Coronavirus: Messages From Nature

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, that culminates 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 current outbreak of the Corona virus pandemic has thrown normal human life into disarray, forcing the world into a global shut-down, where the only existential priority is saving one’s life, from the deadly micro-organism, whose powers of annihilation, could explode beyond the reach of heaven and earth.

The epicenter of the current Corona virus is believed to have been originated, in one of the wet markets in Wuhan, China that sells exotic live animals in the wild; wolf pups, civets, salamanders, crocodiles, scorpions, rats, squirrels, foxes and turtles. These 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 requires new hosts, which, unfortunately and predominantly are humans.

A team of researchers from the department of Ecology and Biodiversity at the University of California had concluded that 335 new diseases have 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 opens up 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 that 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 South East Asia and the next day walking the bustling streets of Manhattan in New York. The economic impact of global pandemics in the last few decades is estimated to be over 100 billion dollars.

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 appliances in their household. The lynchpin 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 confirms marked improvement in air quality over Europe and China, 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 are 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 have returned to the coast of Orissa for mass nesting, a phenomenon never witnessed for several decades together, for man is the deadliest species that ever walked the Earth.

The Coronavirus outbreak unequivocally sends a compelling message to the governments and think-tanks of 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. 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 we can call it a home...