Yonatan Neril
Founder and director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

Coronavirus, Megacities and the Bible

The coronavirus thrives in megacities. The coronavirus has spread the most in megacities of 20 million people — Wuhan, New York City, and Tehran. The Wuhan metropolitan area has 19 million people. New York City metropolitan area has 23 million people, as does the Tehran metropolitan area. And the virus has also spread considerably in smaller yet sizable cities like Milan, Madrid, Paris, London, and New Orleans. The SARS virus also emerged from the most densely populated province of China, which has Guangzhou, the world’s largest city, at 46 million people.

What’s the connection between the coronavirus and megacities? The coronavirus stays alive by multiplying and spreading from person to person who are in close proximity of each other. When the coronavirus is in a megacity it discovers a ripe place to spread sickness. The dense, fast-paced life of a megacity is the optimal place for the coronavirus to spread.

It’s about both population size and the density of megacities. New York City is the most crowded city in the US, with 28,000 residents per square mile, according to U.S. Census Bureau data cited by The New York Times. Density matters with viruses because it’s harder to stay more than six feet away from people when moving around an area with 28,000 people in one square mile.

Population growth is also contributing to the emergence of virus outbreaks. Dr. Alon Tal of Tel Aviv University wrote in his blog on the Times of Israel: “an increasingly crowded world is witnessing outbreaks of zoonotic viruses with growing frequency. The rate of infectious disease epidemics has quadrupled over the past 50 years. Based on the locations of these viral hotspots, the new dynamics are often attributed to the steady encroachment by humans on wildlife habitat.”

The main population growth in the world today is among religious people, based in part on the belief that God wants us to continue expanding the human population without limit.  In the first chapter of Genesis, God blesses the first two people to ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.’ We are now approaching eight billion people, most of whom live in cities. At what point can religious people say, we have filled the earth and we don’t need to further increase population?

First of all, according to Jewish law, this commandment is fulfilled by having one boy and one girl. Second, Exodus chapter one, verse seven states, “And the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” The Bible uses the same language in the first chapter of Exodus as it did in the first chapter of Genesis, yet in Exodus it says that the earth was filled with them. According to archeologists, ancient Egypt at that time had two to three million people in total, and the Israelites were a fraction of that. So the Bible itself says the land of Egypt was full with about one million people, while today Egypt has 100 million people.

When my grandfather was born in 1898, there were about 1.5 billion people in the world. When my father was born in 1940, there were about 2.5 billion. When I was born in 1980, there were 4.5 billion. When my son was born in 2010, there were about 7 billion. When my son is as old as I am now, there will likely be 9 billion people. When my son is as old as his grandfather is now, there will likely be 11 billion people (according to the UN ‘medium’ population estimate).

One silver lining of the pandemic is that it is making us take a closer look at ourselves and the global, interconnected human society and natural world of which we are a part. What type of world do we want to leave our children– one with hundreds of megacities that are ripe for viruses, or a spiritually-aware humanity and sustainable earth where the next generation can not only survive, but thrive?

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (www.interfaithsustain.com) and its Jewish Eco Seminars branch (www.jewishecoseminars.com). Raised in California, Yonatan completed an M.A. and B.A. from Stanford University with a focus on global environmental issues, and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He has spoken internationally on religion and the environment, including at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, the Fez Climate Conscience Summit and the Parliament of World Religions. He co-organized ten interfaith environmental conferences in Jerusalem, New York City, Washington D.C., Atlanta, and Los Angeles. He is the lead author and general editor of two books on Jewish environmental ethics including Uplifting People and Planet: 18 Essential Jewish Teachings on the Environment. Yonatan also co-authored three ICSD reports on faith and ecology courses in seminary education in Israel, North America, and Rome. He is publishing an ecological commentary on the Hebrew Bible. He lives with his wife, Shana and their two children in Jerusalem.
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