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Sunday, Mar 29, 2020 14:00 [IST]

Last Update: Sunday, Mar 29, 2020 08:27 [IST]

Coronavirus – not a natural phenomena

Nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis.  In the past we have had SARS, MERS, HIV and others. These crises have compelled us to realize our civilization  really fragile and vulnerable.  Anthropogenic activities particularly deforestation are placing too many pressures on the natural world with damaging consequences. All these disasters and catastrophes are not exclusively natural phenomena and are  a result of the economic, political and social decisions that create vulnerability to risk. The catastrophes such as  earthquake, hurricane or outbreak of disease like the coronavirus, are fundamentally connected to underlying factors that affect which areas and individuals are vulnerable and why. There are  specific interests, usually associated with the exercise of power, involved in how we view these connections or how we are distracted from them.
 The recent death of Dr. Li Wenliang, who warned in well advance about the coronavirus disease was censured by police over his early warnings about the disease.  He was ultimately reprimanded and silenced by the police in Wuhan and was forced to sign a letter saying he had made “false comments.” This is an example of how power operates. Most funny thing is that scapegoating and racist fear mongering pointed the finger of blame at the Ebola victims for the current outbreak of 2019-nCoV in China, not the underlying factors and decisions by the powerful world leaders that contributed to the crisis. This crisis  are often related to religious or spiritual understandings of disasters and disease as divine retribution or punishment. This clearly reflects that catastrophic events are political phenomena not just natural phenomena.
The massive increase of the global urban population over the past few decades has increased exposure to diseases and posed new challenges to the control of outbreaks. The relentless march of urbanization has been coming for a long time. The U.N. estimated that, in 2009, half the world’s population lived in urban areas for the first time in human history. Over 4 billion people live in cities today, six times as many as did in 1950. In 2000, there were 371 cities of a million or more people in the world; by 2018, that number was 548. There are undoubted advantages to urban life. Concentrating large numbers of people in small areas means larger workforces with more diverse skills, easier access to mass transit, and economies of scale in everything from public services to cultural institutions. But the dark side of urbanization has always included infectious disease as  humans did not evolve to live in such close proximity.  Population change and mobility are immediately connected and responsible to spread the germs. The diseases are spreading  rapidly between cities through infrastructures of globalization such as global air travel networks. Now COVID-19 is joining a long list of infectious diseases, like the Spanish flu of 1918 in New York and Mexico City or the Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa in 2014, likely to leave enduring marks on urban spaces.
Our continued erosion of wild spaces on account of the deforestation in the name of development, massive forest fires, broken heat records, frequent storms and devastating flood has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbor diseases that can jump to humans.  As a result, human infectious disease outbreaks are rising and in recent years there have been Ebola, bird flu, Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), Rift Valley fever, sudden acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), West Nile virus and Zika virus all cross from animals to humans. Some diseases from wildlife had much higher fatality rates in people, such as 50% for Ebola and 60%-75% for Nipah virus, transmitted from bats in south Asia.
Most importantly the illegal global animal trade called an “ideal mixing bowl” for disease and loss of biodiversity provide ample opportunities for pathogens present in  wild and domestic animals to infect people and 75% of all emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife.  For selling the animals, traders are carried them into cages over long distance mercilessly in a small space. These animals are severely stressed and immunosuppressed and excreting whatever pathogens they have in them.  The people in large numbers in the market  frequently come in intimate contact with the body fluids of these animals and there is every possibility of emerging various diseases.  If this practice is going on, there will be more reemergence  of the diseases in the future unless we change. Thereby emergence and spread of Covid-19  was predictable. In this piquant situation, we can predict  another viral emergence from wildlife in future that would be a more serious public health threat.
The presence of a large reservoir of Sars-CoV-like viruses in respective animals, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in many countries particularly southern China, sub-Saharan Africa and a lot of other Asian countries is a time bomb. The ease of travel in the modern world exacerbates the dangers of spreading the diseases all over the world. It was expected that Sars, which was a massive wake up call – the biggest economic impact of any emerging disease to that date would change the political decision in exploitation of natural resources. But there was no change in political decision in combating further emergence of the diseases because of  control measures adopted. After control of Sars, there was a huge sigh of relief and it was back to business as usual. In this context, it can be mentioned that this Covid -19 outbreak will likely be stopped. Until then, many people particularly the poor people would face severe difficulties in sustaining their livelihood and even  disease has been pinned to certain places or people. But when it would be  over, the next such outbreak is waiting in the wings.
In the backdrop of a population of 10 billion people on this planet, our emergent need is to make  strongest ally with nature but we practically ignore it. There is clear evidence that human behavior have  caused diseases to spill over into humans. The ongoing coronavirus is an example of the close relationships between urban development and new or re-emerging infectious diseases. Most importantly  SARS-CoV-2 has exposed both the shortcomings and potential opportunities of governance at different levels. Till date no sound environment policy has been framed to adopt it at the initial stage of urban development addressing public health issues.  The separation of health and environmental policy is a dangerous delusion. Our health entirely depends on the climate and the other organisms we share the planet with.
The Covid-19 outbreak is  a “clear warning shot” with a clear indication that today’s civilization  is “playing with fire” in the name of development and in promoting luxury lifestyle of the people particularly residing in urban and suburban areas. If we fail  to take care of the planet meant not taking care of ourselves. Urban researchers need to explore  new relationships between urbanization and infectious disease and to focus ever-growing urban concentration and dependence on high-density, centrally managed mass transit  and  more deadly diseases existed in wildlife. To predict, avoid and react to emerging disease outbreaks more efficiently, this is the high time to understand thoroughly the landscapes of emerging extended urbanization. COVID-19 has witnessed  some reflection on our vulnerabilities and how to limit them in the future. Now both global heating and the destruction of the natural world for farming, mining and housing must be end. This will require an interdisciplinary approach that includes geographers, public health scientists, sociologists and others to develop possible solutions to prevent and mitigate future disease outbreaks. For protecting the people from the emerging diseases, habitat and biodiversity loss  must be tackled strongly as long term measures.
In addition, importing countries should create a new legal obligation, supported by criminal sanctions, for an importer of wildlife to prove that it was legally obtained under the source country’s national laws. Strict implementation of rules and regulation stipulated by respective countries will save biodiversity, ecosystems and local communities  and maintain good relation between nature including wild life and human. In this way, researchers can easily  grasp where disease outbreaks occur and how they relate to the physical, spatial, economic, social and ecological changes brought on by urbanization and learn  how the newly emerging urban landscapes can themselves play a role in stemming potential outbreaks.
With my best regards,
Debapriya Mukherjee
Name : Dr Debapriya Mukherjee                  
Former Senior Scientist
Central Pollution Control Board
Address : A-139, Survey Park, Santoshpur, Kolkata-700075
Mobile :  919432370163 & 916290099509

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi