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How To Market a Pandemic: World Health Day Special

World Health Day is celebrated internationally on 7th April every year. The 2021 edition is being observed amidst an explosive resurgence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus which has been in global circulation for over a year and a half, causing the COVID-19 pandemic. In this special issue, Mridula Mary Paul provides us a nuanced perspective on the complex interlinkages between the proliferation of pandemics and prevalent socio-economic systems, making a compelling argument for preventing future pandemics by refocusing our policies and priorities. 


A monster emerging from its hidden lair in a deep, dark forest somewhere and unleashing its terror on the world is the plot of many a successful blockbuster. COVID-19 had us waking up to this in real life – only in this case, the monster was not a sixty–foot gargantuan, but an army of infinitesimally small organisms. And in place of the pesky scientist or annoying teenager whose heedless error set events in motion, conservation organizations and animal rights activists point to the people who participate in wildlife markets and eat wild meat, with unsubstantiated certainty.


The media blitz about ‘wet’ markets and their role in triggering the pandemic is incomplete, inaccurate, and dangerously misleading. It builds on our distaste of people different from us to draw attention away from the actual perpetrators – the global economic system that has thus far bestowed us with large-scale ecosystem change and biodiversity loss, not to mention, climate change.


COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease – a disease that humans contract from animals. Humans, having lived in close proximity with domestic and wild animals, have been exposed to infectious zoonotic diseases, such as malaria and plague, for millennia. In a post-industrial world, however, incursions into natural landscapes began occurring at hitherto unprecedented scales. Logging, mining, dams, and commercial plantations, in addition to the roads and other infrastructure needed to support these industries, have resulted in devastating land degradation and destruction of biodiversity. In tandem, zoonotic diseases have been on the rise, particularly since the 1940s. As it turns out, the term ‘web of life’ was not just a metaphor. Having pulled at too many threads, we are now witnessing entire ecosystems unraveling before us.


Humans have always modified their landscapes. In his book Spillover, David Quammen contrasts the land clearing practices of Australia’s indigenous communities with the pace and scale of changes wrought by the felling of old-growth forests for cattle farms and urban settlements – with significant consequences for disease emergence. Bats, that earlier roosted in large congregations deep within the forests, have been reduced to smaller groups that – faced with the limited availability of nectar and fruits in the remaining forest fragments – are drawn to the fruiting trees planted around urban areas. These isolated groupings are more susceptible to viral infections on account of disruptions to their natural immunity-acquiring mechanisms. Further, owing to their proximity to human habitations, they are more likely to pass it on to humans and domestic animals.


Fragmented natural landscapes with high human and livestock populations provide the perfect conditions for the emergence of zoonotic diseases. About 300 million people, who have been pushed to the margins of society, depend on degraded forest systems for their livelihood in a country like India. They have had little role to play in creating the conditions of their susceptibility to zoonotic diseases. Instead, it was international development projects in the 1970s and 1980s, which replaced tropical evergreen forests with plantations that have been linked with the emergence of the zoonotic Kyasanur Forest Disease in southern India. Studies have linked the emergence of zoonotic viruses such as Ebola, Marburg, and HIV from Cameroon to the opening up of its densely forested East Province for timber logging. The construction of the World Bank-funded Yaoundé–Douala Road in the 1980s to support logging operations brought scores of outsiders to the region, driving up the demand for bushmeat – while also bringing small, isolated communities in the area into contact with urban populations with access to international travel.


Industrial livestock production has played a crucial role in amplifying diseases that may have originally emerged from wildlife. Urbanization too is a contributing risk factor as it creates avenues for species that pose significant risks for zoonotic pathogen exchange to live in human-modified habitats. Yet somehow we have all been sold on the idea that banning wildlife markets and stopping the consumption of bushmeat will spare us from future pandemics. This is not to say that the illegal wildlife trade or wild meat consumption does not pose risks for zoonotic disease emergence. But the disproportionate policy focus on curbing these activities as a strategy to prevent future pandemics is about as effective as throwing a teaspoon of water on a raging forest fire.


As a consequence, poor and vulnerable communities in many parts of the world bear a double burden. They already face poor nutrition and health outcomes on account of systematically underfunded public infrastructure in a world where national priorities have shifted from social welfare to increasing the gross domestic product. Now they and their zoonotic ‘hotspot’ landscapes will be subject to disease surveillance and monitoring, which will likely be accompanied by yet more policing in the form of regulations and restrictions. Many of them, who depend on natural resources for their food and livelihood, will face further deprivation which will sink generations into deeper poverty and malnutrition. With more than half a million potential viruses predicted to be waiting in the wings, Covid-19 might only be an overture – a warning sign of more dangerous pandemics to come.  If humanity is to stand even the slightest chance, it is imperative that we get our facts, and our priorities, right.


Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

All opinions expressed are solely the author’s. In case of any clarifications, the author may be contacted directly.

About the Author /

Mridula Mary Paul (LLB, MPhil) is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru, India. She has previously practiced environmental law before the Madras High Court and has a degree in Development Studies from the University of Oxford. She works on bridging the gaps between environmental science and policy across a number of landscapes, including those that fall outside protected area networks, and focuses on biodiversity and health through engagement with One Health and zoonoses. She is also the editor of Courting the Environment, a newsletter that aims to convey environmental and ecological research to lawyers.

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