Spring In The Time Of Coronavirus
A pair of Grey Hornbills on a Semal tree. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)

Spring In The Time Of Coronavirus

BloombergQuintOpinion

A virus that hasn’t even been properly named is causing havoc all over the world. In the last few weeks, life has changed drastically with the outbreak of coronavirus, also called SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. Trips, conferences, and business meetings have been cancelled. Stocks have fallen. Offices and schools have been shut down, both in metros and smaller places. People have died.

The death toll is above 3,200 and 95,000 people are infected worldwide. Fear of contamination is so thick and real that itineraries of infected people are being studied intently to screen others who may be infected.

A man who came to Bengaluru from Dubai and then took a bus to Hyderabad had coronavirus, and could have infected others in Hyderabad. Italian tourists in India are being tracked and people are quarantined.

A thermal screening system in Singapore. (Photographer: Wei Ling Tay/Bloomberg)
A thermal screening system in Singapore. (Photographer: Wei Ling Tay/Bloomberg)

Corona is one in a long line of recently-discovered, novel viruses, like Zika, Ebola, MERS and SARS before it. These viruses mutate quickly, often jump between species, and give people no time to respond as they strike. Scientists predict that with climate change, more novel viruses will grow. Increased temperature conditions are changing ranges of animals or vectors and increasing cross-species interactions, and viruses are able to cross over to people.

Even in 2020, despite advancements in medical science, the fact is that a single touch can kill us.

We are staggeringly far behind in tackling bio-hazards. In fact, the last few months show us how confounding nature can be. A series of locust swarms over Asia and Africa devastated crops. Even though various elimination measures were used, the damage could barely be controlled. China sent an army of ‘disciplined ducks’ to Pakistan to eat the locusts. Months before that, drought and climate change led to fires in Australia that were so severe that the country culled over 5,000 camels (with the ultimate target being double that number), because they were ‘drinking too much water’. Hundreds of kilometres of property were razed to the ground. Firefighters could not control fires for days on end despite ample political will.

 A volunteer dousing a fire in New South Wales, Australia. (Photographer: David Gray/Bloomberg)
A volunteer dousing a fire in New South Wales, Australia. (Photographer: David Gray/Bloomberg)

Many would consider nature as a dangerous, life-threatening entity. The other, more sensible way is to consider nature as a partner in our progress – and an understanding of natural systems providing a pillar of growth. Green economists posit models of sustainability which do not degrade environmental ecosystems, and use nature-based solutions as answers to our woes. In our current crisis, it is also incumbent to understand that environmental degradation and the changing climate have a price – a loss of man days, and loss to GDP. In a study released in 2013, the World Bank estimated that particle pollution through burning fossil fuel cause a 5.7 percent loss to the GDP in India each year.

A Few Lessons Emerge

We need to reduce impacts of environmental stress and warming. Apart from novel viruses, the World Health Organization warns that as temperatures increase globally, favourable spaces for traditional vector-born disease like malaria will increase. For India this will be devastating. As per WHO figures, a global temperature increase of 2-3 degree Celsius would correspond to increasing number of people who are at climactic risk of getting malaria to 3-5 percent more, which is millions of more people.

Any other form of environmental stress can increase disease impacts. For instance, bats are carriers of many viruses (such as Nipah). Bats have strong immune systems, and they do not get infected themselves. But habitat loss and deforestation stresses bats, and this could lead to them shedding viruses into the environment around them.

Preserving the sanctity of environmental systems like forests, and immediately cutting down on fossil fuel and global warming are two sensible ways ahead.

Amongst the global crisis though, spring emerges. It is amongst the nicest times of the year. Native Indian trees have shed leaves to put out large, showy flowers. Some of these trees—like Semal and Palash—also put out a fantasy of food, preparing wildlife for a long, hot, nutrient-poor summer to come. It is the season for courting and breeding, and thus of rebirth. Birds that have come here from the Arctic regions will prepare to turn back; Indian species meanwhile line nests, find mates and secure food.

A brown-headed Barbet feeds on a Semal flower. (Photograph: Neha Sinha) 
A brown-headed Barbet feeds on a Semal flower. (Photograph: Neha Sinha) 

This is one of the best times to appreciate the natural world, as Nature puts on her best clothes—birds in breeding plumage, trees and plants bursting with buds, the air redolent with birdsong.

In our altered world, Frankenstein diseases are likely to become the norm. 

As insurance companies scramble to figure out how exactly to insure climate change—if at all one can be insured—we need to urgently work towards our own mental health.

A purple Sunbird in breeding plumage. The feathers change at spring time for the courting period. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)   
A purple Sunbird in breeding plumage. The feathers change at spring time for the courting period. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)   

Doctors recommend that people should touch mud each day; this is easily done through gardening. The microbes in the soil make our immunity stronger. It is also important to sweat every day, in order to regulate body temperature and flush out toxins (and potential disease). This can be done by taking walks outdoors, and not staying in air-conditioning all the time.

As we live in fear, we also need to take the opportunity to see the ecosystem that supports the spread of disease.

Some of it is political, with countries clamping down on genuine concern as rumour-mongering. The most tragic example is of China clamping down on Doctor Li Wenliang who tried to warn about the impending virus (there were similar concerns about encephalitis in Uttar Pradesh). Many other reasons for the thriving ecosystem of disease are environmental, human-caused disruptions to warming and cooling climactic systems.

It is purely logical that we should do our best to stop more warming.

Springtime is perhaps the best time to reconnect with nature, and think of Nature not as something to be conquered, but worked with as a partnership.

Development is not just construction and concrete. It is creating a system that can honour nature and progress both, and not make the world worse than it is.  
A common Myna on a Semal tree. (Photograph: Neha Sinha) 
A common Myna on a Semal tree. (Photograph: Neha Sinha) 

The Semal tree itself could be an analogy for the development path we have to take. Some people look at the tree and bemoan the dropped flowers that gather on windscreens and get smashed under soles. Others marvel that man-made cities could have so much nature-made beauty. And perhaps a few can appreciate that we need trees to grant us air, reduce noise and dust, and give us crucial perspective on what kind of cities we should live in.

Neha Sinha works with the Bombay Natural History Society.

Views expressed are personal. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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