Lessons from pandemic: Time to treat climate breakdown as an emergency

Disease is the direct result of a stressed environmental system and it is time to treat climate breakdown as a global health emergency

Environmental degradation is the portal through which zoonotic pathogens leave their animal hosts and travel to humans. Image: iStock

The global nature of a pandemic can perhaps be understood from its etymology. In Greek, pan means all and demos means people. There is no escaping therefore that a pandemic by its natural design affects all people. However, by unnatural design, pandemics do not affect all people equally.

The current SARS-COV-2 pandemic, as we are seeing is poking desperate holes in our political, economic, social, and environmental systems. It is not a great ‘equaliser’ as many claim it to be, but is, in fact, a great divider. So far, it has been proving to be the kind of unprecedented disrupter that we are arguably yet to see in this generation.

As the entire world is on a war footing against a common agent, the comparisons to the World Wars are not unwarranted. The earliest ever pandemic was recorded during the Peloponnesian War in 430 BC and it was thought to be typhoid fever. The first pandemic of the 21st century was the 2009 H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic which had an estimated death toll of 2,84,500 people, but even that looks like a slovenly dress rehearsal for this one.

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Since the early aughts, however, there have been several outbreaks of Yellow Fever, Ebola, Zika, Nipah, MERS, SARS, etc. resulting in the structuring of modern pandemic responses. There have been several repeated warnings of an influenza-like virus causing global pandemic growing louder over the past ten years.

EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based non-profit is one of the leading agencies that study the emergences of new diseases and the bell of warning they have been ringing has fairly been consistent. According to Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth Alliance and a leading emerging disease expert, they have been raising the flag on zoonotic diseases for over 15 years.

The PREDICT program of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was missioned with identifying animal-borne pathogens after the 2005 bird flu scare. This program cost over $200 million and identified 931 new viruses, which included SARS and MERS-like coronaviruses across the globe. However, in October 2019, funding for the program collapsed and it was essentially put into hibernation, but not before they identified 50 SARS-like coronaviruses.

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In a report released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, researchers note that “it is penny-wise and pound-foolish to continually invest in large emergency responses without investing in effective disease surveillance systems”. Searching for diseases in animals that could potentially break through the species barrier, could help prevent outbreaks among humans in the long run.

In 2018, The Global Virome Project was launched, headed by Daszak, in an attempt to identify as many zoonotic viruses as possible and to create an atlas of all potential threats. It was heavily criticised because of the cost, which was $1.2 billion. The rationale behind the project was to create a “living library” of zoonotic viruses that would give us a better chance of identifying the causative agent of the next pandemic.

Coronaviruses are unique because they have one of the largest RNA viral genomes. Because RNA does not have the proofreading ability of DNA, these viruses are also far more susceptible to mutations. Coronaviruses are also known to cause infections in poultry, camels, pigs, etc. Bats are known carriers of coronaviruses, but their immune systems can handle the viral loads and deregulate the effects.

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However, all these factors mean that conditions are ideal for a broiling genetic soup. By keeping track of the various mutations that coronaviruses undergo, we give ourselves a head start in at least making a more educated guess on the ingredients of the soup.

We can no longer ignore the fact that our life and well-being depend solely on robust environmental systems. Disease is the direct result of a stressed system and in this case, the biggest overarching stress is climate breakdown. Illness is also the most personal way we can relate to environmental deterioration.

Environmental degradation is the portal through which zoonotic pathogens leave their animal hosts and travel to humans. Destruction of forests, mining, rapid urbanisation, and growth of population are all creating interactions between humans and animals which are unnatural, even without bringing animal trafficking into the picture.

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There have been several studies that show the prevalence of malaria in villages close to forests that have been destroyed. The prevalence in other vector-borne diseases like Lyme disease, Dengue fever, and Chikungunya is also a result of living in an increasingly warmer world.

In 2008 alone, Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at UCL, and a team of researchers identified 335 diseases that emerged between 1960 and 2004, at least 60% of which came from non-human animals. Jones says that new diseases are now “a hidden cost of human economic development”.

According to many experts in infectious diseases, this is just the tip of the iceberg. It is easy enough to blame the wet-market in Wuhan for the current outbreak, however, banning these markets, will only drive them underground which will make it harder to control hygiene. Wet markets are also the source of food for many African and Asian countries. But the presence of wet markets itself indicates a deep inequality.

The overarching threat of climate breakdown is also a factor contributing to the rise of new diseases. We have been changing our relationship with Nature for decades by fragmenting habitat, extraction, and deep anthropogenic changes that are now irreversible. The melting permafrost is threatening to unleash pathogens frozen in their depths for several years adding to the stress of newly emerging diseases.

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It is time, therefore, to treat climate breakdown as a global health emergency, and tackle it in such a manner. The same scientists who warned of this pandemic are warning of another one coming in the not-too-distant future.

Going forward, there needs to be a body that coordinates a global pandemic response. We need a system in place to coordinate a global response when it breaks out, serving all countries equally. Our education and healthcare systems have to be more robust. All of this means that we have a greater responsibility to choose our leaders wisely.

It is important to introspect and make choices that will bring about a better future, not only to handle the next pandemic but also to build a safer world. Nobody can predict the exact nature of future pandemics — where it will come from, the causative agent, and when it may break out. It is an inconvenience we must now live with because collectively, we have ignored decades of opportunity to build a world with socio-capitalistic systems.

It serves our intelligence well to learn from our mistakes, and to shift away from the fact that wars can only be fought with guns and bombs and reach into the future where wars will be fought in hospitals.

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