The Genesis of Covid-19 in Environmental Degradation

corona virus

Universal constants are a set of mathematical values, fine-tuned to incredible precision to sustain the clockwork functioning of the universe. Life on Earth is a microcosm of those very forces, seamlessly blended to create relationships between nature and man, flora and fauna, wind, and waters, which culminate in a delicate ecosystem, a vibrant balance of life that is inviolable, that any transgression of its equilibrium is a step closer to the destruction of our human race.

The outbreak of the Covid-19 virus pandemic in early 2020, had thrown normal human life into disarray, forcing the world into a global shut-down, where the only existential priority was saving one’s life, from the deadly micro-organism, whose powers of annihilation, threatened to explode beyond the reach of heaven and earth. The virus apprehended humanity with a precedence witnessed at the turn of the 20th century in Great Influenza epidemic known by the common misnomer, Spanish Flu pandemic, which ferociously wiped out 25 million to 50 million people according to generally accepted estimates. Advances in medical science, timely government interventions and deployment of AI and Deep Learning technologies, helped develop vaccines in a race against time. Yet, global fatalities are close to staggering 7 million, according to a World Health Organization report.

The consensus among scientists is that the epicenter of the current Covid -19 virus is believed to have originated, in one of the wet markets in Wuhan, China. These loosely regulated markets trade in exotic live animals in the wild, like wolf pups, civets, salamanders, crocodiles, scorpions, rats, squirrels, foxes, and turtles. The wild animals are transported over large distances, cluttered in cages, immuno-suppressed and excreting deadly pathogens they carry within their bodies. When they are slaughtered, skinned, and eaten, the deadly viruses are released from their natural hosts and require new hosts, which, unfortunately and predominantly are humans. The much-politicized speculation of the virus leaking from the Wuhan Institute of Virology – a propaganda vociferously disseminated by the Trump administration- and its conspiracy of bioengineering have few patrons now, with new evidence of animal genetic material found in early virus samples.

A team of researchers from the department of Ecology and Biodiversity at the University of California have concluded that 335 new diseases emerged between 1960-2014 and more than 60% of those had non-human origins. Destruction of habitats and loss of biodiversity are cited as primary factors for breaking the species barrier that engender high risk transmission channels from animals to humans. Massive deforestation for farming, mining, hunting, logging and construction of roads and urbanization, will cause destruction of the natural habitats of wild species, that harbor unknown viruses, forcing them to move dangerously close to human settlements and livestock.

Ebola outbreak in the 1990’s, an unknown pestilence then, was transmitted when, deep in the dense Minkebe forests in Northern Gabon, a group of villagers captured, slaughtered, skinned, and ate a chimpanzee. Ebola virus has a case mortality rate of 90% and spread across the Sub-Saharan Africa at precipitating speeds, killing thousands who were infected. Both HIV-1 and HIV-2 viruses crossed over from Old World chimpanzees living in Central and West Africa to humans, through their infected blood.

MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) was caused by dromedary camels in the Middle East, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus was transmitted by civet cats to humans, whereas in the Nipah outbreak, the virus that originated in Malaysia and spread across the Asian subcontinent, bats were the vectors. Other Coronaviruses that are fatal and Zoonotic (transmitting from animals to humans) are Bird Flu, Dengue Fever, Rift Valley Fever, West Nile Virus and Zika Virus, that have hitherto claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

Illegal trade of exotic wildlife is a billion-dollar industry, and these transnational criminals are one of the malefactors of environmental degradation, disrupting food chains and jeopardizing the ecological equilibrium. The biodiversity hotspots of tropical rain forests and bushmeat markets in African and Asian cities are endangering millions of people in teeming metropolises and urban cities and entire population are at the mercy of a devastating contagion, the likelihood of erupting spontaneously with catastrophic consequences on societies and economies. With quantum advancements in global air travel and telecommunications, reducing the world to a ‘global village’, and ‘global audience’, the time it takes for an epidemic to spread globally is a matter of hours. The carrier could be trekking the tropical forests in Southeast Asia and the next day walking the bustling streets of Manhattan in New York. The economic costs of global pandemics in the last century is estimated to be over 100 billion dollars according to World Bank data.

The wet markets in Asia and Africa are difficult to abolish by government legislations, since these are a source of food for millions of impoverished people who are often devoid of a refrigerator or electrical appliance in their household. The restorative role of these markets in urban food security is inarguably true. When the locations of these markets shift from Tier 1 cities to rural and mofussil towns in the third world countries, hygiene and sanitation becomes a casualty. Without adequate drainage systems and proliferation of refuse dumps, these markets deteriorate into a ticking time bomb of deadly pathogen crossovers and infectious diseases. Only a community level engagement, involving educating the loggers, hunters, miners, and farmers could mitigate this growing menace lurking in midst of human affairs.

The impact on the environment due to global shutdown to prevent community transmission is nothing short of spectacular. Satellite imagery data confirmed marked improvement in air quality over Europe and China and significant reductions in the concentrations of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) in the atmosphere, a principal pollutant created by burning fossil fuels to run the world. The lagoons of Venice had become crystal clear, that were muddied by speed boats carrying day trippers in the ancient city, that suffer notorious ecosystem degradation, due to over tourism. In India, more than a million endangered Olive Ridley Turtles had returned to the coast of Orissa for mass nesting, a phenomenon never witnessed for several decades together. Dolphins made a comeback swimming the choppy waters of the Port of Trieste, Italy and a study analyzing road kills from 11 countries, revealed, 40% lower rates in Spain, Israel, Estonia, and the Czech Republic.

An extensive study conducted by Harvard H.T. Chan School of Public Health on the environmental impact of Coronavirus has unraveled some disquieting facts. One of the key findings is centered on global warming as a malefactor, for animal species migrating towards cold temperate regions. Their exodus towards colder climatic regions facilitates contact with other species hitherto unencountered and the risk of transmission of pathogens from one host to other increases exponentially. Another group of researchers established positive correlations between atmospheric pollution and Covid-19 mortalities, with the risks of death rising manifold in those cities where pollution levels are worser than global average. Fauna and flora species becoming extinct at an alarming rate, due to ‘Anthropocene hyperactivity’. It upsets the ecological balance and food chain, wherein fewer surviving animals, move to scarce food sources and thereby meanders into human settlements – forced to flee their own dismantled habitats- transferring lethal pathogens in its wake.

The Covid-19 outbreak unequivocally sends a compelling message to the governments and think-tanks around the world, that there cannot be a healthcare policy dissociated from environmental policy. Human greed, obsession with stock market performance and unbridled quest for profits have led to a scale of abuse of nature, unprecedented in human history. Man is perhaps, the deadliest species that ever walked the Earth. Mankind’s penchant for the self-destruction is inexorable and notorious. The time is never more opportune than today- when a microorganism has brought the world to a grinding halt – for humanity to introspect and enlighten the singular truth that nature is man’s greatest ally and Earth is the only place he can call it home.

Jayakhosh Chidambaran is a management consultant and researcher.


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