Connecting public and planetary health: Transition virtues for a green COVID-19 recovery

Academic Views / Tuesday, July 7th, 2020

Feroz Khan (disaster analytics researcher at NTU and incoming Fulbright Fellow at Tulane University) and Al Lim (incoming PhD student in Anthropology at Yale University after an MSc in Urbanisation and Development at LSE) argue that Singapore’s COVID-19 recovery must centre environmental virtue ethics, to address the intersecting causes and effects of the climate crisis and the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic is to public health what the climate crisis is to planetary health: a deeply complex, systemic threat, made worse by the maladaptive virtues held by many of our leaders and entrenched in our institutions. As young researchers trained in the environmental humanities and concerned with the climate crisis, we believe that if Singapore is to recover from COVID-19 it will need to do much more than spending liberally from its reserves or pivoting to a few new strategic industries. The nation will need to recognise, and then transform, the dominant virtues underlying most of its economy, political landscape, and social fabric.

We outline how a framework centred on transition virtues offers a way to address drivers of systemic risk, redistribute the disease burden (currently disproportionately borne by essential and care workers), transform a fragile economy centred on GDP instead of wellbeing, and rein in our impulse to control—rather than adapt to—changing circumstances. This is an invitation to honestly reckon with our values and determine how our individual and collective roles can be re-coded to create a thriving, resilient Singapore.

Dominant and transition virtues: Remember, it’s about flourishing

In our previous work, we introduced readers to a line of inquiry within environmental virtue ethics—specifically the ‘dominant and transition virtues’ for the Anthropocene proposed by philosopher William Throop—using childhood education in Singapore as an example. We argued that if Singapore was truly interested in educating children to thrive in a climate-changed world, it would look deeper than policy tweaks, to see how the core assumptions and virtues underlying education need to be updated. We briefly summarise the relevance of Throop’s seminal 2016 paper to Singapore and introduce the framework (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Summary of William Throop’s (2016) framework of dominant and transition virtues

Importantly, Throop, like us, is centrally concerned with the question of human flourishing in the Anthropocene. We want people to live healthy, dignified, and safe lives, to flourish and experience joy. The shift away from dominant to transition virtues should not be misunderstood as advocacy for a life of misery and a poorer Singapore; rather, it’s a re-examination of what makes life ‘rich’ on a finite planet, how our values and virtues should reflect that, and how our institutions should respond.

Furthermore, we are not arguing that dominant virtues are inherently bad and transition virtues good. There are beautiful things about believing in an abundant Earth, or in enjoying competition. We’re simply arguing that Singapore’s balance right now skews too far towards dominant virtues, which exacerbate the ills of the Anthropocene and COVID-19, and not enough towards transition virtues, which might remedy those ills.

Zoonotic viruses: a systems-thinking approach

There has been a blame game around the causes of SARS-COV-2’s emergence. A fixation on demonising Chinese wet markets centres xenophobic tropes about hygiene while ignoring the much more nuanced, and important, environmental causation of pandemics. Rather than focusing on an individual blame-agent, Singaporeans should see the systemic causes of pandemics long highlighted by environmental scientists, honestly assess our roles within those systems, and adopt measures to mitigate drivers of pandemic risk.

Climate and environmental scientists have long pointed out that one concerning dimension of the Anthropocene is our increased exposure to diseases and public health risks. Some of this may be familiar—links between climate change and vector-borne diseases are widely understood, since many have heard of how temperature changes affect mosquito breeding patterns—but the story of zoonotic viruses is just as important.

This pandemic’s origin is zoonotic (i.e. animal-to-human transmission), and overwhelmingly likely to be from bats based on an analysis of the virus’ genetic sequence. Figure 2 shows how this occurred from MERS-CoV in 2012 and SARS in the early 2000s. Infectious disease expert Professor Wang Linfa explains why the COVID-19 virus has emerged now: virus-carrying bats have co-existed with humans for many years, but the recent intensification of environmental change has disrupted their habitats and introduced intermediate species that enable viruses to jump to humans.

