We are not at peace with nature

What can I wish for in the middle of a pandemic? It is not going to be a “new” year if we continue with our foolish ways of managing the planet 

By Sunita Narain
Published: Monday 27 December 2021

In our highly uncertain world, there is only one certainty now — nature is on a rampage, telling us that enough is enough.

The past two years must have been the most surreal time of our lives. One fine day in early 2020, we woke up to realise that a mere virus brought our world to a halt. We did unbelievable things. We shuttered down everything; locked ourselves up; stopped socialising; made masks a part of our attire; and worked online. Our world collapsed. We lived through hell during the past two years, seeing death and despair like never before. The experience was universal — for rich and poor alike.

Then we thought the end was in sight — we hoped and prayed that the vaccine would work. Exactly one year ago, this miracle of modern medicine made it into our world. We were clear that the worst was behind us. The only question was if the vaccine would reach all in the world. Much was also said (not meant) about the need to ensure that everyone was vaccinated, otherwise a new variant would emerge.

In the war against the pandemic, it was a race between vaccination and the virus and its variants. “No one is safe until everyone is safe.” This slogan came to us as a reassurance of a win. We heard these niceties from the G7 world leaders.

As we prepared to enter the new year, hoping to go back to the old normal ways, the new variant — Omicron — hit the world. If 2020 was the year of the novel coronavirus and 2021 of its variant Delta, 2022 now threatens to be of Omicron. We do not know how bad it will be; we only know that this variant is highly mutated and highly infectious — it breaks through the immunity barriers, including what we have acquired from vaccines. So, now the only option is to provide “booster” shots to the already vaccinated so that Omicron becomes less dangerous.

The World Health Organization, which was till recently imploring the “rich” countries to not opt for boosters saying that they should instead make vaccines available to the poorer nations to stop the virus, is now screaming “booster, booster, booster”. We are fatigued. We are dreading that 2022 will be a repeat of the last year, which we welcomed with the hope of normalcy but then had to endure another deadly wave of the pandemic.

The pandemic is not over, not by a long shot. In its grip is our next generation. We are seeing the worst impacts of this virus on children. This is a generation that will be scarred by this virus, irrespective of its intrinsic resilience and social background.

Children, I believe, are the most affected by this virus — something that we often do not discuss. It is they who have lost valuable time of being in school, of being with friends, of learning, and the sheer joy of living. It is not enough to say that education is online, because we know what it means for the poor. It is not enough to say that family time has increased because we know what it means for their mental health and development to not be able to live life as “normal”.

This is not all. Let us be clear that the novel coronavirus is not the only one in the game today. In this past year, there have been outbreaks of the avian influenza virus hitting birds and poultry; of the African swine influenza hitting pig populations across the world; and of the nipah (from bats) and zika (from mosquitoes) viral infections.

Could any of these or other zoonotic viruses become as deadly or deadlier than the novel coronavirus disease — COVID-19? We do not know. Despite all these uncertainties, we refuse to recognise that we are not at peace with nature.

This is what we need to remember in the battle against COVID-19. We know that zoonotic diseases are on the rise because of our dystopian relationship with nature, and we can only fix this if we rework our food systems. But we are looking for quick fixes.

We know that unless all are vaccinated, we remain vulnerable. Yet we are not getting our act together on this. We have also learnt in the past two years that countries’ success in containing the virulence of the disease lies in their investment in society-wide public healthcare systems, and that these need to be at the primary level, accessible, available and staffed to meet the needs of all. This then is where the focus needs to be, even as we ride over to the next variant.

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