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How Melting Arctic Permafrost Can Lead To More COVID-Like Pandemics In Future

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The melting of the polar ice caps has been a topic of interest for the environmentalists ever since its effects were made clear. If you don’t know how bad the melting ice caps in the Earth’s cryosphere is, here is a shortlist. The most obvious thing is the rising of sea levels, with the melted water making its way into the oceans. But there are other disastrous effects to these ice caps melting. For one, did you even know the melting of ice caps makes the remaining ice melt faster?

If you’re wondering why it is so well, it’s because the ice sheets reflect almost 90% of the total radiation that falls on them back into the atmosphere. When the same radiation hits the land or oceans, it is not reflected but is in fact absorbed, thus making them release heat into our environment—a scary feedback loop. A lesser-known side effect like this is the permafrost and the devils frozen below us.

So What Is Permafrost?

In the coldest parts of the world, there is a layer of the earth that stays frozen all year. Every summer, the soil above it thaws. But this deeper layer stays hard as a rock. This is permafrost.

Most of the permafrost is in the northern hemisphere, around the Arctic. That accounts for an area of about four million square miles. Permafrost can be called nature’s freezer in a way.

So What Is Dangerous About This Frozen Place That Never Melts?

The catch is that the last part about permafrost not melting is actually changing and that is the problem. In the present times, we humans have an enormous carbon footprint growing exponentially every day with the fuels we burn and the food we produce. Which in turn is making the atmosphere get warmer. This temperature rise as an aftereffect is causing the permafrost to thaw and shrink.

This is happening so fast that, by the end of this century, the area of the Earth’s surface covered by permafrost will be reduced to a mere 400,000 square miles which accounts for a loss of 90%. When permafrost melts, the land above becomes unstable and leads to landslides. With the ground collapsing the structures erected by us humans, in those areas starts to fall apart. But the real problem is yet to come.

I called permafrost as nature’s freezer because when plants and animals here die, they don’t actually decompose. Instead, they become preserved in the frozen earth. I say that now because, when the permafrost melts, things get ugly as the dead plants and animals that had been frozen for years under the land starts to thaw out. And these dead plants and animals are the ones that are dangerous enough to cause a pandemic.

How Are These Dead Plants And Animals Any Different And Dangerous?

When these plants and animals, which are long dead, get exposed to the atmosphere and the bacteria, they start to decompose. This process leads to the release of more greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide. But the serious issue of this lot is the possible outcome of a disease outbreak. We, humans, have conquered a lot of diseases and have even eradicated a few.

However, what would happen if we were suddenly exposed to deadly bacteria and viruses that have been absent for thousands of years, or that we have never met before? That is what happens when the permafrost thaws. Millions of microbes that have been under there sleeping for a long time come to life. We don’t yet know what may walk out of that cryopod.

According to research conducted in 2015 by the US and China, the 15,000-year-old Guliya ice cap plays host to 33 ancient virus groups, 28 of which are new to science. We don’t know anything about the 28 out of the 33 found. If these microbes are to be severely pathogenic and are to be exposed to the populations living near the areas of permafrost, we are looking at a situation nowhere different from what is going on right now.

We now know what effects a pandemic can bring even to our modern world. Even with all those exponential advancements in medicine, healthcare still seems to be a weaker suit for any nation, be it developed or developing when it comes to a pandemic because of the sheer sample space of the people who’ll get infected when the hell breaks loose.

Just remember that the ice that is melting up in the Arctic is not just about the rising sea levels. It is also about a very potential threat frozen and buried under us. The world has seen reports of outbreaks like this. The Siberian anthrax outbreak in 2016 was just really a warning. The permafrost is like a Pandora’s Box. The safer it is to keep it buried under for now, at least.

About the Author: I’m Monish, a free-spirit with a passion for art and science. A modern age ‘Jack of all trades.’

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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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