This article was written right into the third week of the implementation of work-from-home policy in my office, anticipating the wider spread of COVID-19 in Indonesia, and the city of Bandung in particular. In these three weeks, social media timelines have been filled with various reports about the coronavirus and its impact on society – from scientific explanations of the characteristics of the virus, public health efforts to prevent its spread, social inequalities that have become increasingly apparent, to fears of a global economic crisis. One or two hoax appeared here and there. Interestingly, I occasionally intersect with articles that discuss the relationship between the corona virus and the environmental crisis. The discussion is mixed: that corona virus is triggered by deforestation and environmental damage [2], that it triggers deforestation (due to weakened forest monitoring) [3], corona virus helps reduce air pollution [4], the lockdown due to the corona virus causes wildlife to return to urban areas [ 5], but the corona virus also encourages an increase in disposable waste [6], and many more. At an extreme point, some say, “maybe the corona virus is not a virus; humans are a virus for nature and corona is the cure ”. On the other hand, Covid19 pandemic also causes paralysis in the economic sector, which could lead to greater exploitation of the environment in the future (read: corona virus and deforestation). Then, what is the actual relationship between disease, humans and the environment?

Whatever the analysis, we generally realize that there is a close relationship between disease and the environment. In fact, the spread of the corona virus, like other sources of disease, is an ecological phenomenon. Viruses, bacteria, molds and protozoa are part of ecosystems – some act as obligate parasites for plants, animals or other microorganisms; some can live freely outside other organisms but benefit from the presence of these organisms. Because humans are also part of the ecosystem, it is inevitable that disease is an inseparable part of human life. You could say that life without disease is utopia. So what causes an epidemic (epidemic / pandemic) to occur? And how is the relationship between the spread of disease and environmental change, especially in today’s modern era? This paper has two purposes: on the one hand, I would like to examine how disease is related to environmental crises; on the other hand, I would like to examine how these two things (epidemics and environmental crises) are perceived by modern society in the same paradigm: risk. Here is the review.

Relationships between disease and environmental change

In epidemiology (the study of public and population health), diseases, particularly infectious diseases, are seen in the context of a triangle of causal factors: (1) society (demographics, knowledge and behavior), (2) sources of disease and (3) the environment (including disease vectors and infrastructure). Any changes in the three axes of this triangle can result in the rise and fall of disease outbreaks in an area. For example, a healthier lifestyle and community behavior can reduce the risk of spreading dengue fever in urban areas. On the other hand, climate change is increasing the distribution of dengue fever to previously uninfected areas (as the habitat for the Aedes mosquito vector widens. Likewise, mutations that occur in microbes can increase the virulence of the organism or its resistance to antibiotics.

Awareness of this interrelationship underlies many studies of the relationship between disease and environmental change. Tony McMichael, an epidemiologist from The Australian National University, in his article [7] describes how the interaction between humans, disease and the environment has been going on since prehistoric times until now, in changing patterns but in basic principles. the same one. In prehistoric times, changes in the human environment from forests to grasslands, for example, caused new human exposure to vectors such as mosquitoes and ticks, while meat consumption allowed zoonotic diseases to occur. However, one of the most important transitional periods that promote disease development is agriculture and sedentary communities, which allow microorganisms from livestock and residential pests (rodents, flies, mosquitoes, etc.) to mutate and cause disease in humans. Around 1500 – 3000 years ago, major civilizations such as Rome, China and the Mediterranean experienced mass epidemics, although in the end the population became increasingly resistant to these infectious diseases.

McMichael identified two more transition periods characterized by an explosion of infectious disease outbreaks. In the third period, explorers and colonizers from Europe introduced disease to their colonies. One of the most famous is perhaps the story of the Conquistadores from Spain who (accidentally) brought smallpox, measles and typhus and wiped out a large part of the Native American population. Through the period of imperialism until the beginning of the 20th century, there were no major outbreaks until finally the Spanish flu pandemic occurred in 1919, with the death toll reaching 50 million. After World War II, health technology became increasingly sophisticated and in the 1970s, at least in developed countries, infectious diseases were declared defeated (although at the same time non-communicable diseases due to lifestyle began to increase). However, many studies [8] show that the 21st century is a marker for the emergence of emerging infectious diseases. What caused it? According to McMichael: globalization and industrialization, population growth, urbanization, climate change, and the environmental crisis.

