Coronavirus: Deforestation, biodiversity loss

Coronavirus: Deforestation, biodiversity loss

IMPACT OF COVID-19

Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya, India: Waterfall over the Khasi Hill overlooking the road and forests of Bangladesh near Cherrapunjee, the wettest place on eath. This shot was taken in summer towards the end of the monsoon period.Nature

Abusing animals is linked to world’s health. Coronavirus is a zoonotic disease passed on from animals to humans. It probably jumped species in Wuhan’s wet markets. SARS epidemic of 2002-04 spread to civet cats from bats. Bird flu also began in China and moved to humans from diseased poultry. The Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome came to humans via camels. Ebola was caught from gorillas and chimpanzees and began in Congo first.

The travellers from China, Italy, Iran, Spain, other European countries and the US exported coronavirus to our country. As the infection started growing in March, several state governments clamped lockdown. It finally led to 21 days of national lockdown on March 24, extended till May 3. By now, more than 25 lakh people are infected worldwide due to this pandemic and 5% of them are dead. 

The infection imported from overseas is spreading in cities and heavily populated slums. Nearly 10 crore migrant labourers working in major cities are suddenly out of job and many of them have not been able to reach their native places. 

State governments and NGOs are providing food in cities, but they are in no position to cover all hungry men and women. The government is implementing a package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore and has transferred money through Jan Dhan accounts etc, but it is not adequate. The US government is spending 8% of its GDP to empower its people whereas we are spending only 1%. 

Personal hygiene, face mask and social distancing will be continued to be practiced till a vaccine is found. People are forced to live alone like never before, prompting many to rely on digital communication to connect to their near and dear ones and also to discharge the official functions.

Interestingly, self-isolation is observed in some species in animal kingdom, probably except when they eat and breed. Such species as listed by World Wide Fund for Nature are marine turtles, blue whales, snow leopards, polar bears, jaguars, orangutans, giant pandas and platypus. 

The United Kingdom government initially encouraged people to mingle so that they develop herd immunity. However, following warnings by experts, several western countries announced measures to contain the virus spread.

Polluted air in urban areas causes hypertension, diabetes and respiratory illnesses which could lead to higher overall death toll from the virus currently sweeping the world. European Respiratory Society has observed that emissions from fossil fuel burning could imperil the most vulnerable during this and future pandemics. 

Associate Professor of the Society Sara De Matteis said, “Patients with chronic lung and heart conditions caused or worsened by long-term exposure of air pollution are less likely to fight of lung infections and are more likely to die.” While there is no proven link between COVID-19 mortality and air pollution, a peer-reviewed study regarding 2003 Sars outbreak showed that the patients living in moderate air pollution have 84% greater risk of dying as compared to those living in low air pollution. 

We have been leaving carbon footprints in nature at an alarming rate but now there are beneficial effects of the clampdown. The precautions for checking the spread are very helpful in minimising unnecessary travels, less vehicular movements on roads, less crowding in religious places, markets, malls etc. 

Fossil fuel

With the decrease in fossil fuel burning, carbon pollution remains in check while air quality in cities improves. The spread of the virus is, therefore, helping in capping global rise in temperature. Nasa satellite images show that there is a dramatic decline in pollution level, reduction in nitrogen dioxide level, the noxious gas emission from motor vehicles, power plants and industries in all lockdown-hit areas. Wildlife is a having a free run even on main roads passing through their habitats. Water in streams is cleaner. 

Deforestation and loss of biodiversity is also linked to the virus. “Human health is connected to animal health and also to the health of the forests. Diseases passed from animals to humans are on the rise as the world continues to see unprecedented destruction of wild habitats by human activity. Humans and nature are in one connected system and we need to understand that we do not push things too far and face adverse consequences,’ said Doreen Robinson, Chief of Wildlife at United Nations Environment program (UNEP). 

Earlier in 2016, the UNEP had concluded in one of the reports that expanding populations and worsening climate change impacts are putting greater pressure on land with deforestation, urbanisation, intensifying agriculture and resource extractions providing more opportunities to pathogens to spill over from animals to people. 

Communities residing in and around forests have extracted the resource, expanded agriculture and grazing land. Land use patterns have changed. Cities, roads and buildings have come where once there were forests. This has caused ecological and socio-economic impacts on human and regional fauna. Urbanisations have led to higher population densities in cities and increased chances of infectious disease outbreaks. And if crowded cities are poorly planned like the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, the populations are more vulnerable for the disease outbreaks. 

Monitoring service of global forest watch has found that tropical countries have lost 12 million hectare of forest cover in 2018 on account of forest fire, clearing of tree growth for extending cultivation, mining, extracting forest resources etc. Among the countries, Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia are the biggest losers. Deforestation leads to loss of habitat, more human-animal interaction and transmission of the virus. 

While we need to distribute grains and cash to the poor and migrant workers till the lockdown is lifted, one of the long-term solutions would be to secure wild habitats and put a moratorium on deforestation and destruction of biodiversity.

(The writer is retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka)