COVID-19 pandemic continues to storm the safe confines of our homes, offices and public spaces. Our inflated egos, riding high on the wave of technological marvels and cushy rhythm of life, has long been punctured. Factories have stopped billowing smoke. Automobile engines have fallen silent. Missiles, tanks and bombs lie quietly in the closet even as novel Corona ‘spike ball’ shaped virus mocks at the helplessness and hubris of humanity. Mankind is virtually living on the edge, and even a simple handshake is likely to put a doubt in one’s mind about the spread of the contagion.
‘Lockdown’ and ‘Quarantine’ may now possibly come close second and third in the race for the Word of the Year-2020. No prizes here for guessing word of the year. Take your pick. What would you prefer? Corona or COVID-19? These terms are going to enter the lexicon of human ecology and shall continuously challenge the probing minds of our scientific community and health professionals for long. A complete new vocabulary is being coined in the wake of Corona pandemic.
Predictions worldwide point towards a long haul in the global fight against this pandemic, and it is being speculated that Corona pandemic is going to fundamentally alter our perceptions and attitudes about planet earth and climate change. India has clocked almost 15,000 corona positive cases till date, and figures change with each passing hour. World over, the situation continues to be grim with most of Europe severely affected, and the United States and China struggling to take a grip on the spread of the disease. Many crucial questions, however, remain unanswered.
An often asked question is: What is the origin of Coronavirus? There are theories that Coronavirus jumped into the human chain of transmission through bats. But that’s about it. It is a theory only. It, however, underlines one vital truth. For ages now, human beings have transgressed and invaded the close-knit forest ecosystems to satiate their necessity and greed.
It is estimated that before human beings started destroying rainforests, it covered 15% of the planet, but today, it only covers 5% of the earth. In the process of deforestation, we have risked too many things. Climate experts are vociferously arguing that the destruction of forest spaces is bringing humans up and close with wildlife and is leading to unique feral encounters.
This poses an ever-lurking risk of new strains of viruses and germs to take shelter behind human cells, multiply, damage the working mechanism of the human body and cause mortalities. Animals lose their habitats, and this phenomenon increases the risk of humans coming in close contact with animals which may transmit newer types of viruses.
In fact, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses with some causing illness in people, and other infecting certain types of animals. Dr Aaron Bernstein of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard University believes that though we do not know what exactly caused the first coronavirus case, we have known many other diseases caused by closer contact with animals in the past.
According to him, the Ebola outbreak (2014-2016) coincided with the cutting of forests for agriculture. Also, he states that confined feeding operations of animals can pose the risk of swine flu. Further, he feels that COVID pandemic is an opportunity for everyone to prevent climate impact and diseases.
While bats and by some theories pangolins and snakes are being considered as the intermediary host of the SARS-CoV-2 (Coronavirus), it comes as no surprise that another unconquered virus, HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), too, as per accepted theories reportedly jumped from either the chimps or monkeys into the humans in 1920s. There is no doubt among scientific fraternity that climate emergency is largely human-induced. Research studies have shown that some of the infections like influenza spread fast through particulate air matter, and this brings the contributory role of air pollution into sharp focus in the spread of infections.
As per a study, the airborne transmission was seen as the causative factor behind the highly pathogenic Avian influenza of 2015 in the United States. The UN Environment Chief, Inger Anderson has voiced his concern in no uncertain words on the latest pandemic threat. According to him, COVID-19 pandemic is a clear ‘warning shot’ for humanity, and to prevent such outbreaks in future “both global heating and the destruction of the natural world for farming, mining and housing have to end, as both drive wildlife into contact with people.”
Predictions of doomsday are rife now more than ever. Apocalyptic literature finds greater resonance. A question comes up at this stage. Did we not see this coming? Are we failing to read ‘warning signals’ of nature? Earthquakes, flash floods, wildfires, heat waves continue to singe and drown the existence of human beings and animals.
East Africa drought of 2011 was seen as the worst in “over 60 years”, and it threatened the existence of 11.5 million people. The European heatwave of August 2003 claimed over 35,000 people and was hottest on record in the northern hemisphere. Indian Ocean earthquake of 2004 caused a Tsunami, and it led to lakhs of casualties. The 2019-20 bushfires of Australia caused unprecedented loss of forest lands.
These climate catastrophes now occur with greater frequency. Doomsday predictions by the scientific community are hard to ignore. In January 2020, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward to 100 seconds to midnight. This clock was designed in the year 1947, and the minute hand of the clock is adjusted against midnight hour (denoting Doomsday arrival) every year after taking an assessment of the preparedness level of the world community against two major threats, i.e., nuclear war and climate change. As per the understanding of this community, the world is witnessing governmental dysfunction to contain climate-induced disasters and crises.
Another report brought out in September 2019 by the World Health Organization’s Global Preparedness Monitoring Board had forewarned of the ill-preparedness of the international community to deal with a lethal respiratory virus. It was observed in the report:
“A rapidly spreading pandemic due to a lethal respiratory pathogen (whether naturally emergent or accidentally or deliberately released) poses additional preparedness requirements. Donors and multilateral institutions must ensure adequate investment in developing innovative vaccines and therapeutics, surge manufacturing capacity, broad-spectrum antivirals and appropriate non-pharmaceutical interventions.”
It is becoming increasingly clear that we do not pay heed to such warnings.
The link between the rapidly dwindling climate scenario and a resultant rise in infections and pandemics is almost well recognizable now. For instance, the link between malaria and extreme climatic events has long been studied in India. In the early decades of the last century, the river-irrigated Punjab region experienced periodic malaria epidemics. Excessive monsoon rainfall and high humidity were identified as a major influence enhancing mosquito breeding and survival.
In view of the threat to survival posed by the degradation of the environment, one of the prominent British Daily newspapers, ‘The Guardian’ has decided to change the language of ‘climate change’. In fact, to underscore the seriousness of the calamity, it would now employ terms like “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and is to going use the term “global heating” instead of “global warming”.
According to Dr Aaron Bernstein, historically, we have grown as a species in partnership with plant and animal species, but if we drastically change the rules of the game, we should expect effects on our health too. It is time to strike a balance with nature, and the current pandemic scene is by far the loudest warning to the mankind on climate emergency.
Doomsday is closer than we think. As humanity steps into the last stand against COVID-19, there is but only one path to pursue. Reverse climate change process by all means and ensure safe interaction between animals and human beings.