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Human Well-Being Depends On That Of The Planet

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By Krithi K Karanth:

Ask any wildlife scientist or conservationist about COVID-19, and they are likely to say, “I told you so.” Humans tinkering with nature—be it in the form of forest fragmentation, consumption of wild meat, widespread and rampant trade in animal parts for purported medicinal value, or keeping animals as pets—has increased the ease with which zoonotic diseases jump the species barrier. Put simply, it has made it easier for viruses residing in animals to enter the human race.

“It is estimated that 60-75% of all viruses emerge from wildlife, and are a result of human activities.”

It is estimated that 60-75% of all viruses emerge from wildlife, and are a result of human activities.

COVID-19 is one among several zoonotic diseases. Others include rabies, Ebola, HIV, SARS, Nipah, and Kyasanur forest disease (a monkey disease from Karnataka), to name a few. In fact, it is estimated that 60-75% of all viruses emerge from wildlife, and are a result of human activities—exploiting nature and creating a patchwork of habitats, thereby leading to increased contact among various life forms.

It is time we stop blaming bats, pangolins, civets, and other animals and recognise the role that humans have played in creating and spreading these diseases.

Related article: “Biodiversity may be the most critical science for our survival”

The Connection Between The Well-being Of Ecosystems, Wildlife, And People

A fundamental flaw in both our conservation efforts and public health interventions has been that we treat them as separate from each other. We fail to recognise that having intact ecosystems (forests, grasslands, wetlands) is vital to maintain the health of our planet, which, in turn, is vital to keep viruses from crossing the species barrier. Decades of expansion of infrastructure and agriculture have disrupted natural ecosystems and opened up multiple ways to put human health in danger. The ongoing pandemic is the best example.

India Is Particularly Vulnerable

The wilderness that remains in India is made up of a highly disjointed network of protected areas and unprotected habitats, interspersed with densely-populated human settlements and domestic animals. Millions of people live inside or around remote forested areas and wildlife reserves, eking out their livelihoods from marginal subsistence farming, collection of forest products, grazing, and hunting. Their proximity to a variety of animal species creates the potential for existing and yet to be discovered diseases to spread to them and outwards through agriculture, animal husbandry, and travel.

These communities are among India’s poorest, often marginalised, with little or no access to basic healthcare, education, or information to safeguard the health of their community and livestock. In fact, during the COVID-19 pandemic, with limited access to news, hindered market access and transportation, and regular governmental services running under-capacity, the challenges faced by these remote rural communities have worsened.

monkey crossing in india-environment
It is time we stop blaming bats, pangolins, civets, and other animals, and recognise the role that humans have played in creating and spreading these diseases. | Picture courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

As communities living in and around forests suffer the loss of income, they will likely be forced to fall back on the forests for survival, leading to the increased clearing of forest land, incidents of poaching, and consumption of wild meat, thereby creating a dangerous downward spiral.

“It is integral, both during this pandemic, and after, that we make concerted efforts to address the needs of communities.”

That is why it is integral, both during this pandemic, and after, that we make concerted efforts to address the needs of these communities. We need ground-level efforts involving local community leaders, deep-rooted nonprofits, and key government departments to establish a higher standard of public health and safety. We also need to build partnerships among nonprofits from different sectors—health, environment, and livelihoods, to ensure that our efforts are integrated and holistic in nature.

Related article: The EIA Draft 2020 needs to be restructured

The Need For Long-term Investments

Apart from re-framing the narrative and supporting these marginalised communities, here are some steps that need to be taken by both the government and civil society, to address the problem we have at hand.

  1. Set up systems to monitor known diseases hotspots: Monitoring and data collection in disease hotspots will enable tracking and prevention of future pandemics. This would require teams of scientists (epidemiologists, wildlife biologists, public health experts, biostatisticians, and so on) to work together and catalogue known and unknown disease reservoirs in multiple species (this is being done for bats already), identify ‘hotspots’, and systemically monitor and report unusual activity from these hotspots. The process would require considerable investment, but it is the only long-term solution we have right now. Here, it is important to point out that one way to minimise costs is to partner with other organisations, and co-create these monitoring systems, an approach we are currently taking at the Centre for Wildlife Studies.
  2. Enable behaviour change: We need to reduce our interactions with wilderness, and this includes ceasing consumption of wild meat and trading in wild pets and animal parts, as well as closing down wet markets. Seeing as these practices have been going on for years and that there are lives and livelihoods that depend on them, this will require investment in behaviour change from governments, nonprofits, and individuals alike. Alongside behaviour change, it will also need investment in ensuring that people’s dietary needs are met so that they are not forced to consume wild meat.
  3. Delineating habitats where human-animal overlaps are possible and those exclusively for wildlife: With five per cent of the total Indian landmass effectively set aside for wildlife in India, there are ongoing debates on if, where, and how humans should live inside wildlife areas. A study on communities living in protected areas in India found that while some households wanted to continue living where they were, most wanted to move for better education, healthcare, fewer human-wildlife conflicts, and so on. Given this, what we need are solutions that take both the needs of communities as well as the protection of intact wilderness areas into consideration.
  4. Collaboration: There is a need for new collaborations between the health and environment sectors, and better engagement with overwhelmed government departments (health, agriculture, forests and wildlife, tribal welfare). India is well placed to launch these partnerships, as it has a strong network of nonprofits that are well-versed with different sectors, are used to taking a cross-sectoral approach, and are knowledgeable about how to work in partnership with the government.

We require long-term investments that restructure planning, policy-making, and regulation in both public health and conservation. Additionally, we need to look at our Sustainable Development Goals around health and well-being, poverty, and the environment, and find ways in which they can be unified through interdisciplinary programmes.

COVID-19 has given us a chance to understand how our well-being is connected to that of other living creatures. It’s time we recognise it and put our efforts behind creating a more integrated approach to health.

This article was originally published on India Development Review

About the author:

Dr Krithi Karanth is Chief Conservation Scientist, Centre for Wildlife Studies, an adjunct faculty at Duke University, an explorer with the National Geographic Society, and a 2020 Eisenhower Fellow. She has a PhD from Duke University, a masters from Yale University, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Florida. She has received more than 40 awards and recognitions, including the WEF Young Global Leader, WINGS Women of Discovery Award, and the Rolex Award for Enterprise.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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