Large-scale casualties due to the Coronavirus must serve as a wake-up call to help understand the reality that the abuse of the environment has now reached catastrophic levels and must stop at all costs
COVID-19 has a vice-like grip over India and the rest of the world. According to the WorldoMeter, there have been over 19,607 casualties across the globe; the number of people infected stands at 4,35,002 and is growing by the hour. In India, too, the situation is grim as the number of casualties stands at 10 whereas the number of infected people stands at 562.
India has now taken the unprecedented step of imposing a 21-day-long curfew and locking down the nation, with nearly all States and Union Territories observing the diktat of the Central Government or imposing curfew-like conditions.
Nationally and globally, the impact on economies has been disastrous, with the global stock markets plummeting due to a sell-off amounting to $6 trillion in value, triggered by the Coronavirus within a short span of six days. The US is already comparing the current economic conditions with the Great Depression of 1930.
However, the fact remains that while the world economy is in the doldrums only now, the environmental conditions across the globe have not been good for decades as is evident by the threat of climate change that is looming large. In February, the Antarctica experienced one of its major meltdowns amid record-high temperatures, causing some of the major glaciers to melt. The environment and ecological biodiversity have been in a free fall for long and in the process this has been eroding the centuries of resilience developed by Mother Nature to withstand the degeneration brought on by mankind. But now it seems that nature is responding definitively and punishingly. Nature’s repositories such as tropical forests around the world with their teeming exotic animals were earlier considered the source of viruses and pathogens that caused diseases such as Ebola and HIV. But new research under the discipline of planetary science is showing that humanity’s destruction of biodiversity is in fact causing the creation of new strains of virus pathogens that are moving from animals to humans at an alarming rate. The ongoing COVID-19 is the latest example of this.
There is an urgent need to change the narrative here from exploitation of nature to investment in it. Mankind has, for decades, exploited nature’s hotspots by building roads, cutting down forests and commercialising animal life contained therein. Once these biodiversity hotspots were destroyed by mankind, the animals and the virus strains existing therein, needed new hosts and humans became unwitting hosts to them. This aspect was recently confirmed by the United States Centre for Disease Control as well. The exploitative activities of humans have become a highway of sorts, using which virulent pathogens are crossing from the animal kingdom to mankind. The tragedy is that despite earlier experiences with such viruses as the Nipah, Ebola and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, we are yet to learn any lessons.
This indiscriminate and unthinking exploitation of nature has the potential of ending mankind and hence it is time to start investing in the environment for the greater good of humanity. As a first step, nations where wet markets thrive and sell live animals for consumption purposes, must ban this forthwith. When the buying stops, so will the exploitation and in turn the transmission of any harmful pathogens. Many of these wet markets in South-East Asia feed a huge number of populations but in the larger interest of humankind, these markets must be forced to close down and Governments must provide alternative source of nutrition for the dependent population. In the aftermath of COVID-19, China has already shut down many wet markets, albeit a delayed move but nevertheless a welcome one. Many other busy wet markets such as those in Lagos must also be shut down if more virus transmissions are to be averted from these locations.
Awareness needs to be made a tool of investment in nature. The stakeholders must be made aware of the risks involved to them and to their family members. This will for instance dissuade a logging company employee from venturing into the tropical forests to cut trees. Similarly those dealing in live animals for commercial purposes will think twice before laying hands on the animals due to the fear of contracting fatal viruses. If one examines the past, it is clear that the viruses have kept plaguing humanity and possibly will continue to do so unless mankind disconnects itself from the concept of pillaging the environment for material gains and instead focusses on co-existence with nature so that it is given ample space of its own.
Large-scale human casualties due to the Coronavirus must serve as a wake-up call to help understand the reality that the abuse of the environment has now reached catastrophic levels and unless nature is given the respect it deserves, it will eventually reclaim the same and on its own terms.
(The writer is an environmental journalist)