study, https://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/04/14/science.abb5793 outlines two possible scenarios. The first, in which the virus would be mostly eradicated after an intense period of transmission, is thought to be unlikely by public health officials. Instead, the paper presents a second scenario in which, after an initial surge, the virus might seasonally re-emerge. Here's the abstract:

"It is urgent to understand the future of severe acute respiratory syndrome–coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, the COVID-19 virus) transmission. We used estimates of seasonality, immunity, and cross-immunity for betacoronaviruses OC43 and HKU1 from time series data from the USA to inform a model of SARS-CoV-2 transmission. We projected that recurrent wintertime outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2 will probably occur after the initial, most severe pandemic wave. Absent other interventions, a key metric for the success of social distancing is whether critical care capacities are exceeded. To avoid this, prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022. Additional interventions, including expanded critical care capacity and an effective therapeutic, would improve the success of intermittent distancing and hasten the acquisition of herd immunity. Longitudinal serological studies are urgently needed to determine the extent and duration of immunity to SARS-CoV-2. Even in the event of apparent elimination, SARS-CoV-2 surveillance should be maintained since a resurgence in contagion could be possible as late as 2024."

Does the Harvard study mean we are pre-ordained to a rollercoaster series of seasonal blooms and declines? I think not necessarily. Additionally, doomsday predictions yelling about the sky falling and we're all going to die are irresponsible and serve to help no one. Much is predicated on achieving what the epidemiologists refer to as herd immunity, when about 70-80% of the total population has acquired the necessary antibodies (through exposure or vaccination) to successfully fend off the virus and its mutated versions. The scenarios proposed in the Harvard study are dependent on modeling that is subject to correction based on new data...and changing data drives assumptions that in turn drive the modeling cranking out the answers. But those initial answers, using early and often incomplete data, cannot be discounted; it would be unwise to do so. If we are able to field a vaccine that fundamentally eradicates the virus, that, of course, is the best answer and should radically shorten recovery timelines.

The scope of the impact that the coronavirus is having on our lives is immense. Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, notes that many millions around the globe will be physically impacted by infection, but he also opines that mental health issues may be as rampant as the physical contraction of COVID-19 itself. Our communities are not well prepared for disaster management such as the current pandemic. Economists remind us that this is not just a health issue, but will cost 10-20% of the GDP for many countries. Therefore, it is imperative that the US and the world have an economic plan not just for the crisis as it stands today, but also post-crisis as well.

So...how did we get here? The links between human and ecosystem health are many but I want to focus on the viral origins of pandemics. And alarmingly, as habitat and biodiversity loss increases globally the current coronavirus may just be the beginning of a multitude mass pandemics. Researchers are asking why new deadly diseases seem to be emerging from hotspots such as tropical rain forests and bushmeat or wet markets in Asian and African population centers. Villagers from small settlements in the forests of Gabon, after weathering occasional bouts with malaria, dengue, yellow fever and sleeping sickness, are now afraid of going into the forest due the 1996 breakout of Ebola. That virus, traced to butchering or eating an infected chimpanzee, has a ~90% mortality rate.

Only a couple of decades ago, biologists widely thought that intact tropical forests and natural environments served as a natural barrier against the transmission of new disease cause by the viruses and pathogens harbored in the exotic species living within them. Today new research is finding holes in that line of thinking. Instead, the attention has been turned towards the loss of habitat by such activities as road building, mining, logging, and expanding civilization. As we progressively invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, we have also significantly decreased the distance between us and the rest of this critical biosphere...and from the epidemiologists' point of view, this is not a good thing. Viruses that have heretofore remained essentially isolated in animals that we traditionally have had little direct contact with are now routinely among us...a direct consequence of loss of habitat. Known viral carriers such as rats and bats are firmly established in very close proximity to human populations such that species-to-species transmission has become inevitable. The disruption of pristine forests along with rapid urbanization and population growth is bringing people into closer contact with animal species they may never have been near before.

And we are facing an increasing threat. Research suggests that outbreaks of animal-borne and other infectious diseases such as Ebola, SARS, bird flu, and now COVID-19 caused by a novel coronavirus, are on the rise. Pathogens are indeed crossing from animals to humans, and many are able to spread quickly to new places. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that three-quarters of new or emerging diseases that infect humans originate in animals. Some, like rabies and plague, crossed from animals centuries ago. Others, such as Marburg, which is thought to be transmitted by bats, are still rare. A few, like COVID-19, which emerged last year in Wuhan, China, and MERS, which is linked to camels in the Middle East, are new to humans and spreading globally. Other diseases that have crossed into humans include Lassa fever, which was first identified in 1969 in Nigeria; Nipah from Malaysia; and SARS from China, which killed more than 700 people and travelled to 30 countries in 2002–03. Some, like Zika and West Nile virus, which emerged in Africa, have mutated and become established on other continents. British scientist Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at University College London and a specialist in bats, calls emerging animal-borne infectious diseases an "increasing and very significant threat to global health, security and economies".

Disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie, an associate professor in Emory University's Department of Environmental Sciences says, "Pathogens do not respect species boundaries." Dr. Gillespie, who studies how shrinking natural habitats and changing behavior add to the risk of diseases spilling over from animals to humans, believes we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg and that the majority of pathogens are still to be discovered. Humans, says Gillespie, are creating the conditions for the spread of diseases by reducing the natural barriers between host animals, in which the virus is naturally circulating, and ourselves. "We fully expect the arrival of pandemic influenza; we can expect large-scale human mortalities; we can expect other pathogens with other impacts. A disease like Ebola is not easily spread. But something with a mortality rate of Ebola with the transmissivity of a virus like that of measles or COVID-19 would be catastrophic." Wildlife everywhere is being put under more stress. "Major landscape changes are causing animals to lose habitats, which means species become crowded together and also come into greater contact with humans. Species that survive change are now moving and mixing with different animals and with humans."

Yet human health research seldom considers the surrounding natural ecosystems, says Dr. Richard Ostfeld, distinguished senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. He and other researchers are developing the emerging discipline of planetary health, which looks at the links between human and ecosystem health. "There's misapprehension among scientists and the public that natural ecosystems are the source of threats to ourselves. It's a mistake. Nature poses threats, it is true, but it's human activities that do the real damage. The health risks in a natural environment can be made much worse when we interfere with it," he says. Dr. Ostfeld also points to rats and bats, which are strongly linked with the direct and indirect spread of zoonotic diseases (a zoonosis is a disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans). "Rodents and some bats thrive when we disrupt natural habitats. They are the most likely to promote transmissions of pathogens. The more we disturb the forests and habitats the more danger we are in," he says. Dr. Felicia Keesing, professor of biology at Bard College, New York, studies how environmental changes influence the probability that humans will be exposed to infectious diseases. "When we erode biodiversity, we see a proliferation of the species most likely to transmit new diseases to us, but there's also good evidence that those same species are the best hosts for existing diseases."

Many environmental scientists and urban planners now advocate rethinking infrastructure, particularly within low-income and informal settlements. Short-term efforts need to be focused on containing the spread of infection. In the long term, given that new infectious diseases will likely continue to spread rapidly into and within cities, strategies call for an overhaul of current approaches to urban planning and development. This current thinking is being driven by the need to be prepared much better than we are today. The bottom line is that we can't predict where the next pandemic will come from, so we need mitigation plans to take into account the worst possible scenarios. The only certain thing is that the next one will certainly come.

Collectively, if I summarize much of what I've just jotted down, there is a tremendous amount of overlap with what we are trying to accomplish with our observance of Earth Day and what we need to do to safeguard ourselves from novel viruses. All that we can do to protect our environment by maintaining healthy ecosystems alongside human populations can only serve to keep things in proper balance and, hopefully, limit the exposure to virus pools meant to be in the wild rather in us.

When will it end? What can we do? Is a return to some semblance of normalcy shortly ahead? Much depends on how the virus is contained with the defensive steps we have in place. I submit that we are in a fight with a threat that requires both tactical and strategic thinking. Tactically, we wage an immediate battle that has occupied recent days. I'm speaking specifically of all the guidelines we are taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19...social distancing, masks and gloves, limited trips to the store, frequent hand washing, etc. If the Harvard study proves to be reasonably accurate, then these steps will be with us for awhile. However, rather than purely reacting to a new pathogen as we are now, strategic action is necessary to limit or prevent future crossings over the animal-human species barrier. And that is where goals associated with better understanding the environment and our interactions with it, all consistent with the celebration of Earth Day, have become vitally important. We need to essentially apply a concept that the medical community has been espousing for years...that in treating a disease, prevention is far easier and less costly than its cure.

Strategically thinking, individually or as a synagogue, we need to do our best to limit waste, limit the expenditure of energy resources, to lower our carbon footprint, to preserve water, etc. We can help. Each step, no matter how small, whether taken as local or global communities, serves to help keep a safe equilibrium between us humans and the rest of the animal kingdom and moves us in a direction of peaceful coexistence.

I'm closing this missive by sharing something Tova's cousin, David Ackerman, passed around our family...

Halacha, or Jewish law, requires a sukkah, or ritual hut, to be a temporary structure. This raises an obvious question: how sturdy, then, should you build one? The Talmud addresses this issue by telling a story: Rabbi Akiva and Raban Gamliel are on a boat. Rabbi Akiva builds a sukkah (on the boat), which gets blown over by the wind the very next day. Raban Gamliel says, more or less "I told you so." (Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 32a)

Akiva believed you should build your sukkah only to withstand the normal, expected winds. Gamliel said no, you should build your sukkah to stand up to the unexpected storm. Suddenly a funny story about rabbis in boats speaks directly to the global existential threat of COVID-19.

The durability of a sukkah is determined by visible and measurable engineering criteria. The durability of a community, though, is determined by something invisible, yet strong beyond measure: the human spirit. The Jewish people have always built their communities on that very foundation and it is one reason the Jewish people have endured even when its houses and synagogues and markets have been demolished.

Yesterday was Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, which pretty much puts COVID-19 in perspective. Philosophers have argued since 1945 whether Hitler's war against the Jews should be measured by the existing yardsticks of evil or whether it occupied a category all its own. Either way, the survivors' stories always trigger the same reaction: "How could somebody live through that?" The human spirit was the answer then and the human spirit is the answer now. COVID-19 doesn't know what it's up against.

Stay safe and healthy,


Top ] [ Back ]