Coronavirus structure. Credit: https://www.scientificanimations.com / CC BY-SA

In the absence of a pharmaceutical remedy to the outbreak of novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), non-pharmaceutical interventions have become necessary. Physical distancing, containment of areas by restricting movement of people, and a nationwide lockdown have been the strategies adopted globally.  In India, after about two months of nationwide lockdown and the subsequent unlocking process, most of us are hoping for a vaccine against the virus so that we can return back to our normal life as early as possible. But what is the ‘normal’ that we are referring to?

It is time to ponder if the ‘normal’ (the pre COVOD-19 days) that we are referring to was actually a normal condition. The virus has exposed the vulnerable underbelly of a politically and economically constructed normal; one outside the bio-physical world. It makes us acknowledge that our normal was always a gross abnormality and violation for several other species.

The judiciary and the executive are accusing each other for India’s economic slowdown due to measures like physical distancing and reverse migration of the informal workforce that keeps our economy going (https://thewire.in/political-economy/supreme-court-environmental-clearance-economic-slowdown). To ensure economic growth and make the nation atmanirbhar, the national leadership is promising more extraction of coal.  The vicious circle intensifies. The chain of events that follow, will now lead to more extraction to regain a flawed normal.

The virus and its new normal

Unlike bacteria or other microorganisms, a virus cannot replicate on its own. It needs a host. Viruses possess a genetic material, DNA or RNA (RNA in the case of coronavirus), encapsulated within a protein coat which enables them to attach to host receptor cells and use the metabolism and machinery of the host cell to replicate. A virus which usually circulates among animal hosts can move to human host by three possible means (UNEP, 2016).

First, if there are changes in the biological structure of the virus to invade new hosts. This occurs as a response to the drive to adapt to evolutionary pressures or mutation in their genetic material that increases their pathogenicity. It increases the ability to invade new hosts and also to evade the host’s immune response.

Second, if there are changes in human and animal hosts. Usually, zoonotic transmission (transmission between animals and humans) of a virus directly from wildlife host to human host is uncommon. It is mostly bridged by livestock[i]. Intensive livestock productions with homogenized populations are the most susceptible to any emerging zoonotic disease; the most potential bridge to transmit the virus to human beings.

Third, if there are changes in environment or natural habitat caused by human activities. Over the last few decades, the changes in global climate have posed severe threat to the survival of living beings with observed increase in temperature, changes in precipitation pattern, melting of glaciers, elongation of summer months etc. which have shifted the geographical ranges, seasonal activities, migration pattern and interaction among many species. Climate change influences the environmental conditions which enable or disable distribution, reproduction and survival of pathogens, vectors and hosts. As more forests are being cleared, with increasing urbanization and high population densities, the risk of encountering a new virus increases i.e. as animals are pushed out of the forest, the likelihood of viruses moving directly or through vectors to human populations increases. Putting together these three factors creates an ideal environment for transmission of virus from animal hosts to human hosts. COVID-19 is also a zoonotic disease caused by SARS-CoV-2. The new normal for this virus and perhaps others whose home turf has been disrupted, is to use animals and human beings to propagate.

Deforestation and Strip-mining: Back to our old normal

The recent coal block auctions proposed will lead to the destruction of biodiversity hotspots, declared ‘no go’ zones for mining. The opening of coal blocks to private investment which are located in the dense forest of Indian states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Maharashtra, which are rich in biodiversity might force new viruses to seek new survival strategies and hosts. In the case of coronavirus strains, the most commonly known hosts are bats and pangolins.  Different groups of bats have their own unique strains of coronavirus, indicating that bats and coronaviruses have been evolving together for millions of years

(https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/04/200423082231.htm). Pangolin species too serve as natural reservoir of SARS-CoV-2-like coronaviruses (Zhang, 2020). Both these species are critical for our ecosystem, for their natural services like pollination, seed dispersal, soil fertilization and insect/pest control. Destroying their habitats and villainising the hosts (bats and pangolins for COVID-19) will not help maintain healthy populations of diversified species, ecosystem functions and planetary wellbeing.

Human interventions, especially economic activities over the latter half of the 20th century, have led to severe disruptions in the ecosystem processes that govern the planetary health and wellbeing of all life forms (Rockstrom etal, 2009). Economic growth, driven by urbanization, industrialization, modern agriculture, dams, railways and roadways, led to massive land use changes (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2018.02.020). These encroachments into forests and destruction of habitats increased human contact with wildlife. Urbanization also fueled increasing demand for livestock products worldwide, leading to intensification and industrialization of animal production. These changes in the human-animal relationships have increased the risks of spillover of viruses (which circulate in wild animals) to use the ‘homogenized animal populations’ in intensive farming as a bridge to infect human populations (Jones etal, 2013). That India has not witnessed ‘a local outbreak’ in recent times may just be a matter of time. The Nipah virus outbreak was linked to intensification of pig farming and food production in Malaysia. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa was a result of forest clearance which led to closer contact between wildlife and human populations.

Perhaps the most viable containment of any such pandemic is a potential vaccine. But the high rate of mutation of RNA virus adds to the challenge, and may not be a lasting solution. A better option will be to keep the pandemic at bay, which is possible if we track the pathways through which a virus transcends the boundary from animal to human host and amend them.  Instead, we are now pushing ahead with further environmental disruption; knowing fully well that this can lead to several disasters(https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/nagpur/recipe-for-triple-disaster-ramesh-to-javadekar/articleshow/76474132.cms). We are pushing to get back the one and only normal we know; economic growth based on mindless extraction. Are we incapable of the pluralism of multiple pathways, choices, and adaptation strategies evident in the behaviour of the virus?

References

Jones, B.A., etal. (2013). Zoonosis emergence linked to agricultural intensification and environmental change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 110(21), 8399–8404.

Rockstrom, J etal. (2009) Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity. Ecology and Society. Vol. 14, No 2, Art 32.

Tao Zhang, Qunfu Wu, Zhigang Zhang (2020) Probable Pangolin Origin of SARS-CoV-2 Associated with the COVID-19 Outbreak. Current Biology, 30 (8) Pp. 1578.

UNEP (2016). UNEP Frontiers 2016 Report: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern. United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi.

Debanjana Dey, Researcher at Academy of Scientific and Innovative Research at CSIR-NISTADS, New Delhi. Email- debanjanadey1@gmail.com


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