Figure 2. Tracing Zoonotic Viruses and their Hosts (Source: The Economist)

Put simply, the same human activities that drive climate change—deforestation, factory farming of animals, land use change, and habitat destruction—also increase our risk to zoonotic viruses by driving ‘virus spillover’ when the habitats of virus-carrying animals are forced to intersect with more intermediate species and, ultimately, humans. When combined with other human activities that highlight humanity’s disregard for animal life—poaching and the wildlife trade, for instance—it’s clear that there’s no single convenient site of human-animal contact to blame. Rather, an entire system of human encroachment into and disregard for nature is implicated and must be addressed.

In this vein, Singapore must assess its role in intersecting climate and pandemic risk drivers from a systems-thinking, not individualist, perspective. Deforestation, biodiversity loss, the wildlife trade, and animal agriculture are interconnected, and their relationships need to be teased out and examined consistently at a national level. For instance, Singapore is complicit as a hub for the flows of illegal wildlife trade, estimated to be over S$30 billion in 2016.[1] Comparatively little attention has also been paid is to how Singapore has been involved in ecologically destructive industries, like palm oil, that drive deforestation. Further, despite efforts to re-localise Singapore’s food supply by 2030, more attention needs to go towards the connections between animal agriculture and zoonotic pandemics like COVID-19. Scientists globally have repeatedly raised the alarm on this, citing concerns with high-density factory farming and growing antibiotic resistance among farmed animals. In responding to crisis, it can be tempting to marshal all one’s resources to symptomatically treat its consequences (unemployment, economic losses, and social disruption) rather than holistically healing the polity by ending unsustainable practices and promoting planetary health. Both are necessary, and we hope to see some of Singapore’s world-famous visionary leadership on this front. This will not be the last pandemic; but it is up to humans, including Singaporeans, to transform the systems that strain and encroach into nature, so that the root causes of pandemic risk can be mitigated.

The vulnerability bearers: embracing collaborative virtues and non-zero-sum games

It is no secret that Singapore’s migrant workers, many of whom work in construction and come from the Global South, are bearing the brunt of the country’s COVID-19 disease burden. It’s become clear that the Singaporean public has been given a narrative about migrant well-being rooted in competitive virtues: a zero-sum game, where improving migrant welfare makes Singapore less competitive and increases costs for citizens, and where the status quo is the best we can do. Migrant workers’ suffering is cast as a necessary (or even heroic) sacrifice so that Singapore’s prosperity can be built: an uncomfortable discourse, reminiscent of many a science-fiction dystopia.

This zero-sum narrative is flawed, and Singapore needs to move instead towards a story centred on collaborative virtues. These emphasise the importance of balancing benefits and burdens fairly, the potential for solidarity and mutually beneficial solutions, the value of care work, and the cultivation of social and emotional intelligence to address conflicts. Throop’s work highlights the profound implications of shifting from competition to collaboration in addressing climate change; this applies also to the pandemic. Two stories highlight these dynamics: first, the debate over migrant worker dormitories and their conditions; second, the discourse on ‘essential workers’, care work, and how to value different forms of labour.

TWC2 warned of the COVID-19 dangers posed by employment practices even before the enormous growth of cases in the dorms. (Screenshot from TWC2 website, 30 April 2020)

On dormitory conditions, a few facts must be remembered: Singaporean civil society groups absolutely did raise the alarm about living conditions well before this pandemic began, their calls were ignored or brushed aside, and the solutions eventually proposed ‘as the dust settles’ have not addressed the root causes of why migrant workers have become Singapore’s vulnerability bearers. The parallels to Singapore’s ‘soft’ climate denialism are striking. Just as we reject systemic reforms on carbon-intensive industries in favour of smaller tweaks, we are rejecting fundamental changes to our migration regime in favour of minor improvements to dormitory sizes. Consider one minister’s question, “Is Singapore prepared to have 2,500 babies born here every year grow up to be construction workers?”, and the implications this has for any prospect of systemic economic transformation for an Anthropocene-ready Singapore. This casts the labour of building and maintaining our material world as demeaning or unworthy of Singaporeans, insisting that Singaporean babies must be saved from such an undignified fate. This is radically out of step with the argument from the climate movement and collaborative virtues, which suggest that the work of caring for and maintaining our material conditions must be re-dignified, these skills re-localised, and future generations empowered to build, care for, and repair their communities as the Anthropocene unfolds.

