Nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis. In the past we have had SARS, MERS, HIV and others. These crises have compelled us to realise that our civilization is fragile and vulnerable.
Anthropogenic activities, particularly deforestation, are placing too many pressures on the natural world with damaging consequences. These disasters and catastrophes are not exclusively natural phenomena and are a result of the economic, political and social decisions that create vulnerability to risk. Catastrophes such as earthquakes, hurricanes or outbreak of disease like the coronavirus, are fundamentally connected to underlying factors that render particular areas and individuals vulnerable.
There are specific interests, usually associated with the exercise of power, involved in how we view these connections or how we are distracted from them. The death of Dr. Li Wenliang, who warned well in advance about the coronavirus disease and was censured by police over his early warnings about the disease, is a case in point. He was reprimanded and silenced by the police in Wuhan and was forced to sign a letter saying he had made “false comments.”
This is an example of how political power operates. The funny thing is that scapegoating and racist fear-mongering pointed the finger of blame at the Ebola victims for the current outbreak of 2019-nCoV in China, not the underlying factors and decisions by powerful political leaders that contributed to the crisis. This clearly reflects that catastrophic events are political phenomena not just natural phenomena.
The massive increase of the global urban population over the past few decades has increased exposure to disease and posed new challenges to the control of outbreaks. The relentless march of urbanization has been coming for a long time. The U.N. estimated that, in 2009, half the world’s population lived in urban areas for the first time in human history. Over 4 billion people live in cities today, six times as many as did in 1950.
In 2000, there were 371 cities of a million or more people in the world; by 2018, that number was 548. There are many advantages to urban life. Concentrating large numbers of people in small areas means larger workforces with more diverse skills, easier access to mass transit, and economies of scale in everything from public services to cultural institutions. But the dark side of urbanization has always included infectious disease as humans did not evolve to live in such close proximity.
Population change and mobility are immediately connected and responsible for spreading germs among people. Diseases are spreading rapidly between cities through infrastructures of globalisation such as global air travel networks. Now Covid-19 is joining a long list of infectious diseases, like the Spanish flu of 1918 in New York and Mexico City or the Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa in 2014, and is likely to leave enduring marks on urban spaces.
Our continued erosion of wild spaces on account of deforestation in the name of development, massive forest fires to fulfill the greed of corporates, new heat records due to greenhouse gas emissions, frequent storms and devastating floods on account of land-use changes have brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbor diseases which can jump to humans.
As a result, human infectious disease outbreaks are rising and in recent years there have been Ebola, bird flu, Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), Rift Valley fever, sudden acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), West Nile virus and Zika virus all crossing from animals to humans. Some diseases from wildlife had much higher fatality rates in people, such as 50 per cent for Ebola and 60-75 per cent for Nipah virus, transmitted from bats in south Asia. Most importantly the illegal global animal trade called an “ideal mixing bowl” for disease and loss of biodiversity provides ample opportunities for pathogens present in wild and domestic animals to infect people and 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife.
Traders carry animals over long distances in small cages. These animals are severely stressed and immuno-suppressed and excrete whatever pathogens they have in them. People in large numbers in the marketplace frequently come in intimate contact with body fluids of these animals and there is every possibility of various diseases emerging. If this practice continues, there will be more and more such diseases. Thereby emergence and spread of Covid-19 was predictable. In this piquant situation, we can also predict another viral emergence from wildlife in the future that would be a more serious public health threat.
The presence of a large reservoir of Sars-CoV-like viruses in respective animals, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in many countries particularly southern China, subSaharan Africa and a lot of other Asian countries is a time bomb. The ease of travel in the modern world exacerbates the dangers of spreading diseases all over the world. We thought that Sars would be a massive wake up call and would change the politics around exploiting natural resources. After control of Sars, there was a huge sigh of relief and it was back to business as usual forgetting the public heath threat caused by Sars. The Covid-19 outbreak will likely be stopped.
Until then, many people particularly poor people, would face severe difficulty in sustaining their livelihood. But the next such outbreak is waiting in the wings. The ongoing coronavirus is an example of the close relationships between urban development and new or re-emerging infectious diseases. Most importantly SARS-CoV-2 has exposed both the shortcomings and potential opportunities of governance at different levels. The separation of health and environmental policy is a dangerous delusion.
Our health entirely depends on the climate and the other organisms we share the planet with. The Covid-19 outbreak is a “clear warning shot” that today’s civilization is “playing with fire” in the name of development and in promoting luxury lifestyles of people, particularly those residing in urban and suburban areas. Urban researchers need to explore new relationships between urbanization and infectious disease. Now both global warming and the destruction of the natural world must be stopped.
This will require an interdisciplinary approach that includes geographers, public health scientists, sociologists and others to develop possible solutions to prevent and mitigate future disease outbreaks. For protecting the people from the emerging diseases, habitat and biodiversity loss must be tackled strongly as long term measures.
(The writer is former senior scientist, Central Pollution Control Board)