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Coronaviruses: Are they here to stay?

MD Staff

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In recent decades, zoonotic diseases–those transferred from animals to humans–have gained international attention. Ebola, avian influenza (or bird flu), H1N1 flu virus (or swine flu), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), Rift Valley fever, sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), West Nile virus, the Zika virus­–and now, the novel coronavirus COVID-19–have all either caused or threatened to cause major pandemics, with thousands of deaths and billions in economic losses.

Researchers have yet to identify the exact point at which the SARS-CoV-2 virus was transferred from animals to humans and presented itself in the form of COVID-19. However, one thing is clear: COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic.

In 2016, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) flagged a worldwide increase in zoonotic epidemics as an issue of concern. Specifically, it pointed out that 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic and that these zoonotic diseases are closely interlinked with the health of ecosystems.

Human activity and ecosystems

According to the UNEP Frontiers report, zoonoses are opportunistic and thrive where there are changes in the environment, changes in animal or human hosts, or changes in the pathogen, itself.

In the last century, a combination of population growth and reduction in ecosystems and biodiversity has culminated in unprecedented opportunities for pathogens to pass between animals and people. On average, one new infectious disease emerges in humans every four months, the report says.

Changes in the environment

Human activities have resulted in major changes in the environment.  By altering land use–for settlement, agriculture, logging, extractive or other industries and their associated infrastructure–humans fragment and encroach into animal habitats.  They destroy the natural buffer zones that would normally separate humans from animals, and create opportunities for pathogens to spill over from wild animals to people.

Climate change­­–primarily the result of greenhouse gas emissions–exacerbates the situation. Changes in temperature, humidity and seasonality directly affect the survival of microbes in the environment; and evidence suggests that disease epidemics will become more frequent, as the climate continues to change.  Rapid climate change is challenging to those with fewer resources for responding quickly, leaving them more vulnerable and amplifying their risk of harm from the spread of zoonotic disease.

Changes in pathogen hosts

Changes in human and animal populations that serve as hosts for certain pathogens are also often the effects of human activities.  They may be related to migration, urbanization, changing dietary preferences, trade demands, and travel.

In many developing countries, economic growth and demographic shifts from rural to urban areas have stimulated consumer demand for dairy and meat products in cities.  This has led to the expansion of cropland and more intense livestock farming near and around cities, increasing opportunities for exposure. 

Livestock often serve as an epidemiological bridge between wildlife and human infections, such as in the case of avian influenza.  Pathogens first circulated in wild birds infected domestic poultry, and were then passed to humans.

Proximity to different species though wet markets or consumption of wild animals can also facilitate animal to human transmission.  Early cases of SARS were associated with contact to caged civet cats, being sold in wet markets; and some cases of Ebola in Central Africa are believed to have been transferred from animal to human hosts when infected gorilla meat was consumed.

Incubation–the time between human infection and the time when that human presents signs of infection–may last days or weeks; but millions of people, under normal circumstances, travel every day, from one country to another, in just hours.  A disease that originates in one country can quickly spread to others, regardless of the distances between them.  This is particularly visible in the rapid spread of COVID-19, which affected almost every country in the world within three months of the first reported case.

Changes in pathogens

Pathogens change genetically (mutation) as they evolve which allows them to exploit new hosts and survive in new environments.  One example of this is the emerging resistance of pathogens to antimicrobial drugs–such as antibiotics, antifungals, antiretrovirals and antimalarials–often resulting from the misuse of the drugs, either by people or in veterinary medicine. 

Ecosystems integrity and human health

Ecosystems are inherently resilient and adaptable and, by supporting diverse species, they help to regulate diseases.  The more biodiverse an ecosystem is, the more difficult it is for one pathogen to spread rapidly or dominate. Human action, however, has modified wildlife population structures and reduced biodiversity at an unprecedented rate, producing conditions that favour particular hosts, vectors and/or pathogens.

For example, genetic diversity provides a natural source of disease resistance among animal populations; whereas intensive livestock rearing often produces genetic similarities within herds and flocks, making them susceptible to pathogen spillover from wild animals.

Similarly, biodiverse areas enable disease-transmitting vectors to feed on a larger variety of hosts, some of which are less effective pathogen reservoirs.  Conversely, when pathogens occur in less biodiverse areas, transmission can be amplified, as has been shown in the case of West Nile Virus and Lyme Disease. 

UNEP Executive Director, Inger Andersen has observed that, “We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves.”

What can be done

Addressing zoonotic disease emergence requires addressing its root cause–primarily, the impact of human activities on ecosystems.