In his article, McMichael illustrates how various environmental and social factors have played various roles in the history of disease progression from 10,000 years ago (see Figure 1). In prehistoric times, human-animal relations and newly developed social conditions were the main drivers of the emergence of disease. This changed in the 1000 to 200 years ago where international trade, colonialism and warfare were the driving factors, while in the present, factors such as rapid technological developments and environmental changes have a more significant role. One thing for sure is that cross-border movements (including export-import activities), environmental and technological changes are causing the rate and volume of disease spread to increase to unimaginable points. Some noteworthy include the outbreaks of cholera in the United States and Salmonella in Finland in the 1990s due to contamination of export products, meningitis which spread to South Asia through the pilgrimage in 1987, the rapid rate of urbanization that led to the emergence of SARS in Hong Kong, West Nile virus in The United States and Mexico in 1999 due to the new spread of mosquitoes, to the current global Corona Virus pandemic case.


Figure 1. The relative importance of social and environmental factors in the emergence of diseases (Source: McMichael, 2004: 1053)

McMichael then noted the relationship between environmental change and the emergence of disease. In 1993, hantavirus spread in the United States as a result of the high rainfall caused by El Nino which caused the rat population to increase sharply. In Latin America in the 1960s, deforestation in the Amazon was thought to have led to increased interaction of humans and mice carrying the Machupo virus, causing an outbreak of Bolivian hemorrhagic fever and killing 1/7 of the local population. In the United States in 1976, Lyme disease broke out as a result of the disappearance of natural predators of the white-footed rat that carried the borrelia-carrying fleas. As the white-footed rat population increases and settlements begin to expand on the forest edges, so does Lyme disease. In Malaysia in 1999, land conversion from tropical forests to oil palm plantations disrupted bat habitat, which spread the Nipah virus to domestic animals and then humans. Finally, as reported by Gubler in his study, dengue hemorrhagic fever is becoming an epidemic in subtropical countries such as Taiwan as a result of climate change (which causes the average temperature in northern Taiwan to be higher and becomes a new habitat for Aedes aegypti) followed by urbanization and international mobility.

The relationship between infectious diseases and environmental crises is complex and two-way. On the one hand, the environmental crisis increases the vulnerability (vulnerability) of certain groups of society, which causes changes in behavior. This, together with environmental conditions itself, has led to an increase in disease outbreaks, as the examples above illustrate. Anna Talman et al [9] in their study added one analysis – that the impact of disease on social dynamics can also be reversed into even greater environmental damage. In their study of the interaction between HIV / AIDS and the environment, Talman et al. Adopted a concept called a syndemic which explains this interrelationship (see Figure 2). This cyclic relationship also applies to various other forms of disease, such as Corona Virus as reported on electronic media and social media in the first paragraph of this paper.


Figure 2. Syndemic relations between land degradation, food insecurity and the spread of HIV (Source: Talman et al. 2013: 258)

Modernity and the risk society

At this point, I will stop talking about the relationship between the spread of disease and the environment and invite you to explore what is the relationship between disease and environmental crises in the context of the social construction of modern society today. We have seen how modernization, globalization and industrialization that have brought about many changes in the face of the earth have also contributed to the emergence of new diseases (or the re-emergence of old diseases) at an unimaginable rate, number and distribution. We also understand that social dynamics and economic growth increase the risk of people, especially the marginalized, to disease, which in turn triggers even greater environmental damage. The question now is: what is it that causes both the epidemic and the environmental crisis to be responded to in so different ways from one society to another? Why can we, the people of Indonesia, not believe in climate change [10] but are afraid of the Corona Virus? And what are the implications of modern life today for the way we think about disease and environmental crises?

If these questions strike your curiosity, then it would be worthwhile to glance at one great thinker in sociology in his book at the end of the 20th century [11], Ulrich Beck, which tells about society (which is focused on) risk. Ulrich Beck is a German sociologist whose intellectual development as a Professor at the University of Munich has accompanied the growth of new phenomena in modern society regarding environmental changes on a global scale. The Minamata case in Japan in the 1950s, the nuclear leak at Chernobyl in 1986, the pollution of the agricultural environment from pesticides documented in the book Silent Spring [12] – all sparked global awareness about the risks to the environmental crisis. Beck considers that the way people today perceive risk is completely different from what was seen by society (especially in Europe) in the 19th century.

Beck identifies modern society in Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a society (focused on) wealth (or Beck’s term, class society). This community perspective departs from the awareness of limited resources. The main jargon in this society is, ‘I am hungry!’, Which encourages the development of technology that aims to meet food security (read: Green Revolution), accumulate as much wealth as possible and exploit natural resources without limits. Socio-economic disparities (between countries and within a country) are built as one of the excesses of this modernity perspective, although the urge to distribute wealth also occurs. On the other hand, risk is seen as something that can be calculated and internalized by individuals (isn’t this also how insurance works?). As an individual, I decided to take the risk of exploring rather than staying at home, because I knew the implications of those risks. Environmental damage is real – it can be touched, smelled, felt. He said, in the 19th century, a person who fell into the River Thames would not drown to death, but would first be choked by the waste that filled the river. Risk, in this case, can be isolated in limited spaces, places and communities.

Entering the end of the 20th century, people in developed countries have entered a point where scarcity no longer occurs. Wealth has accumulated, and food security has been achieved. Even so, instead of achieving stability, modern society is again haunted, this time not by a feeling of deprivation, but by anxious feeling at all the risks posed by the present progress and rapid economic growth. From my hunger, modern society’s new jargon is ‘I’m afraid!’. Conception of risk changes. Risk becomes something abstract, no longer personal and can no longer be calculated. Risk becomes something that cannot be anticipated. Who can anticipate the Chernobyl disaster, global warming, or the Corona Virus pandemic? The environmental crisis becomes an abstraction that is distant from society. On the other hand, the risk of becoming something global, cannot be isolated and is not limited by space and time. I am aware (and worried) about the risks of climate change, GMOs, microplastics or radioactivity, but I do not feel or see those risks firsthand. Somewhere, maybe yes, the destruction of the forest had a direct impact on people, but that was less than the fear felt by me on the other end of the world. Still, I fear that any moment a great drought, rainstorm, or catastrophic catastrophe will arrive at my doorstep. Risk becomes something complex and abstract that can only be interpreted by certain elites (the scientific community, for example).

The unequal distribution of wealth has historically provided privileges to the ruling class society that is able to secure itself from scarcity behind strong castle walls or large farms. This is what distinguishes class society from risk society. In a risk society, all members of society, regardless of economic status, have the same concerns in their perceptions of risk. Obviously, this does not mean that the upper class society had the same risks as the common people. But everyone shares the same concern that environmental crises, epidemics and disasters can touch anyone, no matter what wealth you have. Beck, on the other hand, also recognizes that economic inequality within a country or between countries affects the way these countries implement policies that are based on concerns about risk. Developed countries will be quite comfortable talking about the lockdown, while developing countries will take into account all the economic and social impacts of stalled economic growth. This creates a new form of gaps.

One thing that Beck underscores is that economic growth and global capitalism are imperative. On the one hand, global economic growth poses global risks as well. According to Beck, the more massive the economic growth, the more inevitable the global risk from the environmental crisis is inevitable. On the other hand, since economic growth is the norm, the risk can always be capitalized into further economic growth. This continues until the environmental crisis is closely intertwined with a social and economic crisis. Due to their global nature and touching various aspects of the economy, environmental crises such as disease outbreaks and climate change can cripple the economic system and cause deep social unrest – worse than the ecological phenomenon itself.

