The ‘silent spring’ again: Where have all the people gone?


In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote the book named ‘Silent Spring’ which influenced lots of academics and environmentalists also leading to environmental movements in the US and elsewhere against human onslaughts on nature.  It appeared a romantic view on environment but highlighted the negative impacts of the pesticide use in agriculture and generated debates especially when the world was trying to increase agricultural production through extensive and intensive use of pesticides and chemicals. We are also familiar with gut-wrenching stories of Endosulfan victims of Kasargod in Kerala which led to disability, disease and death beyond any imagination. It is estimated almost 900 tonnes of pesticides are used in plantations and vegetable farms and more than 1000 tonnes in agriculture in an year in Kerala. The all-India figure of pesticide use in agriculture is  more than 54 thousand tonnes in 2016-17. The book by lamenting the disappearance of birds and their chirping sounds during the spring time largely because of pesticide poisoning actually questioned and delved into the philosophical moorings of the current pattern of development. This was paradoxical and enigmatical- as activities meant for the well-being of the people turned out to be their epitaphs. The work by Carson also influenced me in undertaking environmental studies from a public health perspective in Kuttanad as a PhD work in the early eighties and later.

What we witness in this spring is a repetition of the silence but this time it is the turn of humans and not birds. We have already passed the spring time without the usual welcome festivals and the sounds but the only difference is that the nature and the birds especially are rejoicing with sounds and the colours, probably celebrating the silence of human beings and all the paraphernalia.

The silence however should give us an opportunity to explore and introspect on new possibilities and it is time to realize that there is something beyond the so-called ‘quantity’. It is now well realized and probably articulated by many others that the expressions of consumerism and our celebrated life are useless to handle a fundamental cell structure like the present virus which exist ‘on borrowed life’.

Irrespective of all philosophical questions which trouble us now and which troubled us in the past when such tragedies strike, there are questions at the moment apart from many other questions which need to be asked. One fundamental question is, will the society be returning to the old ways? . Some  predict that after COVID-19 wanes, the world will witness change in its outlook especially its overriding priority regarding economy and the capital enterprise. In all ‘non-statistical’ probability, it is waiting to return to the old ways of business and consumption. Like the past epidemics and pandemics which killed many, the  present ‘pickling society’ will also preserve this episode to discuss and debate for future generations!

There is also a second most practical question which will be plaguing people and the governments across the globe. This is regarding the ways to rebuild the society and achieve normalcy. This is probably a much more intriguing question to many who have lost their dear ones and the ordinary citizens who lost their livelihood, however temporary it might be. Evidently, the pandemic has affected employment and educational opportunities of the people. The economic suffering and loss for the daily-wage, domestic and unorganized workers and other such occupational groups could lead to a negative social climate which may result in other public health problems. These also include a large number of migrant population in other countries and within countries. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has already brought out a document on this issue. They suggest that it is important to ensure livelihoods and income through immediate social protection, employment measures and promote economic recovery for employment.

The third question is on suitable sustainable public health, policy and clinical strategies for the future. Efforts to ‘deal’ with the current situation at the symptomatic level with ‘number of infected and number of recovered’ data and here and now approaches will be only flaccid attempts to stop the monstrosity. Any progressive and futuristic oriented governments will be thinking about stopping or at least limiting the virus  in order to avoid another ‘silent spring’  as it is necessary to delve into the underlying mechanisms which indeed is a complex challenge. Traditional segmented approaches are incapable to take up this challenge because there is large ‘unknown’ component regarding the pandemic and it is only through an appropriate integrated vision and a methodological repertoire that this is possible. Unfortunately, this possibility is lost because of the confidentiality factor surrounding the infection and  due to politics taking over the pandemic!

(Professor K Rajasekharan Nayar is affiliated to Global Institute of Public Health and Santhigiri Research Foundation, Trivandrum, Kerala)




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