The novel coronavirus outbreak has spread across the world, and has left countries scrambling to respond in its wake. While the virus has been causing panic among people and markets, we must also address some of the lessons the pandemic has for humanity.
Perhaps, if we heed these lessons, the health of people, the environment and of the planet as a whole is likely to transform.
Don’t mess up with wildlife
A large number of viruses and other disease causing micro-organisms live in wild animals. Over the last few viral epidemics such as SARS and MERS, the viruses originated in bats, and were passed on to wild cats and camels respectively – possibly through their droppings. Capturing, slaughtering, trading and consumption of these wild animals led to the transmission of these viruses to humans.
Unfortunately, these viruses not only transmitted from animals to humans but were also able to jump from humans to humans – leading to these epidemics.
Over last several decades, human greed, aided by technology, has led to ever increasing interference with wildlife and the trading of wild animals has continued unabated. Not only does this serve to endanger species and push them to the brink of extinction, they also affect the larger ecosystems. As these epidemics point out, such unbridled interaction has an immediate and more tangible danger of making the human race extinct.
That’s why lesson number one is simple: Stop trading wildlife, and limit interference in such ecosystems.
As a resident doctors in the nineties, we would receive washed and autoclaved cloth masks and gowns every day; and glass syringes. At the end of the day, we would fold them back into cloth covers and send them back for autoclaving. Rubber gloves were also autoclaved and reused.
Then came the era of disposables, and life became simpler. Using disposable syringes led to a decline in HIV. But then the disposal of “disposables” became a huge problem. This continues to be a threat to the environment despite extensive guidelines.
As we face a shortage of masks and gloves during the current pandemic, is it a time to look back at replacing some of the disposable medical supplies such as face masks with reusables? Or a judicious combination of reusables and disposables? It would be good for the environment and would also prevent shortages like these in the face of future outbreak of respiratory infections.
Between 2004 to 2019, the number of air passengers worldwide increased more than two times from times from 1,994 million to 4,540 million per year. Air travel leads to significant emission of greenhouse gases; and is estimated to be between 2-4% of all emissions. Besides air travel, other forms of surface travel also lead significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.
In China, which is considered to be the world’s largest carbon emitter, experts estimate that greenhouse gas emissions over the past month have been about 25% lower than normal. A significant drop in air and surface travel contributed significantly.
Such a drop in such a short period of time could, of course, decelerate the climate change and global warming, but would be sustainable only if we heed to the third lesson from coronavirus pandemic: Travel only if you need to. Consume if you need to. Emit if you need to. Else you will be consumed in this cosmic dance of man and nature.
Aldous Huxley would have never imagined that the inhabitants of the brave new world would be washing their hands so vigorously because of a virus. Ironically, millions of children continue to die due to diarrhoea and pneumonia because their families do not have access to water, soap and knowledge to wash hands. We have failed these children, but this is one time where we could recommit ourselves to provide the resources and knowledge to everyone to ensure the simplest of life saving practice.
Lesson number four is simple again: wash hands, and not only during an epidemic.
Pavitra Mohan is co-founder, Basic Health Care Services, and director, Health Services, Aajeevika Bureau.
Featured image credit: Reuters/Luis Echeverria