S01E10: Hitched to the Universe

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In 2005, the then President of the United States: George W Bush, returned from a summer vacation on his ranch with an urgent project in mind. After the background work for this project was laid out in the months that followed, he gave a speech in November 2005 at the National Institutes of Health sharing what the project was about and why he felt it addressed an urgent concern:

It is vital that our nation discuss and address the threat of pandemic flu now. There is no pandemic flu in our country or the world at this time. But if we wait for a pandemic to appear it will be too late to prepare.

Scientists and doctors cannot tell us where or when the next pandemic will strike or how severe it’ll be. But most agree, at some point, we are likely to face another pandemic. A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire: if caught early it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smolder undetected, it can grow to an inferno that spreads quickly beyond our ability to control it.”

And thus was born America’s most comprehensive pandemic plan. As Frances Townsend, his then advisor, is reported to have said, they created “a playbook that included diagrams for a global early warning system, funding to develop new, rapid vaccine technology, and a robust national stockpile of critical supplies, such as face masks and ventilators”. Although this initial effort was intense, with time and multiple elections, it was slowly deprioritised even though, it is still in some senses the system US fell back on when the pandemic did arrive.

So, what did President Bush come across that led him to urgently speak of a ‘pandemic flu’ when there was none around at that time?

Well what happened was this: In his vacation President Bush read a book entitled ‘The Great Influenza’ by the historian John Barry in which he examines the 1918 pandemic flu – the worst one in recorded history killing as many as 100 million people worldwide. In India alone it is estimated to have killed 12-13 million people. It was a profound and intense account of the flu where as the author put it “For the first time, modern humanity, a humanity practicing the modern scientific method, would confront nature in its fullest rage.” This put together with the research based speculations of scientists on the return of the pandemic flu, made Bush kickstart the pandemic plan.

In fact according to a recent Atlantic magazine article: the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in 2018 and again in 2019 gathered public-health experts, business leaders, and U.S. government officials for sharing simulations of fictional novel coronaviruses that would have devastating humanitarian, political, social, and economic consequences. Those mock scenarios showed that tens of millions would be killed around the world by such viruses and suggested methods for preparedness. This prediction was also backed by the US Intelligence community in its annual ‘worldwide threat assessment’. As it turns out they’ve been speaking of this through the years – from 2014 to even last year, 2019.

The question that arises then is how did the public health research community and intelligence officials know that this coronavirus pandemic was coming?

In our previous episode, Keeping Quiet, I spoke of how the lockdown allows us to experience a world without us. As it has turned out – a world without us is a world that’s been healing. Since I last spoke of it, the Himalayas continue to astound by showing themselves further and further away, in Saharanpur in UP, even a village in Bihar! It’s a befitting metaphor for that long held spiritual idea and practice that keeping still makes for a clearer vision.

Yet this pandemic has more to tell us. We need to add another layer to this story of our troubled relationship with the planet. But in order to unravel this and really begin to answer how scientists anticipated the arrival of another pandemic flu, we need to step into the strange and fascinating world of zoonotic diseases and begin to get to know the coronavirus a little bit better.

Let’s begin with the word ‘zoonoses’ or the term zoonotic diseases that are used interchangeably. ‘Zoon’ means ‘animal’ and ‘nosos’ means ‘disease’ in Greek. Zoonoses’ or zoonotic diseases are diseases that are caused by the transmission of pathogens from animals to people. Pathogens here can mean viruses, bacteria, parasites or fungi.

Now there are a couple of ways in which zoonotic diseases can be acquired as this video from Science Insider explains:

Animal viruses are usually transmitted to people in a few ways: contact with excretions, slaughter, bites, contact with tissues or through an intermediate species like a mosquito or a ticks. So, places like farms, slaughter houses or even petting zoos where people come in close contact with animals have an increased risk of spillover.”

Let’s unpack this a bit for clarity. So like they say, zoonotic diseases can be acquired in multiple ways and you could categorise them into the following 3:

The first: a zoonotic disease can be acquired directly by being bitten by an infected host animal like in the case of rabies, when an infected dog bites a person. The second: the disease can be acquired in indirect ways like being bitten by a carrier vector. For example, Lyme disease or even the Kyasanur Forest Disease (KFD) – which is found in India – is passed to a human when a tick that has picked up the pathogen from an infected animal host, bites a human.

