Covid-19 is a message from nature to human?

A painting received from my 8 years old grand daughter Akshiya reflects the human-animal conflict that has gone uncontrolled for decades in Sri Lanka with elephants fast losing its green habitat, with deforestation for cultivation yellow land, man-made blue irrigation canals separating dark green land reserved for human habitat, with excess heat from hot Sun. Thus loss of wild spaces has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbor diseases that can jump to humans. It was confirmed this morning by a message received from my niece Anusha, now living in USA on the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, it read: “We by passed China with confirmed cases….NYC is in hell now…all please stay safe!”

Reports in the media are clear, that nature is sending a message with the corona-virus pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis; for humanity has placed too many pressures on the natural world with damaging consequences and warned that failing to take care of the planet Earth meant not taking care of ourselves. Many leading scientists have said the COVID-19 outbreak was a “clear warning shot”, given that far more deadly diseases existed in wildlife and that today’s civilization was “playing with fire”. That it was almost always human behavior that caused diseases to spill over into humans.

To prevent further outbreaks, the experts have said, both global warming and the destruction of the natural world for farming, mining and housing have to end; as both drive wildlife into contact with people. They also urged authorities to put an end to live animal markets – which they called an “ideal mixing bowl” for disease – and the illegal global animal trade.

According to the executive director of the UN Environment Programme, the immediate priority was to protect people from the coronavirus and prevent its spread. But our long-term response must tackle habitat and biodiversity loss. Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people, explaining that 75% of all emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife. Our continued erosion of wild spaces has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbor diseases that can jump to humans. The UN expert also noted other environmental impacts, such as the Australian bush fires, broken heat records and the worst locust invasion in Kenya for 70 years.

At the end of the day, by all of these events, nature is sending us a message. There are too many pressures at the same time on our natural systems and something has to give way. We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves. And as we hurtle towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we need to go into this future armed with nature as our strongest ally.

Whereas, 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 cross from animals to humans. The emergence and spread of Covid-19 was not only predictable, it was predicted that there would be another viral emergence from wildlife that would be a public health threat, according to Prof Andrew Cunningham, of the Zoological Society of London.

A 2007 study of the 2002-03 Sars outbreak concluded “The presence of a large reservoir of Sars-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.” Cunningham said other diseases from wildlife had much higher fatality rates in people, such as 50% for Ebola and 60%-75% for Nipah virus, transmitted from bats in South Asia. “Although, you might not think it at the moment, we’ve probably got a bit lucky with COVID-19,” he said. “So I think we should be taking this as a clear warning shot. It’s a throw of the dice.” Wild animals sold at the Wuhan Huanan seafood market in China, linked to first cases of the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s almost always a human behavior that causes it and there will be more in the future unless we change,” said Cunningham. Markets butchering live wild animals from far and wide are the most obvious example, he said. A market in China is believed to have been the source of COVID-19. “The animals have been transported over large distances and are crammed together into cages. They are stressed and immune suppressed and excreting whatever pathogens they have in them,” he said.

“With people in large numbers in the market and in intimate contact with the body fluids of these animals, you have an ideal mixing bowl for disease emergence. If you wanted a scenario to maximize the chances of transmission, I couldn’t think of a much better way of doing it.” China has banned such markets, and Cunningham said this must be permanent. “However, this needs to be done globally.

There are wet markets throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa and a lot of other Asian countries too.” The ease of travel in the modern world exacerbates the dangers, he said, adding: “These days, you can be in a central African rain-forest one day and in central London the next.” Aaron Bernstein, at the Harvard School of Public Health in the US, said the destruction of natural places drives wildlife to live close to people and that climate change was also forcing animals to move:

“That creates an opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts.” “We’ve had Sars, Mers, COVID-19, HIV. We need to see what nature is trying to tell us here. We need to recognize that we’re playing with fire,” he said. “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 billion-dollar illegal wildlife trade is another part of the problem, said John Scanlon, the former secretary general of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. “Importing countries should create a new legal obligation, supported by criminal sanctions, for an importer of wildlife to prove that it was legally obtained under the source country’s national laws,” he said. “If we can blend taking a hard line against transnational organised wildlife criminals, while also opening up new opportunities for local communities, then we will see biodiversity, ecosystems and communities thrive.”

The COVID-19 crisis may provide an opportunity for change, but Cunningham is not convinced it will be taken: “I thought things would have changed after Sars, which was a massive wake up call – the biggest economic impact of any emerging disease to that date,” he said.

In the grace period of my life, at 75, looking back how a well placed united paradise named Ceylon in the Indian Ocean, got ruined over a period of seven decades. It is today a debt ridden republic named Sri Lanka; misrule has disintegrated it to many groups of hamlets filled with different divided communities each with its own leaders who have collectively exploited the resources. It placed much pressure on the nature with damaging consequences and contributing negatively meant not taking care of ourselves. It reminded me of Mahatma Gandhi, the great son of India, who once said “Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth”; for what my niece has said about New York City is nothing but the truth, even though she is a minority of one. As majority of people in this planet Earth, would accept that the destruction of wildlife and the climate crisis caused by humans is hurting humanity. Thus COVID-19 is a clear warning for all leaders to rethink about the way they are ruling their country at present.