The world spent much of 2020 and 2021 battling a pandemic, one that brought untold misery in its wake, killed nearly seven million people and brought economies to a halt. The preponderance of opinion is that the virus which caused such havoc had zoonotic origins, with most researchers agreeing that it came to humans from bats. That being the case, and as life returns to its pre-Covid template, it is surprising that on either side of the world, humanity continues to court danger by disturbing the natural habitats of bats. Places where conditions are ripe to spill over from bats to humans are called jump zones and scientists in Brazil have found an increase of 40 per cent in such zones over the past two decades, driven by the rapid deforestation of the Amazon region.
Of particular concern were the years when Jair Bolsanaro ruled the country, when his government rolled back environmental regulations. This resulted in widespread destruction of bat habitats. Scientists say deforestation causes stress in bats and studies have shown that stressed bats carry more viruses, as well as shed more germs in their saliva, feces and urine. Brazil, which has the world’s third highest population of bats, is said to be ripe for a spillover of the virus to humans and could emerge as the source of the next great pandemic. On the other side of the world, disturbing reports suggest that construction of the China-Laos railway, a part of the Belt and Road Initiative, holds similar potential for trouble. The railway line that stretches 1,022 kilometres from Kunming in China’s Yunnan province to Vientiane, the Laotian capital, is estimated to traverse 40 per cent of the region’s richest bat habitats, and has cut through forests that are a natural habitat of the winged mammals. A Reuters report estimates that the area suitable for a spillover from bats to humans in Laos has increased from 31 to 73 per cent of its terrain. Almost four-fifths of the increased area lies within 25 km of the railway line. The report found conditions ripe for a zoonotic spillover all along the route.
This included haphazard disposal of bat excreta, the sale of bats for eating and rampant trading in wildlife, which sometimes act as the conduit for viruses travelling from bats to humans. In 2020-2021, scientists found more than two dozen coronaviruses in a sampling of 645 bats in northern Laos. While every infected bat does not spark off a pandemic, the world must not lose sight of the fact that China has already been the source of two pandemics since the turn of the country. The rush for development brings danger in its wake. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; if warming doesn’t get you, a virus must