Fortunately, recent debates have highlighted how these tradeoffs and zero-sum games may not be so cast-in-stone after all. Elvin Ong has highlighted the case for re-examining the narrative of costs, while Pang Eng Fong and Linda Lim have invited Singaporeans to reconsider the underlying logic of transient labour-fuelled economic growth.

The story of essential and care work is similarly illuminating. The pandemic has put the spotlight on how essential work, care work, and social reproduction are devalued in our current economic model, although these activities are central to our well-being and public health. But care work isn’t only critical in a pandemic. Ecofeminist scholars have long highlighted the ecological and climate dimensions of supporting and valuing care work, predominantly done by women, emphasising how an ethic of care, repair, and maintenance of our social and material lives enables more sustainable and regenerative local communities.

Unfortunately, the precarisation of such work—in Singapore and globally—has created a perfect storm. In Singapore, the shutting of schools and childcare centres during the circuit breaker illustrated the disproportionate burden of care work borne by women, especially women in lower-income households. Similarly, new attention is being paid to how Singapore’s essential workers are paid so little despite quite literally keeping society running. Both these issues reflect important contradictions that the climate movement and its allies have highlighted. In a crucial 2014 paper, Christine Bauhardt explicates the ecofeminist critique of an economy untethered from social value, and highlights new avenues for incorporating gender into visions of sustainability. Though she was concerned with the climate crisis, her analysis also rings true for Singapore in our pandemic moment: care work must be redistributed more fairly between all genders, unpaid women’s labour must be compensated, and the outsourcing of care work to precariously-employed migrant women in global care chains must be assessed critically. In this sense, the COVID-19 pandemic could be a crucial window of opportunity for Singapore to re-evaluate the distribution of care work in its economy, address these gendered imbalances, and begin the transition to a more sustaining and less destructive economic model for the Anthropocene.

Building back better: from abundance to frugal prosperity

Singapore’s ecomodernist take on the environment, epitomised by Gardens by the Bay, needs to shift along with our societal fixation on GDP growth (Photo: Al Lim)

The biggest domino that needs to fall is captured by the tension between two virtues: abundance and frugality. Singapore’s pre-pandemic economy was almost entirely premised on abundance: fixated with GDP growth and increasing consumption of commodities, highly exposed to sectors that undermine planetary health like petrochemicals and aviation, and allergic to spending on welfare or universal safety nets. But abundance isn’t climate-neutral: climate scientists have painstakingly proven, over and over again, that affluence in the materialistic sense drives ecological and climate breakdown. Singapore needs to reinvigorate its capacity for frugality: to recognise that we can be prosperous, healthy, and well within planetary boundaries, all while avoiding the same mistakes that got us into this twin crisis of public and planetary health.

Fortunately, the pandemic is opening up radical new possibilities on this front. China is no longer using a GDP target because of COVID-19, with premier Li Keqiang proclaiming that “Life is invaluable; this is a price worth paying”. New Zealand embraced well-being and social value rather than GDP growth as a central priority in its budgets last year; today, it has some of the best coronavirus outcomes in the world. The coronavirus performances of countries like Vietnam and Cuba, and regions like Kerala in India, are highlighting the value of political leadership focused on human wellbeing rather than economic output.

These performances are no accident, and they reflect a core argument made by many in the climate movement about shifting from material consumption to sustainable prosperity. While no one has yet written the case for degrowth in Singapore, the synergies between a pandemic recovery and climate resilience are becoming increasingly clear. This moment is an opportunity for Singapore to transition away from carbon-intensive industries like oil refining and towards low-carbon sectors like renewable energy; to re-calibrate an overwork-driven office culture and normalise working from home; to re-dignify and compensate carers and essential workers; to leverage our sovereign wealth funds and invest in clean energy across Southeast Asia; and much more.

A picture of the 17-member Emerging Stronger Task Force (Photo posted on Desmond Lee’s Facebook account on 6 May 2020)

Two recent episodes highlight these opportunities: the recent debate around the composition of the Emerging Stronger Task Force (Singapore’s steering committee for its COVID-19 economic recovery) and the widespread normalisation of work-from-home arrangements. Recently, activists and civil society groups criticised the predominantly male, corporate-heavy composition of the Emerging Stronger Task Force, while calling for more diverse voices and for a ‘regenerative economy’ agenda to be front and centre in recovery plans. Such wide support for decarbonisation is exciting precisely because it is aimed at a task force that, as of this writing, includes the top business leadership of Singapore’s fossil fuel, palm oil agribusiness, and aviation sectors. Even more exciting are developments on work-from-home arrangements and sociality in the circuit breaker, which have transformed previously unshakable stalwarts of Singaporean culture. People shunned malls for MacRitchie and other public parks to exercise, be in nature, and bond within the same household. Office workaholism and the 40-hour workweek were also challenged, as companies noticed employees still getting things done despite being entirely at home.

These developments demonstrate the urgency of embracing frugal prosperity: with many businesses closed, people still found ways to bond and enjoy leisure time, without the expectation of spending money. Reinvesting in Singapore’s commons—expanding public parks, libraries, and other open infrastructure—could create yet more opportunities for frugal well-being in a post-pandemic Singapore. If COVID-19 hammers the last nail in the coffin for GDP and material abundance as metrics of human progress, we could still have a shot at a liveable future.

Control versus adaptation: let’s not manicure Singapore

COVID-19 has forcibly demonstrated the adaptive resilience of Singaporeans in lockdown and the importance of nature in our lives. These transformations of our everyday routines have forced us to question the inherited status quo and the logic behind the dominant virtue of control driving us to manicure our natural environment. Rather than control, adaptation is going to help us with the climate crisis and with COVID-19.

Adaptive virtues have two dimensions: the individual and the social. Individually, adaptation looks like cultivating resilience, flexibility, courage, hope, and creativity; socially, adaptation means cultivating empathy, self-sacrifice, and generosity to help others cope (see Figure 1). COVID-19 has amplified the urgency of learning to handle traumatic change and deprivation without despair; climate change will demand the same capacities. It is thus vital to think about the individual and social valences of adaptation, cultivate resilience through increased interactions in nature, and enhance community-based adaptation that has been evidenced during the lockdown.

Wild grasses and flowers in Singapore. (Photo: Mark Yang)

During circuit breaker, wild grasses and flowers flourished as human activity slowed down. The number of joggers and park-goers dramatically increased to take advantage of nature in our backyards and park connectors. This has created unexpected opportunities for people to understand and interact with local flora and fauna. The benefits of human-nature interactions are well-documented, and E.O. Wilson popularised this through his “biophilia hypothesis,” expressing how higher exposure to natural environments enhances psychological well-being. A recent study quantifies this through Artificial Intelligence, providing deeper support for how human-nature connections contribute towards life satisfaction.

Unfortunately, it looks like these newly-grown wild grasses and flowers are going to get pruned and cut down. This is a perfect metaphor for Singapore’s preference for control over adaptation: shaping our spaces to reflect specific ideas about what is optimal rather than allowing for things to change, and then adapting our behavior to those changes. Trimming shrubbery is not entirely a bad thing, as there are real public health concerns such as dengue and fire risk. Singapore has attempted to balance more wilding of its landscape with public health concerns, leading to an expansion of its plans for nature ways to enable forests to flourish more organically. But we should still go further to embrace flexibility and openness, rather than finely-manicured control, in our natural landscape—beginning with not overly manicuring these new blooms, as some have called for in the Straits Times.

