They say true failure is when one fails and still does not learn his lesson.
By the end of last year, a pneumonia of unknown cause was detected in China. By now, while writing this article, this new contagion – COVID 19, has already spread all over the planet, taken over 80,000 human lives and infected millions more. Within a few days of its manifestation, in early January, it became evident that this virus originated from a wet market of Wuhan in China. This same wet market, apart from seafood, also illegally sold a multitude of other wildlife animals. Experts of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) successfully isolated the virus in samples taken from this Wuhan wet market. Thirty-three out of 585 environmental samples obtained from the market indicated evidence of coronavirus disease. Chinese authorities then quickly put a temporary countrywide ban on wildlife trade. Subsequently, on 24th February they also imposed a comprehensive and complete ban on consumption and trading of wildlife anywhere in China.
However, this was only a façade. Environmentalists noticed loopholes in this restriction. Although trade and consumption of wildlife was banned, China did not curb the use of wild animals in traditional Chinese medicine. Going ahead, within a month after restricting trade and consumption, the Chinese government has now recommended using Tan Re Qing, an injection containing bear bile, to treat severe and critical COVID-19 cases. Secreted by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, bile from various species of bears has been used in Chinese medicine traditionally. It is one of the recommended treatments against Coronavirus. China’s National Health Commission published this list of recommended treatments on 4th March.
Paradox or irony – shutting down live trade in animals on the one hand and promoting the same trade, under the disguise of medicine, on the other? It was neither a paradox nor an irony but a “true failure.”
Furthermore, the Saga continues. Two months after Chinese authorities had locked down, On 30th March, Wuhan wet market, the place from where Coronavirus jumped into human lives, is now re-opened and has, in fact, also started selling wild animals again!
A wet market is a marketplace selling fresh meat, fish, poultry produce, and other perishable goods, including vegetables. Chinese and some other Asian and African wet markets, however, are different and are traditionally notorious. Alongside other routine wet products, they also sell, legally and illegally, a plethora of domestic and wild animals. These often include even endangered and threatened species. Chinese people customarily have flagrant habits of eating exotic animals. These habits are for good health and a sort of status symbol for them. Traditional Chinese medicine also includes the use of organs of such exotic animals for treatments. Therefore, China is one of the significant destinations of illegally trafficked wild animals. According to the Chinese Academy of Engineering’s report in 2017, this trade is estimated to be around $74 billion per year.
The Wuhan wet market, the origin of Coronavirus, is no different in notoriety than other Chinese wet markets. As media reports claim, besides seafood, Wuhan wet market also sold plenty of other dead and living species. A list of such sold products is a compelling one. Different kinds of rodents, rats, camels, civets, crocodiles, donkeys, foxes, dogs, frogs, giant salamanders, hedgehogs, koalas, ostrich, pangolins, otters, peacocks, rabbit organs, snakes, spotted dear, turtles, wolf puppies. The list is unending.
Almost all types of wild animals or their organs are sold in these markets simultaneously. These cramped, overcrowded, filthy market places present ideal conditions for an interface to transfer various microbes from animals to human beings. The conditions in which these animals are held in captivity, stress them, and under this stress, they shed and excrete viruses, which they otherwise naturally host. Animals of different species, and immaterial if dead or alive, are mixed and stored together in these markets. Such conditions offer an excellent possibility for the exchange of viruses or viral components between these animals. Slaughtering these animals, handling their meat and blood, transporting these products, and taking them home – are all so idealistic conditions that no one can design a better pathogen spill-over interface than this. By handling and ingesting their blood, these pathogens get an opportunity to enter the human body.
“Pathogens do not respect species boundaries,” says disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie, an associate professor in Emory University’s department of environmental sciences, who studies how shrinking natural habitats and changing behavior add to the risk of diseases spilling over from animals to humans. “I am not at all surprised about the coronavirus outbreak,” he says. “The majority of pathogens are still to be discovered. We are at the very tip of the iceberg.” Humans, says Gillespie, are creating the conditions for the spread of diseases by reducing the natural barriers between host animals and human being themselves.
