(Source: Leonardo Boff, ecotheologian; translation: Novena)

Up until now, concern about COVID-19 has focused on medicine, technology and measures ro prevent the contagion of health workers. An effective vaccine is urgently sought. In society, social distancing and the avoidance of crowds. All this is fundamental.

However, we cannot consider the coronavirus as an isolated fact. It must be seen within the context that allowed its irruption.

The virus came from nature. Well, as Pope Francis says in his encyclical “on the care of the common home”: “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years” (n. 53). It was the industrial process that wounded it: real socialism (while it existed) and above all the now-globalised capitalist system.

This is the Satan of the Earth that is destroying it and leading it to all kinds of imbalances.

It is the main (not the only) culprit for various threats to the life system and the earth system: from the possible nuclear holocaust, global warming and the shortage of drinking water to the erosion of biodiversity.

I echo the words of the well-known American geographer David Harvey: “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”.

Isabelle Stengers, a chemist and philosopher of science who has worked extensively in association with Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine, supports the thesis that I also subscribe: “The coronavirus would be an intrusion of Earth-Gaia into our societies, a response to the Anthropocene”.

We knew of other intrusions: the Black Death (the bubonic plague) that came from Eurasia killed an estimated 75-200 million people. In Europe, between 1346 and 1353, it caused the death of a large part of its population, which fell from 475 to 350 million inhabitants. It took 200 years to recover. It was the most devastating yet known in history.

The Spanish flu was also noteworthy. Possibly originating from the United States, between 1918-1920 it infected 500 million people and caused 50 million deaths, including that of the president-elect [of Brazil – ed.], Rodrigues Alves, in 1919.

Now, for the first time, a virus has attacked the entire planet, causing thousands of deaths without us being able to stop it because of its rapid spread, since we live in a globalised culture with a large movement of people who travel across all continents and may be carriers of the epidemic.

The Earth has lost its balance and is looking for a new one. And this new one could mean the destruction of important portions of the biosphere and of a significant part of the human species.

This will happen, although we don’t know when or how, notable biologists say. If the dreaded NBO (“Next Big One”) arrives, the next big devastating virus, could, according to USP [University of São Paulo – ed.] researcher Prof. Eduardo Massad, lead to the death of around two billion people, reducing overall life expectancy from 72 to 58 years. Others fear even the end of the human species.

The fact is that we are already within the sixth mass extinction. According to some scientists, we have inaugurated a new geological era, that of the Anthropocene and its most harmful expression, the Necrocene. Human activity (Anthropocene) is responsible for the mass production of death (Necrocene) of living beings.

The different scientific centres that systematically monitor the state of the Earth confirm that, year after year, the main elements that perpetuate life (water, soil, clean air, seeds, fertility, climate and others) are deteriorating more and more. When is this going to stop?

Earth Overshoot Day occurred on July 29, 2019 [in 2020, it is due on August 22 – ed.]. This means that by that date all available and renewable natural resources had been consumed for that year. The Earth went into debt; its cheque bounced.

How to stop this depletion? If we insist on maintaining current consumption, especially conspicuous consumption, we have to apply more violence to the Earth to force it to give us what it no longer has or can no longer replace.

Its reaction is expressed by extreme events, such as the Santa Catarina cyclone in late June and by the attacks of several types of already-known viruses: zika, chikungunya, ebola, SARS, the current coronavirus and others. We must include the growth of social violence, since the Earth and Humanity constitute a single relational entity.

Either we change our relationship with the living Earth and with nature or we can expect new and more powerful viruses that could annihilate millions of human lives.

Our love for life, the human wisdom of peoples and the need for care, has never been more urgent.

More on Novena by Leonardo Boff:

Ecotheologian Boff: “Today humanity’s greatest problem isn’t economic, political, cultural or religious, but a lack of solidarity”

Theologian Boff: “With Laudato si’, Pope Francis placed himself at the cutting edge of world ecology”

Ecotheologian Boff: “Capitalism is leading humanity to a fatal dead end”

Ecotheologian Boff: “If what prevailed before COVID-19 prevails again, we should prepare for the worst”

Liberation theologian Boff, on COVID-19: “To return to ‘business as usual’ could mean our self-destruction”


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.