This means recognizing the close relationships between human, animal and environmental health.  It means increased monitoring of human and wildlife health in landscapes that are at the beginning of transformation process to develop baselines, improve understanding and preparedness for potential outbreaks, and inform development to minimize risks to both humans and nature.   And it calls for collaborative, multisectoral, transdisciplinary and international efforts, as encapsulated by the One Health approach.

With a global population nearing 10 billion, Andersen is emphatic that 2020 is “a year when we will have to fundamentally re-shape our relationship with nature.”

UNEP, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and hundreds of partners across the planet are launching a 10-year effort to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide. Known as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, this globally-coordinated response to the loss and degradation of habitats will focus on building political will and capacity to restore humankind’s relation with nature. It will be a direct response to the call from science, as articulated in the Special Report on Climate Change and Land of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and to the decisions taken by all UN Member States in the Rio Conventions on climate change and biodiversity, and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. UNEP is also working with world leaders to develop a new and ambitious Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and bringing emerging issues (such as zoonotics) to the attention of decision makers.

As the world responds to and recovers from the current pandemic, it will need a robust plan for protecting nature, so that nature can protect humanity.

UN Environment

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Green Planet

Blessing In Disguise: The Lockdown-Effect On Environment

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Authors: Deepanjali Jain and Prateek Khandelwal* 

From one Wuhanese to over 4 million humans, the coronavirus has shackled pillars and institutions of our civilisation. The pandemic has socially distanced humans and spread fear which could be gauged from any nook and corner of the world. Though it seems, nature can finally breathe after decades, the signatures of which were visible from space.

As the factories and vehicle closed, dirty brown pollution belts shrunk over industrial centres in the country within days after lockdown. After decades of relentless exploitation, the human footprint on the earth has lightened. The persistent denial by the industrialist got an answer that climate change is real and that it is a reflection of human ‘exploitation’. The overexploitation of nature is fuelled by human greed, where consumption increases production and vice-versa. This vicious cycle depletes the natural ability of environment, which can be sensed in the lockdown months, to balance itself and so disrupts ecology.   

COVID-19 is not only a pandemic; it reflects a broader trend that more planetary crisis is scheduled for upcoming years. While we muddle through each new crisis, with the current economic model, then the repercussions will eventually exceed the capacity of financial institutions to respond. Indeed, the “corona crisis” has already done so. For just climate transition, new economic reforms should have a blueprint for “planned degrowth” that emphasizes on the wellbeing of people over profit margins.

The initial move towards this is assuring the incentives that governments are announcing across the globe are not exhausted on bailing out corporations. Instead, the funds should be allocated to decentralised renewable energy production to implement the ‘Green’ New Deal and create meaningful jobs for ‘the Great Depression’ post-COVID-19. Along with this, the state should enact on the provision of social welfare such as universal healthcare and free education for all vulnerable populations.        

Though set for 2025, by G7 and many European countries, elimination of perverse fossil-fuel subsidies can be done amid the recent oil-price plunge. It is the appropriate moment to deploy renewable energy technologies, which are now globally accessible without any economic barrier and phase out age-old fossil fuel.

A shift from exploitative industry setup to regenerative industries is immediately feasible. Also, it would allow us to sequester carbon emission spread by the current economic framework at a rate that is ample to reverse the ongoing climate crisis. This will have a positive impact on the environment and improve global wellbeing; also, it would turn to be an economically profit-enhancing model.

Though defined with differences and demarcated with boundaries, the planet with various species, nations, and geopolitical issues are ultimately interconnected. COVID-19 narrated that crisis does not observe national or even physical borders; the same is the case with climate change, biodiversity loss, and other environmental problem. Collective actions to curb these from becoming a full-blown crisis can only help in managing these issues. The current rescue plan for battling COVID-19 could usher these changes, as we are getting accustomed to the lifestyle and economic pattern that minimise consuming.

With the idea of sticking with this development structure, Governments can succeed in curbing the Corona epidemic. But we should move a step ahead to do a greater good for society and nature. The use of science can be moulded to construct an economy that will not mitigate the threats of climate change, biodiversity loss, pandemics and other challenges. A green economy should be laid down that has a preamble of nature-based solutions and is geared toward the public good.

Obviously, the circumstances are not ideal, but the rapid reflex actions and response to the virus of mutual aid also illustrates that human society is capable of controlling and working collectively in the face of a grave pandemic. The phase of development which humans are at, they are entrepreneurial and capable to begin again perfectly. If we learn from our failures and embrace this moment of upheaval as an opportunity to invest in shared prosperity, planetary health, and green economy, we can build a brighter future than the one we are heading towards. We have long since exceeded our natural limits; it is time to try something new.

*Prateek Khandelwal is a 2nd Year student pursuing B.B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) from Chanakya National Law University, Patna. 

