Messing with the eco-system is the perilous path we tread...

Messing with our eco-system is a passport to plagues like Covid-19, says Colette Sheridan
Messing with the eco-system is the perilous path we tread...

Covid-19 is thought to have started with a virus leap from animal species to humans

AS we emerge everyday into what seems like interminable lockdown, there is no getting away from Covid-19, which is the central focus of the media and never very far from our thoughts.

If we’re not rooting in our bags for our masks before going into the supermarket, we’re complaining about the restrictive conditions we’re expected to live under until early December. And who knows what will happen after that?

If Christmas isn’t cancelled, will we all go mad, celebrating frantically, for fear of another lockdown in the New Year? Isn’t that how us humans operate? We reward ourselves, only to find that we have splurged too much and will have to pay. That applies to dieting and over indulgence in alcohol. And it applies to viral contagion.

It’s depressing. And here’s some more grimness from medical historian, Mark Honigsbaum who concluded in his book, ‘The Pandemic Century - A History of Global Contagion from the Spanish Flu to Covid-19:’ “The only thing that is certain is that there will be new plagues and new pandemics. It is not a question of if, but when.”

A recent editorial in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) is critical of the certainty among experts on Covid-19 who make “assertive public pronouncements” about the virus. They seem to suggest that there can be no legitimate grounds for disagreeing with them.

“If you do, they might imply, it’s probably because you’re funded by dark forces or vested interests, you’re not evidence-based, you’re morally blind to the harm you would do, you’re ideologically driven...you think money matters more than lives, your ideas are a dangerous fantasy...”

On and on come the accusations. We’ve heard them all. But as the BMJ points out, statisticians emphasise the need to appropriately convey uncertainty when it comes to infectious disease models.

The editorial writers say that “when deciding whom to listen to in the Covid-19 era, we should respect those who respect uncertainty, and listen in particular to those who acknowledge conflicting evidence on even their most strongly held views.”

It’s a pity we don’t listen to the experts when it comes to respecting the eco-system. Because messing with it is a passport to plagues.

After the Wall Street crash, the sale of parrots became a business with New York being the hub for the sale of what were then fashionable birds. They were bought as household pets, providing entertainment and companionship with their cheeky ‘chat’. But what might have seemed like a harmless fad resulted in pandemic when parrots and other birds were taken away from their natural environment.

Some 50,000 parrots, parakeets and lovebirds and 500,000 canaries were imported into the USA for, writes Honigsbaum, their “buffoonish behaviour, and their talent for hanging upside down or dancing on their owners’ shoulders were a source of endless amusement for children and an entertainment for house guests.”

While the virus that the birds carried was mild in their natural habitat, when they were transported and got stressed out, the result was infection and pandemic. By 1930, 800 cases were recorded worldwide with a fatality rate of 15%. The Bird Dealers Association of America denied the claims, blaming the media for inventing a story. (The association stood to lose $5 million annually.) An import ban was put in place. However, amateur breeders set up business. Psittacosis (parrot fever) was found in Australian birds. It had been latent for hundreds of years but the desire to have a talking bird entertaining the family resulted in pandemic. Who knew such silliness, a fashion statement, could be so dangerous?

Honigsbaum’s book shows how digital and other technologies are not separate from the natural and social world. Air conditioning technology and urban development projects can disrupt ecological equilibrium leading to unknown or new pathogens that assail humans.

There was an outbreak of Legionnaires disease in the 1970s emanating from the luxurious Philadelphia Bellevue Hotel after an annual meeting of the American Legion. Many of this party got sick and died. The case became a mystery because the staff of the hotel were not affected. Those that were affected were guests, passers-by and air conditioning engineers.

What to do about pandemics? In ‘The Pandemic Century’, Honigsbaum gives two scenarios. We can take a post-human perspective and retreat from technological and human development, reducing ecological disruption and working with the natural environment as equals. Or we can continue unimpeded with technological developments to go beyond what has been done already to ‘fix’ ourselves and the planet - including new viral outbreaks. The latter is what we’re doing. Will we continue on this perilous path? You bet we will. It’s a human thing to advance the technology that we’ve started as we try to ‘improve’ our world. But it’s out of kilter with nature. It will end in tears.

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