Humankind has identified progress with mastery over nature. It destroyed and subordinated nature at will. COVID-19 is just one manifestation of this horror

One does not quite know what the shape of the world will be after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. The several informed speculations at hand — including the one that it would eventually be like it was — may or may not come true. The only thing that is reasonably certain is that the virus COVID-19 emerged in bats, infected another animal and, through it, humans. By all accounts, the infection among humans began to spread from a market selling live animals in Wuhan, China. It is also widely known that viruses breed and spread in the unbelievably over-crowded and insanitary conditions in which animals are kept there, with some of them — COVID-19, for example — transmuting themselves and becoming capable of infecting humans.

Two things are important to note. First, COVID-19 is not the only virus originating in animals and affecting humans. Other deadly diseases include Ebola, which belongs to the category of filoviruses or thread viruses and includes three sub-types of Ebola viruses and one known as Marburg. Named after Ebola River, which meanders through northern Zaire in Africa, it first emerged in 1976 in 55 villages near the banks. Fruit bats are believed to be its natural carriers. The virus, which spreads through human to human contact, is a killer; the death rate so far has been 88 per cent of those infected. As the disease progresses, persistent fever is followed by a strange combination of haemorrhaging and blood clotting all over the body, especially in the spleen, liver and brain, in what is known as disseminated intravascular coagulation. Death comes from haemorrhaging and shock.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and West Nile Virus have also originated in animals. SARS coronavirus emerged in China’s Guangdong province in 2002. First identified in 2003, it most probably originated in bats and then spread to other animals like civet cats before infecting humans. There were 8,000 cases of the disease in the 2003 epidemic, which affected 26 countries. Transmitted from person to person, its symptoms are similar to those of influenza — fever, muscle pain, headache, diarrhoea and shivering. Subsequently, there can also be coughing and shortness of breath.

Dromedary or Asian or Arabian camels are a major repository of MERS Coronavirus or MERS-Cov which spreads through human-to-human transmission. Fever, cough, shortness of breath are among its symptoms, as is diarrhoea. Patients often develop pneumonia. Birds, particularly crows, are the natural hosts of West Nile Virus which causes neurological diseases that can be fatal. It is commonly found in Africa, Middle East, North America, Europe and West Asia and spreads though infected mosquitoes biting humans.

Eighty per cent of the people infected by the West Nile Virus do not show any symptoms. About one-fifth of the infected develop fever and headache, body ache, vomiting, diarrhoea and or rash. Less than one per cent of those infected develop illnesses like encephalitis or meningitis involving inflammation of the brain. Apart from the symptoms described above, those seriously ill suffer from stiff neck, tremors, vision loss, numbness and paralysis.

Rabies, originating among other species, in dogs and monkeys, and entirely preventable through vaccination, is perhaps the most talked about of the number of zoonotic diseases affecting humans. The question is, how do these  come to infect people? While transmission modes may differ, the basic circumstance is proximity to animals who are “hosts” to the viruses concerned. The nature of this proximity is influenced by the way that most humans regard animals, which is that they can be treated any way people like —they can be killed for fun as in the criminal activity that goes by the name of hunting, for food, savagely hurt in the name of fun —bull fights in Spain, Jallikattu in parts of South India, or cockfights and dogfights in many parts of the world. They are made to pull or carry heavy loads that make them stagger and undergo horrendous suffering in the name of medical experimentation benefiting humans.

Of course, animals are not the only living beings that humans treat horribly. We treat the whole of nature, of which animals are a part, in the most cruel and exploitative manner. The worst victims are plants which are feeling, communicating, mutually caring and benevolent living beings that need to be treated with respect, and forests, which provide a wide range of environmental benefits, including attracting rainfall and preventing soil erosion. They are, however, casually felled in India to make way for industrial enterprises and coalfields when coal, a highly polluting source of energy, is increasingly in disuse everywhere.

Underlying such conduct is not only callousness but sadism, to which animals can be subjected without attracting the kind of condemnation and punishment that similar action towards humans do. True, humans treat other humans too in pretty awful ways. Otherwise, there would not be crimes like slavery and incarceration in concentration camps but murder and genocide. Nevertheless, as often as not, perpetrators of such crimes against humans are punished. Mussolini was shot while on the run; Hitler had to commit suicide. Several German perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity during World War II were brought to justice at the Nuremberg trials. More recently, most perpetrators of war crimes during Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971 have been sentenced, a few to death.

No murderer of a tree or the perpetrator of the genocide of a forest has been given similar punishment. This is because trees, forests and the rest of nature, including other non-human living beings, are generally held to be existing for human convenience alone and, hence, have been put outside the universe of morality that people have created for themselves. Thus, while the punishment for killing a human can be death, that of killing an animal is a fine and a laughably short stint in jail.

The attitude towards nature described above has been compounded by the adversarial view of it that emerged during the long struggle for human survival and  progress, which included the establishment of  human settlements and farms for food, the domestication of animals, use of the latter in wars, controlling of rivers for irrigation and flood-prevention. The result of all this has doubtless been the enormous material progress witnessed from the emergence of the initial tribal communities to the establishment of the complex modern civilisations of the information age. This in turn has led to the identification of progress with mastery over nature. The latter was not the matrix to live in harmony with but to be destroyed and subordinated at will.

What was forgotten in the process was that humankind emerged from the cradle of nature, which included all non-human living beings as well, and has existed in the supportive environment provided by it. Destruction — even severe damage to the latter — could threaten its very existence. The devastating effects of climate change, including extinction of species, and the cyclones and tidal waves that are increasingly playing havoc, are widely known. Now the abominable conditions existing in Wuhan’s live animal market have unleashed the COVID-19 virus on humans. This is unlikely to be the last zoonotic or natural calamity visiting our world. There will be others, and perhaps even more catastrophic, if we do not mend our ways.

(The author is Consulting editor, The Pioneer)