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How video games are joining the fight to save the planet

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As bush fires were raging across Australia in December 2019, players of Space Ape video games reached out to the company and asked what they could do to help. The London-based firm quickly put an in-game purchase into several of its mobile titles, with all proceeds going to either a wildlife or humanitarian charity working in the area.

In just four days the company raised $120,000.

“That just speaks to how much people want to do good,” said Deborah Mensah-Bonsu, former Head of Content at Space Ape Games, who now runs her own consultancy focused on using games for social impact. 

Now, the video game industry is poised to roll up its sleeves and do even more for the planet. In August 2020, some of the biggest names in mobile gaming unveiled a series of environmentally themed missions and messages that will be integrated into popular titles, such as Angry Birds 2, Golf Clash and Subway Surfers. The additions will encourage players to do things like combat climate change or protect endangered wolves. The initiative is part of a push by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to work with game developers to raise awareness about pressing environmental issues.

“Video gaming is one of the biggest communication mediums on the planet,” says Sam Barratt, Chief of Education and Advocacy with UNEP. “We aim to support the industry to encourage gamers to be educated, inspired and activated around the wider environmental agenda, and so far it seems to be working.”

Globally, 2.6 billion people play video games and a growing number are taking an interest in the environment and conservation. A 2019 UNEP report, Playing for the Planet, found that video games could engage billions to contribute to solutions to social and environmental challenges.

The video game industry has yearly revenues of $140 billion—more than Hollywood, Bollywood and recorded music sales combined. In 2017, 666 million people watched other people play games on YouTube and Twitch – more than the combined audience of HBO, ESPN and Netflix. According to the UNEP report, channelling even a small portion of that attention and the industry’s revenues towards the planet would create tremendous impact in the real world.

Playing for the Planet

Space Ape is one of 25 members of UNEP’s Playing for the Planet Alliance, an initiative that aims to harness the power of gaming to encourage action on climate change. The project, which launched in 2019, has reached more than 970 million players. In joining the alliance, game companies make commitments, ranging from integrating green activations into games to reducing their emissions to supporting the global environmental agenda. 

The alliance held a Green Game Jam earlier this year which saw 11 mobile game companies compete to add a sustainability element to one of their existing games, a so-called “green nudge.” The objectives included asking players to make personal commitments, like skipping meat on Mondays or biking to work, or designing green environments, solar panels or electric cars into games.

Space Ape, whose game Transformers: Earth Wars contains environmental themes in the original storyline, picked renewable energy. For the updated release, it brought both good and evil Transformers together to find a new technology to harvest Earth’s energy resources more sustainably.

Mensah-Bonsu says that the company also wanted to give players a call to action, so it asked them to take a pledge to switch their lightbulbs from incandescents to LEDs.

California-based Pixelberry Studios focused on climate change in its title “Choices.” The game centres on a young woman who returns to her coastal hometown where there has been a large fish die-off. The girl’s younger sister is convinced the die-off is connected to climate change, despite skepticism from local politicians and business owners. The player’s role is to help their young sister rally others and raise awareness about climate change.

Saran Walker, one of the writers at Pixelberry, said the team had read dozens of articles about younger generations experiencing anxiety around climate change. (A recent survey of millennials — 30,000 individuals under the age of 30 from 186 countries confirmed this — finding that climate change and destruction of nature were the most critical issues for them.)

“We were all really inspired by Greta Thunberg’s story,” Walker said, referring to the young Swedish environmental activist. “Anyone at the company who has kids is thinking about what kind of world are they going to leave to their children. We wanted to show people that they can actually do a lot as an individual.”

A shift in the industry

The gaming industry is also considering how it can become carbon neutral, or in some cases carbon positive – a welcome move for a sector that has been scrutinized for its environmental footprint. Currently,  50 million tons of electronic waste is generated annually, with that number projected to reach 120 million tons by 2050.

Supercell, which makes mobile titles, recently committed to going entirely carbon neutral and offsetting the carbon dioxide used by players when playing their games. Rovio and Space Ape aim to take similar action.

The Playing for the Planet Alliance will share guidance with its members on how to decarbonize, with Sony leading a working group that includes other console makers. The alliance will help devise a new carbon calculator for the industry, develop fresh guidance on offsetting and forge new collective commitments around the restoration of forest landscapes, which help absorb carbon emissions.

“When we set out on this journey we wanted to help others in the industry too,” said Mensah-Bonsu. “If we all do our part, we can make a change in the world.”

