Coronavirus, cyclones and locusts: In 2020, it's getting harder than ever to ignore science and our impact on the environment

It’s hard to deny it any longer: 2020 is getting seriously apocalyptic.

Samrat June 25, 2020 09:05:50 IST
Coronavirus, cyclones and locusts: In 2020, it's getting harder than ever to ignore science and our impact on the environment

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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It’s hard to deny it any longer: 2020 is getting seriously apocalyptic. Last week, Bengal and parts of Orissa were hit by Cyclone Amphan. In Kolkata, thousands of trees fell. Roofs were blown off, doors and windows smashed in. Power lines snapped. Transformers blew up. For days after, many areas, including the one I live in, did not have electricity, meaning no water as well for those who live in buildings that require water pumps to pump up water into overhead tanks. Temperatures had been brought down by the storm, but the summer heat and humidity began to return by the second day. With no fan, let alone air-conditioning, and often, no water as well, it was pretty uncomfortable.

Our middle-class discomfort was perhaps mild compared to what those lower down the economic ladder have had to endure. In many cases, their roofs were blown off, or entire houses blown down. Their economic situation was already dire. The cyclone struck in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and after a lockdown of two months had already destroyed jobs in large sections of the economy. Many people were already struggling to stay alive and sane, and keep life going with a semblance of whatever was normal. Now that struggle has become harder. Fisheries have been ruined by the ingress of salty sea waters in the Sundarbans. Crops have been destroyed.

A lot of people from the state’s rural areas work various kinds of jobs in cities. Many of the ones working outside the state are probably still wandering around India in a train that has lost its way somewhere, or trying to walk back home over hundreds of miles in the heat of the Indian summer. Many of those who work in Kolkata and lost their jobs to the lockdown had probably gone back home to their districts. Several of those areas, such as the Sundarbans, other parts of South 24 Parganas, North 24 Parganas and Medinipur, have been badly hit by the cyclone.

Coronavirus cyclones and locusts In 2020 its getting harder than ever to ignore science and our impact on the environment

After power was restored in my home, and the internet and mobile phone began to work again – mobile signals had been disrupted while internet had become very slow and intermittent – one of the first pieces of news that caught my eye and attention was of swarms of locusts invading western India. Since then, there have been photos and videos of a plague of locusts over Jaipur. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh have been hit by swarms of millions of locusts.

It was with some surprise that I realised there is a direct connection between cyclones such as the one that I had just witnessed, and the swarms of locusts.

The current infestation of desert locusts owes its origins and spread to a series of cyclones that brought unseasonal rains to the arid lands of East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, told National Geographic in an article published in February that the crisis dates back to May 2018 when Cyclone Mekunu hit the deserts of southern Arabia, filling up the spaces between sand dunes with water that helped the locusts breed and reproduce freely. A second cyclone struck the same area in October. These two cyclones enabled a roughly 8,000-fold increase in the desert locust population. Further unseasonal rains and a rare late-season cyclone the following year have kept the swarms multiplying and spreading.

From the Arabian Peninsula, the locust swarms spread out in two directions, eastwards into east Africa and westwards into Iran, Pakistan and now India. Like the coronavirus pandemic, the locust plague is still growing and spreading. After all, the frequency of unseasonal tropical cyclones and rains is also increasing. For both of these – the cyclones and the locust plague – we can therefore thank ourselves, and our political leaders and industrialists, because we brought it upon ourselves through a problem whose reality we like to deny, climate change.

We can also thank ourselves for the coronavirus pandemic. That too was a crisis waiting to happen because of our actions, and we had been warned.

In a paper on Emerging Zoonotic Viral Diseases published in 2014 in the journal of Scientific and Technical Review of the Office International des Epizooties — OIE is known in English as the World Organisation for Animal Health — scientists LF Wang and G Crameri wrote that “Emerging zoonotic diseases have potentially serious human health and economic impacts and their current upward trend is likely to continue. The last 30 years have seen a rise in emerging infectious diseases in humans and of these over 70% are zoonotic.” With changes in the environment, human behaviour and habitat, infections were increasingly emerging from animal species, the authors noted. “The WHO and most infectious disease experts agree that the source of the next human pandemic is likely to be zoonotic, and wildlife is emerging as the primary source,” they wrote.

The intensification of agriculture and the accompanying clearance of forest lands for cropping and grazing had been driving diverse wildlife species together and pushing wildlife and livestock into overlapping environments. This, and the hunting and eating of ‘bush meat’ meaning meat of wild animals, were among drivers for the emergence of zoonotic diseases identified by the authors. The paper had a section on coronaviruses and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). It mentioned palm civet cats in live animal markets and restaurants in Guangdong province of China as hosts of the virus but said “the true reservoir of the SARS and SARS-like coronaviruses was bats of the genus Rhinolophus”.

Six years on, we are now in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic that has come from a bat of that same genus, possibly via an intermediate species – the pangolin — thought to have been eaten at a live animal market in Wuhan in China.

Did we know that this could happen? Of course, we did. Just as we knew that the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones was increasing. And as we knew that the locust infestation was growing and spreading. There are people who study these things, and they were crying themselves hoarse from years ago. We just didn’t bother, like many of us didn’t and still – after roughly 3,48,000 deaths and counting from Covid-19 – don’t. Maybe we’re idiots. Or maybe there are things more precious to us than other people’s lives, and we don’t believe the disease can get us.
That’s just how the incentives are stacked, and how belief systems work.

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