Nature’s Blitzkrieg

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PARIBHA VASHIST

Many infectious, or contagious, diseases have emanated for long, but their scale and spread have been relatively localised. It was possible to effectively handle such epidemics because of the availability of medicines and vaccines. However, the newest tempest COVID-19 presents a novel challenge altogether. It has been declared as a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation [WHO]; it threatens to endanger entire mankind, as there is hardly any medicine available in the market as prophylactic against it, or cure, at the moment.

Now a question that would linger in everyone’s mind is: why is there no medicine available in the market that is effective against COVID-19, unlike other diseases in the past, and why is it taking so much time to develop medicines to fight this global pandemic? The main reason is that the genome of the coronavirus is different from the class of viruses that have been previously studied; also it was never anticipated by the scientific community that such a virus would cross the complicated natural barrier that exists between animal hosts and human beings and infect humans to such an enormous extent.

CORONAVIRUS: ‘NATURE’ OR BIO-WARFARE

Earlier reports and word of mouth blitz claimed that this virus had been genetically modified in the laboratory and was a biological weapon funded by the Chinese government [maybe, these are claims largely fuelled by the prejudice against the Chinese]. However, recent scientific studies have clearly nullified such purported claims. To highlight an excerpt from a recent study published in Nature Medicine: “[The] scientists found that the RBD portion of the SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins had evolved to effectively target a molecular feature on the outside of human cells called ACE2, a receptor involved in regulating blood pressure. The SARS-CoV-2 spike protein was so effective at binding the human cells, in fact, that the scientists concluded it was the result of natural selection, and not the product of genetic engineering.”

UNDERESTIMATED REALITY 

We live in a highly globalised and virtually ‘borderless’ world, which makes it rather easy for diseases to move around the world and have a devastating global impact, especially if the means of spread is through ‘fomites,’ irrespective of the actual source of origin. Even if a particular disease starts in a small locality of any country, it is most likely to engulf the entire world. So, the onus of disease prevention rests on every nation and, thus, it is to be taken as a serious global issue.

When reports of people being infected in Wuhan, China, because of coronavirus, came to the global forefront in December 2019, most countries, including India, considered it to be a distant issue and did not reckon that it would have an adverse impact on all of us to such a large extent. Had we known, or believed, we would have taken serious steps pronto and not have been in the current situation that we have to grapple with. 

QUARANTINE: THE BUZZWORD 

Quarantine, by definition, refers to a state, period, or place of isolation in which people, or animals, that have arrived from elsewhere, or been exposed to infectious or contagious disease are placed. This concept has come to prominence after the coronavirus became a global pandemic. Earlier only export and import goods and food sources were irradiated, or kept under quarantine, but never was there any talk of ‘human quarantine’ on such a large scale.

Imagine how absurd it would have been in the past to be scanned and checked for diseases at the airport after every international flight and then be told to observe a compulsory quarantine for 14 days every time we came from another country. Every international traveller would have been greatly annoyed by such a system and there would probably have been an international movement against such a system, but now it seems to be the utmost priority of every nation. 

DESTRUCTION  

Due to habitat destruction and damage to biodiversity, animals come into direct or indirect contact with humans, making the transmission of viruses and other pathogens easier from animals to humans. Human interference with the functioning of the natural system gradually destroys the highly sophisticated and evolved natural barrier that prevents the jumping over of pathogens from animal hosts to human beings. We were, all along, and for so long, going against the ideals of evolution, and natural selection, by consciously destroying our environment.

When we talked about the repercussions of disrupting the natural ecosystem we merely thought about deforestation, loss of biodiversity and disruption of biological cycles and corresponding factors. But, we never imagined that the transmission of deadly diseases into the human population would be triggered by our reckless actions. Analyse our present status, and just think of it: what is the outcome of our futile actions of the past? We destroyed the natural systems to expand our agricultural spaces and urban systems to support our ever-increasing population and to making our lives simpler, but now we are all ‘locked’ in our homes defending ourselves as much as possible against this ‘invisible and invincible enemy,’ as French President Emmanuel Macron aptly put it.

TRANSITION   

The fantasy of ‘non-vegetarianism’ over simple vegetarian lifestyles has bloomed exponentially over the years. In the historical context, the eating of all kinds of animals and insects seemed to be justified considering that the availability of resource rich food was scarce in China and elsewhere worldwide and the wild animal markets, where diseases could be easily transferred from animals to humans, thrived. But, now the situation has turned 360 degrees.

We can all consciously choose to forgo the unnecessary slaughtering of animals to satisfy our appetites because in this globalised world we all have access to different kinds of nutritional and environmentally friendly food sources. However, the saddest part and the harsh reality is that the ‘eating’ of these innocent animals has become a part of our culture and the slaughtering of certain animals has been sanctioned on the pretext of traditions and religions — so it becomes a sensitive topic to debate in general as it invokes strong communal feelings. Well, it has become ever more crucial to look at the big picture to get a larger perspective: that which relates to the survival of the human race where divisive factors play no role. Adopting a focused eco-friendly lifestyle is the need of the hour and we must all be willing to make sacrifices for the larger cause. 

HUMAN INTERVENTION: ROOT CAUSE  

The situation in the world seems to worsen with every passing day. Yet, there is hope that we will overcome this global pandemic. However, there is no guarantee that similar epidemics, or pandemics, will not repeat in the future, because the human population seems to be rather blindfolded to what nature is repeatedly trying to show us.

The root cause of this large-scale transmission of a plethora of diseases from animals to humans is human intervention. Our disruption of the ecosystem, its functioning and our large scale destruction of the natural habitats of scores of animals for our materialistic, or commercial, aspirations, or for the satisfaction of our so-called high-quality lifestyles, is the primary reason behind all our past or present woes.

The lesson to be learned, which must be highlighted and embraced by the global community, is that of sustainability. Unless we learn to live in harmony with nature, we cannot expect anything better than the present reality we are living in. It is high time we realised this and took serious action, right from the grassroots level.

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