Covid-19: When The Wild Moves In
THE WEEK|March 29, 2020
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Covid-19: When The Wild Moves In
All recent epidemics emerged, and reemerged more virulent and dangerous, as a result of human encroachment of forests
Kalpish Ratna

Covid-19 was no surprise. After SARS (2003) and MERS-CoV (2012), it was only a matter of time before another lethal coronavirus stung us. Why were we unprepared? Let me rephrase that question: Why did we let it happen again?

We failed to prevent it because we failed to recognise a truth that stares us in the face. It would be more correct to say we refuse to recognise it. Here is a litany of the landscape of this very inconvenient truth: Yellow fever, Zika fever, dengue, chikungunya, Ebola, SARS, Nipah virus, Kyasanur Forest disease, MERS-CoV, rabies, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, sleeping sickness, Hantavirus, Japanese encephalitis, malaria and counting.

Though these diseases are widely different, their landscape of origin is the same. And, it is a shockingly familiar one, no matter where you live.

It is a landscape without trees.

All the listed diseases emerged—or reemerged more virulent and dangerous—as a result of human encroachment on forests. Historically, we might trace them to tropical rainforests, but right now we must look closer to home. Because the forest was, till very recently, right here somewhere. In and about your housing colony. Around that gated highrise and its adjacent slum. Diseases emerge when we clear forests, cut down trees, flatten hills, dam rivers and squat on all this usurped territory. Within a 5km radius of my home are breeding grounds for at least seven of those listed diseases. But do we ever notice?

If we go by environmental policy alone, disease is the default position.

We brag that our species achieved 12 extinctions last year, mostly insects one is duty-bound to squash. We have shoot-on-sight orders for other vermin. Our babies imbibe DDT in their very first mouthful of milk. Can policy do more? Yet all it takes is a virus to push us to the brink of extinction. Let us look at why we should have expected Covid-19.

Many emerging diseases like those listed above are zoonoses, diseases from other vertebrates. Their origins can usually be traced to wildlife. They may have stayed on unnoticed in the wild and never made the species jump to infect us if a stable ecosystem had been left undisturbed.


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March 29, 2020