The third method is that you could come in contact with pathogen bearing fluids or consume food which is contaminated with an animal derived pathogen. For example, it is suspected that the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was first passed on to humans either during hunts of or through consumption of chimpanzees in Cameroon in Central Africa.

The Covid-19 coronavirus is one such zoonotic disease which is suspected to have jumped species somewhere possibly around the animal markets of Wuhan in China. It is suspected that the jump took place through the third method – either by close contact with infected fluids or through consumption. Scientists have speculated that the virus possibly jumped from bats, which are often the reservoir species for this type of virus, to another animal which in turn came in touch with humans.

Recognising that animals like bats might have a part to play in passing on zoonotic diseases has led to fear based knee-jerk reactions of either attacking their colonies or cutting down trees where they roost. Stories from Rajasthan and Karnataka have emerged where Forest Departments have had to actively intervene and clarify that harming bats or their habitat would lead to strict action. On 24th April, a group of 64 chiropterologists (bat experts) from 6 South Asian countries released a statement which firmly said that it was ‘premature and unfair to blame bats or any other animal for the pandemic’. They added that the strain of the virus found in bats was different from the Covid-19 causing coronavirus and hence bats were innocent victims of fear and misunderstanding. Instead, they pointed out that it was important to understand that bats ‘benefit ecological and human health and provide intangible economic benefits’ by pollinating flowers and plants and eating harmful insects.

As I read and researched this topic, I kept coming across scientists asking people to recognise this again and again – even though zoonotic diseases are diseases which jump from another animal species to us, it is not correct to blame the disease on the animal, the issue needs further nuance and understanding, they said.

And with this, we circle back to the question that we were asking – how did the scientists predict that another pandemic flu was coming?

You see, research has been telling us that zoonotic diseases are on the rise. The UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Frontiers Report which lists emerging issues of environmental concern, in 2016 listed Zoonoses as one of its primary concerns. What it outlined for us was this:

Reading by Abbas: “Zoonoses threaten economic development, animal and human well-being, and ecosystem integrity. Over the last few years, several emerging zoonotic diseases made world headlines as they caused, or threatened to cause, major pandemics. These include Ebola, bird flu, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), Rift Valley fever, sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), West Nile virus, and Zika virus disease.(…)

Researchers studying records that date from 1940 to 2004 detected an increase in the rate of emerging infectious disease over those years. Of the 335 documented events, 60.3 percent were zoonotic and 71.8 percent of the zoonoses originated in wildlife.”

The report goes on to then explain why zoonotic diseases are on the rise. It outlines that there are 3 elements on which these changes can be mapped: (a) changes in the environment (b) changes in the host i.e. us – humans; and then lastly, (c) changes in the pathogen itself.

Now by changes in environment the report was referring to changes caused as the result of human activities, ranging from land use change to changing climate. A National Geographic video explains it like this:

Forests cover about 30% of the planet. And the ecosystems they create play an essential role in supporting life on Earth. But deforestation is clearing Earth’s forest on a massive scale and at the current rate of destruction the world’s rainforests could completely disappear within a 100 years. (…)

In addition to helping regulate the Earth’s climate, forests provide habitat for over 80% of plants and animals which live on land. But deforestation destroys these habitats, diminishing biodiversity. Some estimate that 4-6000 rainforest species go extinct each year. This also affects the more than 2 billion people who rely on forests as sources of food and shelter. The biggest driver of deforestation is agriculture. Farmers chop down trees in order to plant crops like soybeans, palm trees and cocoa or to make room to raise livestock for beef. Logging operations which provide the world’s wood and paper products also cut countless trees each year. Forests are also destroyed as a result of growing urban sprawl, as land is developed for dwellings.”

