1 word. 11 letters. 5 syllables.
As of January 2020, it is the most powerful word in the world. A word that always follows the five second countdown to the hourly news headlines, compels us to grab the thermometer at the slightest onset of a headache and forces us to stay indoors when we crave human contact. It is a word encompassing the havoc our world collectively battles in an effort to flatten the curve.
The novel Coronavirus has made life under lockdown our new reality. Victims to the blame game have been bats, pangolins, even China. Yet a number of researchers have thrown a curve ball by pinning the matter on increasing deforestation. They argue that before the disease carrying organisms transcended our boundaries, humans might have been the first ones to trespass theirs. A disease that normally exists in animals but has made its way to humans is referred to as a zoonotic disease. Coronavirus is a zoonotic disease.
To explain this claim further, let’s travel back in time and look at two of the other viral outbreaks that have been linked to escalated human activities in forests. Beware though, this will not be a sweet escape.
Outbreak: In 1999, 265 people were reported to have developed a neurological disease and experienced an acute brain inflammation, 105 of whom died soon after. This marked the first known emergence of the Nipah virus. There is no effective treatment for the virus to date.
Link with Deforestation: In the start of 1997, the government of Indonesia had ordered the clearing of 300,000 acres of rainforest for conversion to palm-oil plantations. The ongoing drought aggravated the flames further and soon clouds of haze covered the entire forest. This made it impossible for the remaining trees to grow fruit which in turn lead flying foxes (a species of bats) to relocate and search for food elsewhere.
Many of them settled in fruit orchards and a complex cascade of events ensued. The bats had carried the deadly disease with them which they first transferred to pigs – the jump widely speculated to have been from fallen fruit nibbled on by the infected species, and then through pigs to the humans who ate or dealt with them.
Control Measures: In order to stop the spread of the virus, pigs especially those from piggeries near or inside the orchards were killed on a large scale. As for the burning forests, despite all evidence, no link was recognised and by 2012 Indonesia had surpassed the rate of deforestation in Brazil. Most recently the virus made its way to Bangladesh in 2017, and the outbreak killed 17 people.
Outbreak: In 2015, coupled with a spike in Malaria cases, the first patients of the Zika Virus came forth in Brazil. The virus is not fatal and symptoms usually wear off in 7 days but it effects the female population disproportionately. Between Oct 2015 and Jan 2016, 3500 cases of transmission from pregnant women to their children resulted in Microcephaly – a medical condition in which the brain does not form fully and the child develops a smaller than normal head.
Link with Deforestation: The burning of the Amazon for increased cattle ranching, had led to a record high drought in 2015 with 93 cities in Brazil imposing rationing while others were cutting water supplies for three days a week. This led many to start storing water in open containers, providing perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Mosquitoes also tend to thrive in increased temperatures.
The rise in malaria cases was expected but what was unknown was that Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species that carries Zika had made its way from Uganda (where it was initially isolated in the 1940s), through Asia and had now established a foothold in the Brazilian Amazon. Upon clearing of the forest, the species carried the virus to the general public.
Control Measures: There being no cure to the viral disease (to date), health officials took the unusual step of asking citizens to delay pregnancies until more about the virus is known. As for the deforestation, again, the connection was not recognized and the clearing carried on as usual. In fact, coverage for the Covid- 19 pandemic has overshadowed the 579 new cases of Zika in Brazil this year, while even during lockdown their rainforests continue to burn.
As much as leaders around the world continue to feed us the narrative that the pandemic was unforeseen, the research suggests otherwise. “Deforestation and land conversion for agriculture is one of the biggest drivers of pandemics. We need to get on the case very quickly.” – Peter Daszak, president of Ecohealth Alliance, said this with reference to his analysis of 500 disease outbreaks in the last four decades. The study was published 12 years ago.
Mosquitoes, ticks and bats are all among animals that can coexist with pathogens potentially fatal to humans. The diseases they carry are supposed to be limited only to them. But we meddled with their habitats forcing them to meddle with ours. This cycle of coming into contact with unknown pathogens we time and time again completely fall defenseless to, will most likely continue if we are unable to immediately establish balance between man and nature.
So let me give you another word. 13 letters. 5 syllables.
It might as well be the first step in the road to redemption.