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Lena Dominelli
University of Stirling, United Kingdom

Covid-19: A sign of the transgression of the human-animal boundary and rising greenhouse gas emissions

The connection between the SARS-COV-2 and environmental degradation was amplified during the Covid-19 disease as it spread globally, both before and after vaccinations were developed. Humans have been encroaching on undeveloped tropical and temperate forests to grow cash crops like palm oil and soyabeans for high profits, thereby disturbing the local bio-equilibrium, e.g., sending bats living in well-established cave habitats scurrying for new homes. At the same time, humans carry the viruses harboured within such reservoirs into the human domain, where people lack immunity against particular viral strains. Covid-19 was not the only disease to enter the social arena in this way. So did SARS, MERS, and Ebola. Even new strains of influenza reach humanity each year through birds and poultry. Although patient ‘zero’ remains unknown, SARS-COV-2 migrated from the animal kingdom to the human one, creating chaos in its wake. Despite warnings passed on by environmental scientists, business practices that degrade the environment persist. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of life, including the devastation of entire economies, stressed education and health systems, and undermined social solidarity, and peoples’ potential to care for themselves and aspire to better futures, especially for their children. The failure of the G7 and G20 countries to provide enough vaccines to inoculate the entire world is to the shame of humanity and disastrous in controlling the development of new strains of the virus.

From the perspective of observing governments trying to get a grip of the environmental crisis, particularly climate change (or breakdown as some call it), the outcomes of COP26 in Glasgow were very disheartening. After40 years of NGO activism on the topic, and trenchant analyses that deplored the environmental racism and exploitation of indigenous people’s livelihoods and women’s low paid labour, the changes contained in the final agreement fell far short of aspirations, especially in eliminating the use of coal and gas where China and India joined forces to replace ‘phase out’ with ‘phase down’ much to the chagrin of smaller nations, especially those in the Small Island Developing States(SIDS) like Tivalu and Kiribati, which are sinking into the sea. Activist groups, especially young people represented by YOUNGO and the Fridays for Futures movements, decried the final ‘compromises’, and even Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, regretted that a historical agreement had not been reached. Instead, the final product was one that “reflects the interests, the contradictions, and the state of political will in the world today’’. Many activists have placed their hopes in taking action between COP26 and COP27 due to take place in Egypt in 2022. Crucial among their concerns are to eliminate fossil fuel usage, to reduce methane emissions, achieve reforestation, and protect the earth’s lungs in the Amazon. Methane is 25 times worse than carbon dioxide, but decays after about 12 years instead of the 300 to 1000 years required by carbon dioxide. Another disappointment was the failure of rich countries to ensure the $100 billion per year required to enable severely affected countries to undertake mitigation measures that would enhance daily life. Such negligent inaction on the part of multinationals and governments is likely to lead to more environmentally driven health pandemics in future. On a positive note, a few nations including Scotland and Denmark lobbied for and contributed to compensation funds to be distributed to poor countries suffering the effects of climate change when contributing next to nothing to the emissions account.

As Covid-19 spread between and within countries, social workers were finding their own working conditions were affected, especially as the numbers of those infected rose, and many staff and residents died (Gordon et al., 2020), especially those among black and minority ethnic groups. Those rules restricting home visits were particularly difficult in adult safeguarding situations because social workers could not be certain that they had not missed critical signs of abuse. Additionally, to protect older people’s vulnerability to get Covid-19, visitors were barred from entering care homes for lengthy periods of time, and these restrictions varied according to country (see www.iassw-aiets.org). Such concerns adversely affected residents’, carers’ and practitioners’ mental health and well-being and contributed to staffing shortages and high vacancy rates (Costello et al., 2019).

Social workers are urged to endorse green social work (GSW) initiatives (Dominelli, 2012). These will tackle corporate power and government inaction through holistic grassroots driven approaches that bring multiple stakeholders together to innovate and devise new, renewable energy-based solutions to end the unrestrained use of fossil fuel energy sources like coal, petroleum and oil. GSW also promotes the duty of people to care for and about their planet and end exploitative practices that treat the planet and all it contains as a means to the end of making profits for the few. Green social workers are also committed to increasing training in disaster interventions including climate change at all levels of social work education from the undergraduate level to specialism at the post-graduate and doctoral levels.


Costello, H., Cooper, C., Marston, L, and Livingstone, G. (2019)Burnout in UK care home staff and its effect on staff turnover: MARQUE English national care home longitudinal survey, Age and Ageing, 49(1): 74-81. On ncbi.nlm.nih.gov accessed 20/12/21
Dominelli, L. (2012) Green Social Work: From Environmental Degradation to Environmental Justice. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gordon, A., Goodman, C., Achterberg, W., Barker, R., Burns, E., Hanratty, B., Finbarr, M., Meyer, J., O’Neill, D., Schols, J., and Spilbery, K. (2020) Age and Ageing, 49(5): 701-705. On doi.org accessed 20/12/2021.