In terms of its relationship to zoonotic diseases in particular, when ecosystems are encroached through various human activities, the opportunities for pathogens to spillover from wild animals to people increases. Research shows that this is especially true when natural disease resistance that may result from rich biological diversity is lost. E.O.Wilson, also known as the father of biodiversity hence strongly emphasised once: “I will argue that every scrap of biological diversity is priceless, to be learned and cherished, and never to be surrendered without a struggle.” The UNEP report clearly states, ‘Examples of zoonoses emerging when land is cleared for human activity can be found in many regions and on most continents’. It also particularly highlights how climate change will affect the emergence of zoonotic diseases:

Reading by Abbas: “Climate change is a major factor for disease emergence. It influences the environmental conditions that can enable or disable the survival, reproduction, abundance, and distribution of pathogens, vectors, and hosts, as well as the means of disease transmission and the outbreak frequency. Growing evidence suggests that outbreaks or epidemic diseases may become more frequent as climate continues to change.”

The second element to map zoonotic diseases, which are changes in the host i.e. us, is of course related to our own behaviour too. Changes in human host behaviours that drive the emergence of zoonotic diseases include extensive travel, conflict, migration, wildlife trade, globalization, urbanization, and changing dietary preferences. This seems self-evident particularly right now as we’ve just recently experienced the quick spread of the Covid-19 across continents because of increases in travel by humans. Also, it’s been notable that due to their high density, cities are particularly vulnerable to the quick spread of such diseases. In India too all our major cities: Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata and Hyderabad are currently under the red zone i.e. recognised as infection hotspots. And then of course, there is the very complex issue of the trade and consumption of wildlife by humans for various ends.

The last element: changes in the pathogens themselves, as it turns out, might also have something to do with human behaviour. The Report says: ‘Changes in the pathogens themselves occur as they evolve to exploit new hosts or adapt to changing evolutionary pressures’. The example the report gives is the callous use of antimicrobial drugs in humans and animals. Due to this the pathogens being exposed to antimicrobial drugs build resistance over their short-lived generations, making them very difficult to deal with when illness strikes.

And this is where the conversation regarding our difficult relationship with the planet re-emerges. The predictions by the public health research communities of another impending coronavirus pandemic were based on research such as this. It isn’t the bats or other such creatures who are the cause of an increased rate of emerging infectious diseases, it is us – our choices, our behaviour. We are not only the victims of this situation. We are also the primary cause of it.

Sonia Shah, journalist and author of the book ‘Pandemic: Tracking contagion from Cholera to Ebola and beyond’ recently said in an interview:

Reading by Deepika: “We’ve lost the bigger picture, the connections between social and political health and environmental health. So what we’re seeing right now is an intense amount of reductionism. Moving forward, what we have to see is that pandemics, climate disasters, all of these are related to our huge footprint on the planet. We’ve been using up a lot of natural resources and now the bill is coming due. We’re going to lurch from disaster to disaster to disaster until we start to really change the fundamental relationship between us and nature.”

As the lockdown continues, I often go up to my terrace and spend my evenings there. The light fades in the horizon, shades of mauve and chrome play for a few minutes on the scattered clouds and then slowly as all goes dark tiny pin-pricks of light begin to puncture the night sky. There is this beautiful quote by John Muir, famous naturalist and philosopher, which goes: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” I often think of this line when I am sitting there pondering this strange moment of time we find ourselves in as humankind. This experience of the pandemic is a profound lesson in interconnectedness. It tells us that even though we have strayed far, like all other creatures, we too are inevitably ‘hitched to the universe’. Our lives and fates are intertwined with that of the world we inhabit, of the creatures that share this world with us.

What gives us reason to cheer, and there are thankfully a few of those too, is that a stream of thought inspired by exactly such an understanding of interconnectedness that speaks to this moment is emerging and it’s called the One Health approach. As defined by the One Health Institute at UC Davis: ‘The One Health approach recognizes the growing connection between the health of animals, people and the environment. It understands that humans do not exist in isolation, but are part of the larger, total living ecosystems. The activities and conditions of each member affect others on a variety of levels: economic, cultural, physical and more.’ Hence, this approach recognises that ‘preventing disease events rather than simply reacting to them requires multi-sectoral coordination of wildlife, environmental, human and domestic health sectors.’

This holistic approach to health has been strongly supported by the lead authors of the pivotal Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Report 2019. In a recently released statement they say: “We should adopt a ‘One Health’ approach at all levels of decision-making – from the global to the most local.” They go on to suggest doing this alongside strengthening and enforcing environmental regulation, funding and resourcing health systems and incentivising behavioural change on the frontlines of pandemic risk.