The end of Beck’s theory of risk society is what he calls reflexive modernity [13] (reflexive modernity). Beck isn’t the only one working on reflexive ideas. In 1990, Anthony Giddens [14], another important sociologist, also spoke of reflexivity in his critique of modernity. Both of them talk about a reflexive modernity characterized by abundance of information (very precisely in the midst of the growth of digital technology and social media in today’s era). This causes people to question the legitimacy of the scientific world (which is considered often wrong or interest bias) and build alternative knowledge frameworks that can provide good solutions to the crisis at hand. There was a demystification of science and a demonopolization of knowledge. The public also questions the legitimacy and seriousness of the government in managing risks, through what Beck calls organized irresponsibility. This is not (completely) because the government was negligent, but because the risks faced are unimaginable and break the boundaries of state jurisdiction. It’s no wonder Greta Thurnberg berates governments around the world for their failure to save future generations. So what do people do in this situation? They organize to build new alternative spaces for modernity – they, we, reflect.

Reflection (Reflective vs Reflexive)

Then, what can we learn and reflect from all of the above explanations? The first part is our exploration of scientific knowledge that justifies disease outbreaks (including the Corona virus) is indeed linked to environmental crises (deforestation, land degradation, climate change, decreased biodiversity), but in a much more complex reciprocal relationship than ours. imagine – in a relationship that also involves humans as central figures. The second part is about how we reflect. Human involvement between epidemics and environmental crises is not as simple as supplementing the sufferer in the disease spread triangle, as studied in epidemiology. In a sociological perspective, humans play a role in building imagination and social construction about risks and how to deal with them, about modernity and the truth of knowledge, about efforts to divert the course of development from its negative consequences.

Reflection here, on the one hand, is translated from reflective (mirroring, introspection) and on the other hand, reflexive (avoiding and constructing a new alternative reality) [15]. In reflecting, we look inside ourselves and question the extent to which we have contributed to the handling of the environmental crisis, whether we are being constructive and helping to prevent the outbreak from getting worse, or being destructive by acting apathy. Roughly speaking, we take a lesson about COVID-19 for ourselves: lying down also contributes to society, if we can interpret it correctly.

On the other hand, reflexivity encourages us to accumulate knowledge, to look further at the implications of our knowledge, or the implications of ecological phenomena occurring in Indonesia today and their relation to other broader social, economic and ecological phenomena. Just to ask: what kind of new balance will be formed if we are more friendly towards nature? Reflexiveness demands that we remain critical of the authority of knowledge. Lastly, as Giddens says, reflexiveness demands that we become agents constructing new social structures in our alternative imaginations of the future – the imagination in which humans, microorganisms and nature are in ecological equilibrium.







[7] McMichael, A.J., 2004. Environmental and social influences on emerging infectious diseases: past, present and future. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences359(1447), pp.1049-1058.

[8] Selain McMichael, lihat misalnya: Gubler, D.J., 1998. Dengue and dengue hemorrhagic fever. Clinical microbiology reviews11(3), pp.480-496.

[9] Talman, A., Bolton, S. and Walson, J.L., 2013. Interactions between HIV/AIDS and the environment: Toward a syndemic framework. American journal of public health103(2), pp.253-261.

[10] According to a global survey in 2019:

[11] Beck, U., Lash, S. and Wynne, B., 1992. Risk society: Towards a new modernity (Vol. 17). SAGE Publishing.

[12] Carson, R., 1962. Silent spring. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

[13] An easy way to explain reflexives might be like this. Reflexive has the same meaning as reflex – when we touch a hot object, our reflex is to pull our hand. This reflex process causes our hands to no longer be injured by the heat. Likewise, reflexivity is a process in which society withdraws from modernity and takes other steps (alternatives) that are different from the previous path. Scientific models that predict the future of humans become irrelevant because humans can choose different paths from the models offered. In looking at reflexivity to the environmental crisis, environmental activism is one of the most obvious examples.

[14] Giddens, A., 1990. The consequences of modernity. John Wiley & Sons.

[15] In the learning process, reflective is defined as an effort to reflect and learn from what has been learned, while reflexive is to understand what is learned and its implications in a broader context. see: Bolton, G., 2012. Who is telling the story? The critical role of the narrator in reflective and reflexive writing. Educational reflective practices.

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