COVID19-2: Nature Claims its own with the Return of the Virus!

This is the second post in the series on COVID19! The first COVID19-1 was a humorous take on the perils of online teaching and working from home. This post, COVID19-2, is more fact than fiction where I argue that the coronavirus attack is partly a result of our own doing! Do take a look and await my next post, COVID19-3, which will be a light one with a compilation of cartoons and humour in the times of COVID19!

I recently reviewed the book Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari in this blog. Among much else the author described in great detail how Homo sapiens proved themselves to be superior to animals. Hunter gatherers maintained a level of respect for the wild since their lives depended on it. The system worked to preserve the environment and the flora and fauna in it. The pastoralists learned the art of domestication of animals. The agricultural revolution after that took over the spaces of wild animals, through slash and burn cultivation at first, and with more settled agriculture later. The dependence on meat, fish and other wild animals as food, at its extreme, has led to the near extinction of many species.

My biologist daughter sent me a very enlightening article on the possible origins of the coronavirus COVID19 by Michael Gross, a science writer (Current Biology, 9th March, 2020, 30, R191–R214). I understood that the coronavirus has been around for some time. The first breakout of the SARS epidemic in China in 2002 and the MERS epidemic in Saudi Arabia in 2012 were also due to coronaviruses. SARS, MERS and the current COVID19 are broadly known as zoonotic diseases as they occur when the coronavirus ‘jumps the species barrier’. That is, the virus residing in bats or other species, cross over to humans through some other mammal.

The SARs coronavirus is known to have crossed over from bats to humans using the Asian palm civet, a small mammal, as a carrier. The MERS in Saudi Arabia is said to have carried over from camels in which the MERS virus was found to reside. People in close contact with camels in this desert region were said to have contracted the disease. The new coronavirus COVID19 emanated from Wuhan in China and was traced to the Huanan seafood market. It is suggested that the new virus was also a zoonotic transfer from the horseshoe bats with the Pangolin, an endangered species, as a carrier (Gross, 2020). The Pangolin is a heavily trafficked mammal. There are reports that such transfer may have occurred due to large habitats of bats being disturbed by the development and urbanization projects in various parts of the globe.

I am not a scientist and cannot comprehend the scientific literature on the topic. However, the ramification of the development path we are following is becoming clear. Climate change is one huge negative impact. The negative impact of fast mutating viruses, ‘jumping the species barrier’ to humans, with possible new zoonotic diseases is mind blowing.

My daughter said that on reading the article by Gross she was reminded of an earlier blog  I had written about the ‘battle between urban man/woman and the urban rat’ for space, ‘Elipathayam: The urban rat trap’. . I described how we were the target of a rat attack that invaded our relative’s residence in Delhi while we slept. In Kochi I have seen huge rats run around my parent’s home. It is not just rats that invade our homes. Peacocks, red-nape ibis, langoors (Baboon) and many more bird and animal species are seen to either fight or live in peace with us. Large green campuses are a refuge for these species displaced from their natural environment. The question is, are they invading our space or are we invading theirs? While I wrote the blog as a funny story, with this alarming global pandemic we need to rethink our ways of urban living.

Almost on cue the black-faced langoors (Baboon) on campus appeared today to attack our papaya tree and eat up the leaves. The result is we never get to see a papaya fruit on the tree! In fact today Blackie, the stray black and white dog that haunts our neighbourhood, put up a brave fight with the langoors to save our papaya tree! Dogs delineate their ‘territory’ and fight fiercely to retain it!! Ha ha! This is part of the fight for survival in nature and we were witness to it.

Now I look suspiciously at all mammals roaming the campus including the dogs and cats. Look at this very innocent looking Mr. Percival, a stray cat, lolling around in our front verandah! We have many more such innocent animals, including Mr. Marmalade, the brown cat.

God cannot rescue us from this attack of the virus! Science and more funded research, the medical and healthcare fraternity might be the answer. Social Science research is no less important to understand community and social behaviour. Economics research is essential to analyze the work related, fiscal and monetary implication of such crisis and lockdown on the economy. And we need to rethink our urban agenda, our deforestation plans, drilling for oil and mining activities. The more we disturb the natural environment of the wild animals the greater the danger. If it is a part of the culture to eat animals, be hygienic at least. If not, nature will claim its own and virus and more will find a conduit to attack!

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