All over the world, wildlife is being put under tremendous stress. There are significant landscape changes for ‘economic growth’ and human ‘progress.’ We are causing animals to lose habitats, which means species become crowded together and also come into greater contact with humans. Human activities make species move and mix with different animals and also with humans. Nevertheless, human health research around pandemics seldom considers the surrounding natural ecosystems.
“There is misapprehension among scientists and the public that natural ecosystems are the source of threats to ourselves. It is a mistake. Nature poses threats, it is true, but it is human activities that do the real damage. The health risks in a natural environment can be made much worse when we interfere with it,” says Richard Ostfeld, a distinguished senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York.
Risks of these sorts of infections from animals are far more significant and inescapable now. Animals always hosted these microbes. Nature always had these risks inherent there. We must consider how we can change our interaction with such risks.
“We are in an era now of chronic emergency,” says Brian Bird, a research virologist at the University of California. “Diseases are more likely to travel further and faster than before, which means we must be faster in our responses. It needs investments and changes in human behavior. We cannot predict where the next pandemic will come from. The only certain thing is that the next one will certainly come.”
It is inevitable now, and therefore we need to be prepared. We, therefore, need to make changes within ourselves now. This situation is an emergency. We need to consider ways to minimize our interaction with the wild. We need to allocate more funds to preserve our forests.
We need to have specific and structured plans and more governmental machinery to conserve the environment. We need far more stringent laws and enforcements to restrict wildlife trade. We need regulations to curb human cruelty.
Our projections for economic growth must take into account the limited natural resources we have. Our economic stimulus packages to bring the economy “back on track” must include reasonable amounts of sums to look after Mother Nature so that such catastrophic situations may not occur again in the future. Unfortunately, stimulus packages declared by various countries now, do not mention anything about such considerations. We are only throwing our good money after bad. We need likes of the World Bank and IMF to consider having a separate fund that can be utilized only to mitigating the possibilities of spill-overs of such contagions again.
There has to be a paradigm shift now when we consider economic growth and employment creation. Old industries that nurture human greed, materialistic lifestyles, and consumerist culture must now take a back seat. Newer industries that can generate wealth and employment and conserve nature at the same time must be built up. One such good example can be afforestation drives on global scales. Such drives can generate massive employment opportunities and revenues and help the planet to reduce greenhouse gases at the same time.
Another example can be, unfertile lands, which are available in millions of hectors in tropical countries, can be used to harness solar energy. This development will help generate incomes for poor in rural areas and, at the same time, cut down burdens from conventional energy production. Similarly, the production of Electric Vehicles must be pushed on a mega scale. Intra-city bus transport all over the world can be transformed onto the electric platform in a short period. Cleansing and conservation of marine biodiversity can be a huge industry by itself. It will also create new employment opportunities and wealth generation. Preparedness to handle future pandemic, if at all, should be done the way nations spend millions on war and defense preparedness.
The recent steep drop in oil prices is also a great opportunity for countries to lower or remove subsidies for fossil fuel consumption. There are around USD 400 billion of these subsidies worldwide today, and more than 40% of them are to make oil products cheaper.
These thoughts need further deliberation and conceptualization. The essence of the matter is that the time has come to rethink our approach towards our so-called ‘economic progress.’ Environmental economists, intellectuals, and think tanks must design common strategies for the entire world, for its growth and also for conservation, without considering national borders, barriers, and political differences. This will benefit entire humanity and especially our future generations. Time has come to think about what sort of planet we are handing over to our children. We must stop throwing our good money after bad.
Rather than putting up a fight with nature, we must understand it and try to be one with this creation. We must change our ways of behavior. It is the need of this hour, else our “GDP growths and progresses” will be at the mercy of impending pandemics. After 80,000 deaths and many more on the way, humanity, at least now, must learn a lesson. Moreover, if not, then it will be our “True Failure.”
IMF policy tracker
Website of The Nature
Website of World Resources Institute
The Orion Magazine
The Scientific American