This pandemic has not only demonstrated nature’s importance and how human-nature interactions should be less controlled; it has also shown an unexpected prosocial adaptive aspect that has emerged as a function of lockdowns. Many see lockdowns as draconian and controlling, coercive moments where the state protects people. But there’s powerful evidence to view sheltering in place as the world’s largest prosocial disaster response activity in recent history; masses of people accepted the need to shrink their lives to protect those around them. Punitive lockdowns in a population without adaptive capacity lead to despair, desperation, and protests. But supportive, prosocial norms of sheltering in place, wearing masks, and safe distancing can succeed, and Singaporeans are particularly adept at such prosocial behaviours.

Here, it is critical that institutions lean into the prosocial aspects of Singapore’s crisis response, rather than emphasising the punitive, disciplinary aspects of surveillance and policing. Vigilantism and snitching serve to undermine important capacities of response, and often backfire. Tracking the population and aggressive contact tracing is a crucial part of combating the virus. Nevertheless, it cannot work without rigorous manual contact tracing. For all the hype around big data, manual contact tracing remains the gold standard. In this light, data and more control will not tide Singapore through climate change’s effects. Rather, it is the adaptive capacity of humans and nature, as well as prosocial sparks fanned by the pandemic, which remain central in shaping Singapore’s future.

A recovery worthy of the Anthropocene

This is an invitation to re-examine the values underlying Singapore’s recovery from COVID-19, integrating views from the environmental humanities, with a keen focus on climate change and its intersections with the pandemic. These intersections play out in our diagnosis of the problem (embracing systems-thinking for the epidemiological problem, and collaborative virtues to understand social casualties), and they also manifest in our prescription (in the medicine of embracing frugality over abundance and adaptation over control).

Our recovery approach cannot be a singular band-aid fix. It must represent a dynamic and consistent response addressing everything from the illegal wildlife trade, to destructive industries responsible for deforestation, and even post-pandemic economic transformation. The burden of the crisis is disproportionately borne by migrant workers, care workers and essential workers, and these disparities must be addressed by embracing collaborative virtues and tackling the drivers of vulnerability. To build back better, Singapore’s economy must re-centre human wellbeing rather than GDP, enabling us to move towards frugal prosperity rather than unchecked, ecologically-destructive consumerism. Our institutions must also bolster the adaptive and prosocial capabilities of Singaporeans, instead of manicuring our landscape or relying on high-tech solutions like mass surveillance.

Tweaking at the margins will not be enough. We need a fundamental paradigm and value shift. This pandemic’s shock to Singapore and its systems is a wake-up call that we should collectively heed towards building back better—grounded in transition virtues that support our well-being and safeguard the health of our planet.


[1] Recent developments here have been promising, where 13 tonnes of pangolin scales and 177kg of elephant ivory collectively worth S$172.3 million were seized. 17,000 pangolins had died to make this shipment from Nigeria to Vietnam. Further, the material of the pangolin scales is keratin, being the same material as hair, is not required for its purported medicinal benefits. Illegal wildlife trafficking is still rampant within this very region, and Singapore having stricter legal consequences and campaigns to reduce its demand are vital.

Further reading

[1] SG Climate Rally is a movement that hopes to push forward more ambitious climate policy through collective action and systemic change.

[2] Stronger for all is a group calling for a stronger, more inclusive future for Singapore, especially in learning from the COVID-19 crisis. They also penned the open letter about more diverse voices for the Emerging Stronger taskforce.

[3] Speak for Climate is an initiative to enable greater collaboration and transparency in the public consultation process within the environmental community in Singapore.

[4] The National Climate Change Secretariat is part of a Strategy Group to ensure cross-government coordination to adapt and mitigate against climate change.

[5] Bertrand Seah recommends a series of political actions to be taken in Singapore to address climate change.

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