Prof Snowden admonishes that ‘what happens in the long run depends on us’. If we don’t take this seriously and act accordingly, we will have to face the dire consequences
By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
In the plethora of views expressed on various aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the collateral damages that it is causing in the social, economic and global political spheres, one of the common remarks made is that nature is taking its revenge on us. The implication is that we are apart from nature; nature is as if the ‘other’, to be treated as such. In fact, since the advent of science – for all the good that it has done and continues to do –, technology, and industry, the ruling mindset has been in line with the belief that we humans have the right to exert dominion over nature, to exploit it for our benefit. Which indeed we have been doing ruthlessly since then.
Prof Frank Snowden advises that ‘we have to reconfigure our cities, reconfigure our relationship with the environment, reconfigure our health care systems’, though he adds, ‘None of that will happen soon’. Photo – www.weforum.org
As a result, we have created the conditions for disrupting and destroying the natural habitats and ecosystems of other living beings, which have thus been forced to find ways to continue existing. In other words to survive, in line with the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest. Covid-19 exemplifies this very well, for it has overturned our notion of our biological supremacy. Clearly, the fact that it can render ill millions of humans and kill by the hundreds of thousands shows that it is mightier than our vulnerable and frail bodies.
But we invited it in our midst, didn’t we, creating the conditions for it to jump from the animals in which it was coexisting: bats and pangolins.
And that is the point that is made by Frank Snowden, professor emeritus of history and medical history at Yale University, in his book published in 2019, after four decades of research, Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. In an interview to Rudraneil Sengupta of Hindustan Times (New Delhi, May 01), he alluded to what he had said in his book, ‘we have a ticking time bomb, because we live in a world of microbes and we create channels, because of the way our societies are structured, that microbes can exploit’.
In fact he was speaking from Rome, where he had gone to do research – and got infected! But luckily he was a mild case of Covid-19, and had recovered after three weeks of quarantine. He pointed out that –
‘The 19th century was the era of industrial revolution and it created diseases transmitted via the oral/fecal route, cholera and typhoid, because industrialization meant the sudden flooding of European cities by populations from the countryside for whom no preparations had been made and who overwhelmed the urban infrastructure. There was no clean water supply, no sewer systems, and dangers of contaminated water or food. Society at that time created an environmental niche for diseases like cholera and typhoid to exploit.’
And Covid-19, which he defines ‘as the first pandemic of globalization’, found its niches: ‘massive population growth, crowding and mega cities; an industrial model that encourages rapacious growth without counting the environmental cost. By destroying biodiversity and animal habitat, we are bringing humans into relationships with animal reservoirs of disease that humans hardly encountered in the past’.
Further on, he goes on to say: ‘Then there is 24-hour transport by air across the world. So, let’s say if there is a new virus in Jakarta in the morning, it can be in Los Angeles by nightfall. These are not vulnerabilities put upon us by god or nature. This is not a random event, not something out of the blue or a Biblical plague. Humans provide the conditions for epidemics to flourish.’
We cannot deny that as modern humans, we inhabit the earth and destroy it for our pleasure. Similarly, a virus that gets into our body considers it as just a host to inhabit and reproduce. Unlike humans, it doesn’t consciously destroy the host. There are millions of viruses inside our body, happily living and co-existing. However, the body reacts to certain types of viruses only – those that have been uprooted from their natural environment, that then allows them to cross over to humans, as in the case of Covid-19. When aggressive reaction of the human body towards the external object creates the problem, we fall sick.
Usually, viruses are very specific, infecting only one species, one organ or one type of tissue in the body. However, COVID-19, despite targeting the lungs primarily, has been reported in studies done Europe and the US, to have caused disease in other organs too: the heart, kidneys, brain, eyes, skin. A few days ago, a particular type of multi-organ inflammation has been described in children as young as 15 months old suffering from COVID-19, but since it resembles another condition known as Kawasaki disease that affects blood vessels, more research is required before it can be causally linked to COVID-19.
Besides, the lung infection it is causing in many cases is not responding to oxygen administration through ventilators as would be expected, leading almost 80% of patients so treated in New York, for example, to die. On the other hand, another observation that is being noted is that Covid-19 affects all age groups, though it predominates in the elderly.
This means that its disease impact is vastly more complicated than was initially thought, so that treatment also is going to be difficult. Added to the timeline about the availability, affordability and access of a vaccine by the billions who will be requiring it, this makes the probability of the pandemic impact to last until even 2022 a real one.
And so, as Prof Frank Snowden advises, ‘we have to reconfigure our cities, reconfigure our relationship with the environment, reconfigure our health care systems’, though he adds, ‘None of that will happen soon’.
More tellingly, he admonishes that ‘what happens in the long run depends on us’. If we don’t take this seriously and act accordingly, we will have to face the dire consequences.
* Published in print edition on 5 May 2020