UN Environment

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Green Politics: The hope for a better tomorrow

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Authors: Anurag Mishra and Aaditya Vikram Sharma

Green Political Parties in India

To pick from the last instalment, the culture of Indian environmentalism is indeed ancient and quite veritably primitive. For the record, India has various Green parties. The prominent one is of course is the India Greens Party which runs as an offshoot of the Global Greens and is a full member of the Asia Pacific Greens Federation. To take a measure of how green politics fares in the Indian context would only require us to take a quick visit to the Indian Green Party’s website. The events calendar for the IGP is blank for the month of July as well as the previous month. The last press release made by the IGP was in the month of March. A google search doesn’t even yield a Wikipedia page for the IGP because there isn’t one.

The Coronavirus pandemic poses a grave danger to humanity but also throws open an opportunity for laying the path which the posterity will tread. It is however disheartening that the response to the pandemic has more or less remained limited to  desperate search for a vaccine. A vaccine nevertheless is the acute need of the hour but what is of no less importance is a future plan for humanity which is closer to nature and yet at a safe distance.

Global Green Political Parties

Here, we look at the contemporary Green parties around the world. We primarily focus on North America and the Asia Pacific. In North America, Canada got its first Green parties starting 1983. Being a federal country, Canada has such parties present on provincial as well as the national level. The provincial parties include the Green Party of Ontario, the Green Party of Prince Edward Island, the Green Party of British Columbia and the Green Party of New Brunswick. The parliamentarians who get elected are colloquially known as “Green MLAs.” In the United States of America, the Green Party of the United States happens to be the primary such entity. It should be noted that as of April 2018, 156 Greens held elective office across the US in 19 states. The states with the largest numbers of Green elected officials are California (68), Connecticut (15), and Pennsylvania (15). Titles of offices held include: Alderman, Auditor, Board of Appeals, Board of Finance, Board of Selectmen, Borough Council, Budget Committee, Circuit Court Judge, City Council and so on. The Green Party has contested six U.S.A. presidential elections: in 1996 and 2000 with Ralph Nader for president and Winona LaDuke as vice president, in 2004 with David Cobb for president and Pat LaMarche for vice president, and in 2008 with Cynthia McKinney for president and Rosa Clemente for vice president. In 2000, Nader received more votes for president than any Green Party candidate before or since. Jill Stein ran for president on the Green ticket in 2012 and 2016; the vice-presidential candidates were Cheri Honkala in 2012 and Ajamu Baraka in 2016. Stein, who received over one million votes in the 2016 race, led unsuccessful attempts toward 2016 election recounts in three states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

On the other side of the planet, the Asia Pacific Greens Federation is of prominence. It is a federation of national Green parties, social and environmental organizations in countries in the Pacific Ocean and Asia, and is one of the four federations that constitute the Global Greens. 32 Parties from 30 nations got together in February 2005 in Kyoto, Japan, to found the network. There they elected a Membership Panel, and delegates to the Global Greens Coordination (GGC). The federation has a presence in countries such as Australia, India, Mongolia, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Korea etc.

A Common Agenda?

The Agenda of these parties overall can be derived through their principles and policies- a list of such guidelines available on some websites of the Green parties. Overall these can be divided into the following headers- Ecological Wisdom, Social Justice, Participatory Democracy, Non-violence, Sustainability and Respect for Diversity. Overall, the idea seems to be in conformity with international treaties and upcoming practices for environmental governance. The agendas also seem to comply with global requirements for climate commitments, such as that of the Paris Agreement.

However, environmental policies are just one part of international relations. Thus, it is not clear what the other policies of green parties would be. Thus, their agenda needs to more well defined and encompassing.

Conclusion

Netflix released the second season of its popular school drama The Politician last month. Where the first season of the series had focused almost entirely upon the protagonist’s political ambition and his run to the office of school president, the second season centred around his political campaign based entirely upon environmentalism. A strong movement requires novel instruments of mass mobilization and symbols which people can relate to and take to. The Global Green Movement needs to make itself ‘catchy’ to generate mass participation without which it is bound to remain a fringe movement even after fifty years since the United Tasmania Group coming into being. What seems to be the only way forward is mainstreaming of the Green agenda and making it “cool” and part of the popular culture.

However, it is not just awareness that would suffice and thus the scientific developments in the areas of energy, agriculture and food among other things need unprecedented attention and investment. In the food industry, the way Veganism has caught people from diverse range of countries is an example how an idea can travel far and wide and can bring about even the most difficult and unimaginable lifestyle changes. The technology has tried keeping pace with companies like Impossible Foods and Green Meat Co. coming up with vegetable based meat etc. The growing popularity of EVs and renewable sources of energy have steadily moved in the direction of creating a global ecosystem based on the idea of sustainability and environmentalism. All we need is a huge push and unrelenting spirit.

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