Will the Covid pandemic help us change our ways?
Arif M Faisal
Talking about the very critical issue of Covid-19 -- and its consequences on humans, the economy, and the planet -- is unavoidable now. Global leaders are putting forth all the effort and ammunition at their disposal to fight against coronavirus.
This virus is changing our everyday lifestyle and behaviour eg, hand-washing, using masks, social distancing, lockdowns, home quarantine, isolation, travel bans, closing borders, billions and trillions of dollars worth of economic stimulus, etc.
Most governments are now adopting a “whole of society” approach ie engaging both state and non-state actors to address this pandemic. Even most developed countries like Italy, Germany, the US, etc are uncertain, scared, and a bit helpless to address this dangerous pandemic. However, the world is investing billions of dollars in finding a vaccine, and in medicinal and biomedical research and development for the treatment of Covid-19 patients.
There are thousands of reports and messages on coronavirus that are floating in the press, and electronic and social media. But I would like to discuss a bit of an off-track issue that is comparatively less focused on in the mainstream media.
I would like to discuss how this monster was released from the wilderness due to the indiscriminate destruction of our pristine eco-systems, and the hunting of wildlife for consumption and greed. Our irresponsible consumption patterns, lifestyles, behaviour, and greed are making the planet sick.
Firstly, this mutant virus seemingly jumped from wildlife to a human(s) in a wet market in Wuhan, China. These wild animals were hunted, trapped, and then taken to the local markets to be sold for food or traditional medicine, or to the pet trade.
The Chinese, and also many other Asians and Africans, eat wildlife meat which includes bats, snakes, civets, crocodiles, pangolins, foxes, turtles, birds, etc.
Lots of wild animals are careers of deadly viruses and other pathogens. Many scientists suspect that the new coronavirus may have been passed to humans from bats via pangolins -- small, scaled ant-eating mammals whose scales are expensive in traditional Chinese medicine. Some scientists also believe that the spread of SARS, HIV, ebola, etc. passed to humans from wild animals.
Zoonotic diseases are types of diseases that spread from animals to humans. These types of infectious diseases have quadrupled in the last 50 years, mostly in tropical regions, according to a letter which was sent to the US Congress this week from more than 100 wildlife and environmental groups.
Prof Andrew Cunningham, the deputy director of science at the Zoological Society of London, recently warned that “the world will be faced with more deadly viruses like Covid-19 if there is not a drastic change in human behaviours.”
Secondly, the planet has become so altered that the world eco-system could be nearing a tipping point that would disrupt the climate and other biological systems that sustain life on earth. Last year, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), reported that more than one million species are at risk of extinction. This report concluded that “it’s not only species that are at risk, the myriad life-support functions that these species and ecosystems provide also are threatened.”
Non-living elements of ecosystems, like water and air, are also becoming polluted due to aggressive human intervention. Wildlife habitats are shrinking or shifting and, in some cases, rapidly disappearing due to indiscriminate felling of forests, destruction and conversion of ecosystems, and consumption of habitats for various human needs.
Since we are hunting them down and destroying their homes, they are jumping to other species and humans, and transmitting viruses and other pathogens.
Thirdly, climate change is also connected to the spread of infectious disease in some contexts. A study of the 2003 outbreak of SARS in Asia found that “people exposed to the highest level of air pollution were twice as likely to die from the disease as those who were not.”
Deforestation is linked to increased CO2 emissions, and also destroys wildlife habitat, which increases the risk of close human-animal encounters. Other strains of infectious viruses, like the seasonal flu, often peak during the winter season, partly because people spend more time inside and in closer quarters. Scientists are still studying whether this coronavirus will behave like that when it comes to warmer weather.
We all know the horrific death tolls of Covid-19 around the world. The good news is that dolphins are dancing in the Cox’s Bazar sea and turtles have returned to the coast of Odisha for mass-nesting. Mobs of monkeys and deer are roaming now in the streets of Japan and Thailand. The bounce-back of these wild animals is not only great news for the species but also for the environment.
Air quality has significantly improved in recent times in China, New York, and many other cities around the world due to lockdowns and travel bans because of Covid-19 . CO2 emissions have also declined sharply in major cities of the world due to travel bans, closures of international flights, and temporary shutdowns of many industries.
Coronavirus has led to a surprising shutdown of economic activity and a drastic reduction in the use of fossil fuels. The global oil price fell to lows of $25 a barrel last week, and experts projected that it may further fall to $10 a barrel this year if the pandemic situation continues.
This is all good news for the planet.
To keep this momentum going, we can consider taking the following actions to protect the ecosystem and biodiversity of our country:
All parks, protected areas (PAs), ecologically critical areas (ECAs), important sea beaches, and coral islands could be locked down for tourists for some period of time, especially during wildlife breeding seasons.
These temporary lockdowns will support the regeneration of wildlife and the wildlife’s free movement for mating and breeding. We should also strictly ban hunting, poaching, and illegal trade of all types of wildlife.
Cities contribute 70% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. We can consider celebrating weekly “car-free days” in all major cities, when no private cars will be allowed in certain city areas for a whole day. Only public transport will be available for citizens to commute during this scheme.
This will contribute to the reduction of CO2 emission, as well as air pollution, in major cities.
Due to the spread of coronavirus, our lifestyle and behaviour are gradually changing. The people in our country are now adopting proper hygiene, good sanitation, and clean lifestyles (eg frequently washing hands, using masks, disinfecting city and public transport). To keep the momentum going, we should continue these hygiene and cleanliness practices throughout the year regularly even after this dangerous pandemic ends.
We should responsibly use our scarce natural resources and avoid over-consumption to reduce our footprints on the environment. Promoting responsible consumption, adopting a circular economy, and investing more on climate-resilient and green growth could resolve lots of environmental and climate change challenges that are accelerating the transmission of infectious diseases.
We are trying our best to tackle this global pandemic with our limited capacity and resources. Even developed countries have almost failed to tackle this global challenge, although we are taking urgent and medium-term measures to address this challenge. We should adopt medium and long-term measures immediately.
There is no planet B. We are now as sick as our planet is.
Therefore, we should take immediate action to heal our sick planet and as a result, nature will protect us from this pandemic and other infectious diseases in the long run.
The Covid-19 crisis has presented us an enormous opportunity to adopt and build a greener, low-carbon, more sustainable, and more resilient world.