Yet from there they go one step further.

They point to ‘nature’s unprecedented dangerous decline’ mapped in the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services 2019, the most comprehensive report on the issue, and remind us that the pandemic is just one of the many horrific scenarios that will be brought on or aggravated by the climate crisis. And hence they emphasise that what is most urgently required is nothing short of transformative change.

Reading by Abbas: “We need transformative change (…) fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values, promoting social and environmental responsibilities across all sectors. As daunting and costly as this may sound – it pales in comparison to the price we are already paying.”

Unfortunately, almost simultaneous to this statement being released, even as India was under lockdown, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) put out a new draft Environment Impact Assessment 2020, that waters down the environmental requirements industries need to meet before setting up new projects. In early April, we were also hit with the news that the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) had granted wildlife clearances for projects including highways, railways and hydroelectricity, in 11 states quoting reasons such as ‘boosting tourism, economic and regional development’ as reasons. These are decisions that will unfortunately continue to exacerbate, make worse, the issues that drive zoonotic diseases as we’ve seen.

In a recent interview, Jane Goodall, renowned and beloved English primatologist and anthropologist, responded to the question: How do you think the world will change post-pandemic?

Reading by Deepika: “How I hope it will change and how it changes are two different things in this particular case. I think probably millions of people, especially those living in cities, have experienced for the first time what it’s like to breathe fresh air and to see the stars at night, even see wild animals at closer quarters. I think those people, and I think other people too, have seen this as a wakeup call that we’ve disrespected nature and we’ve got to start changing the way that we act and we’ve got to rethink the way we live.

We’ve got to get away from this consumerism, materialism that puts economic development ahead of environmental protection, which is damaging the future generations of humans and animals.”

For so long, the conversation around climate change has been pitched as a choice between a growing economy versus protecting the environment. Yet as multiple climate disasters and the Covid-19 pandemic have shown: this is a false dichotomy. Without healthy ecosystems, human beings cannot prosper. And hence, we must begin to actively explore those ideas and ways of being which allow for us to co-exist and thrive alongside other species and landscapes. As the IPBES Report authors say in their statement: “Responding to the COVID-19 crisis calls for us all to confront the vested interests that oppose transformative change, and to end ‘business as usual’. We can build back better and emerge from the current crisis stronger and more resilient than ever – but to do so means choosing policies and actions that protect nature – so that nature can help to protect us.”

This urgency and the largeness and complexity of the issue at hand can seem rather daunting to most of us. Yet maybe it helps to know that faced with similarly daunting odds in the past, human beings have been able to rise up to the challenge. Take for example London’s terrifying epidemic of Cholera in 1854. In his book on this epidemic, ‘The Ghost Map’, Steven Johnson opens the first chapter by painting a disturbing picture of a London drowning in its own muck and filth. Misery reigns as the city is hit with a terrible epidemic of Cholera. Yet as the historical account unfolds, we find out that it is during this Cholera epidemic that it was first discovered that Cholera was a water-borne disease and that the illness was an outcome of the mixing of drinking water with sewers. It highlighted the need to massively improve sanitation systems in the city. And it was in part due to this realisation, that the otherwise lagging political will was finally woken to the urgent need for a modern sewerage system for the city of London, paving an example for many cities to come.

Terrible as they are, epidemics and pandemics often hold wisdom for those who might be paying attention. And as countless examples in our past have shown, important course-corrections based on this wisdom can lead to massive improvements in human well-being.

Yet the question is – are enough of us paying attention?

Outro: If you liked this episode, please share it with your friends and family. Also, more importantly if you agree with it, join our newsletter and our social media spaces to explore further reading and various kinds of actions you can take to begin to change your relationship with our lovely planet! We would always love to hear from you at http://www.thecuriocitycollective.org

In the upcoming month of June, we continue to explore the fault lines that have opened at our feet as the pandemic unfolds. Join us as we sew together our thoughts on the theme: lockdown and labour.

Credits: Special thanks to Abbas Raza Khan for lending us his voice for this episode. This episode was made with the support of Srinidhi Raghavan and Deepika Khatri and was produced by The Bangalore Recording Company.