Francois Marie Arouet, known more by his nom de plume Voltaire, a 18th Century writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit, once said “Use, do not abuse…neither abstinence nor excess ever renders man happy”. Thus, he made a huge case for moderation in every aspect of life. His pithy quote fits snugly when seen in relation to man’s exploitation of Nature. A fact that has come out of researches is that man’s excessive inroads into the domain that is of Nature has bred the various viruses that later became pandemic, including the novel corona virus that is currently relentlessly raging through the country upstaging its economy and governance.
Sonia Shah, a US based science journalist and author, who has investigated and written about major infectious disease outbreaks in recent years – like SARS, Ebola and Zika – says that “when we cut down forests where bats live in, they just don’t go away, they come and live in the trees in our backyards and farms.” Though, perhaps, said metaphorically, I have seen this phenomenon happening in real life in Bhopal. A few years ago, while creating the BRTS corridor the Bhopal Municipal Corporation was felling scores-of-years-old massive trees near Kamla Park. The bats that had used the trees as their colony were disturbed and they took off only to fly aimlessly over the Upper Lake for some time in broad daylight before settling down on nearby trees. They just moved from a few trees being felled to some others nearby, carrying their entire eco-system that they harboured, including those of microbes.
“Through hunting, trading and recreational activities,” Sonia Shah says, “the probability that humans encounter bats rises – as do opportunities for microbes in their bodies to spill over into ours.” Importantly, she goes on to say that we need to protect wildlife habitat so that animal microbes stay in their (animals’) bodies. “To do this we need to reduce our massive and growing footprint across the planet,” said Sonia.
Obviously, increased harnessing of Nature for our conveniences and consumption is the cause of the assault by animal microbes on humans. Of late, our indulgence for enhanced, even indiscrete use of Nature and its resources is becoming counter-productive. Nature is, seemingly, striking back at humans who surely are messing with it. If “you have to be indiscrete”, as Mark Twain had said, “you must be discrete in your indiscretion.” Indiscretion in dealing with Nature is increasingly becoming fraught as is evident from the sufferings of the current generation.
Sonia Shah has studied several pandemics by not staying rooted on her desk but moving to places that were their epicenters. She went to Haiti where, she says, the eighth pandemic of cholera is brewing, she went to the wet markets and factory farms of South China to learn the ecology of avian influenza, to international business hubs in Hong Kong where SARS originated, to the surgical wards of Delhi from where new forms of antibiotic-resistant bacterial pathogens were emerging to spread right across the globe, to the backwoods of New York State where the tick-borne diseases and novel influenza “swirl”. Having carried out in-depth studies of such a variety of pandemics at places of their provenance Shah is one person who would surely know what it takes for a pathogen to spread and become pandemic.
According to Shah, a vaccine against the Corona Virus is still 12 to 18 months away. She admits that warm weather does reduce the transmission of respiratory pathogens but it is still unclear whether the oncoming summer with its predicted high temperatures will be of help in dealing with the effects of the corona virus. Till such time as it becomes evident, India may have to emulate China by imposition of a kind of a lockdown in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. Perhaps Indians, generally young in age, are likely to overcome the viral assault, the substantial population of the elderly, nonetheless, remains vulnerable.
Reports have emerged that the government has initiated processes to deal with the pandemic in an exemplary manner. While it has been highly sensitive to the needs of the affected in the country and abroad it has also extended massive help to other countries in their fight against the virus. One hopes, the onset of the corona virus and its handling becomes a success story for the Modi government.
However, it has to keep in mind what Sonia Shah has said and that is that we should issue a stiff “hands off Nature” dictat. Let encroachments into the domain of Nature be banned and various eco-systems be allowed to remain undisturbed. This should happen from the national level, to state level and down to the level of local bodies, including the smart city organizations. The ecosystems may include those of forests (including urban), grasslands, marine and others like the ones in trees in the forests or in urban areas, ponds and other water bodies.
In the name of development we have to stop messing with Nature unless we wish to invite “disasters” like in the current times.