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Hanging by a thread

Getty Images/iStockphoto   | Photo Credit: Anton Porkin

On June 20, despite protests and criticism, China’s Yulin Dog Meat Festival opened to the public. Every year, thousands of dogs (some stolen pets, many strays) are killed and cooked over the course of the ten-day event. On the festival’s concluding day, which also happened to mark six months since the first Covid case was reported in China on Dec 31, news broke of a new strain of flu in the country. Scientists say that the new virus, carried by pigs, has the potential to become a pandemic.

China is much like my annoying neighbour next door who refuses to follow health protocols or social distancing norms and has no regard for personal hygiene. Governments and health experts worldwide have slammed the country for legalising wildlife trade, not cracking down on wet markets and the uncontrolled breeding of wild animals. As the coronavirus continues to rage, are we ready to face another pandemic?

Definitely not, but the emergence of another zoonotic disease comes as no surprise. World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) recent report, ‘COVID-19: Urgent call to protect people and nature’, says these diseases are ‘driven by humanity’s broken relationship with nature’. The report links these diseases to two widespread environmental risks. Firstly, the large-scale conversion of land for agriculture that is increasing interaction between wildlife, livestock and humans. This problem is set to worsen as the challenge of feeding a growing population increases and diets shift, the report says. Secondly, it points to ‘poor food safety standards, including permitting the trade and consumption of high-risk wildlife species.’ The global demand for ‘wild meat’ is increasing the potential for exposure to diseases during high-risk sourcing, handling and preparation practices.

In the US, the pandemic has put immense pressure on the country’s meat-packing plants, poultry farms and food supply chains. A recent report in The Guardian says that about 10 million hens have already been killed and the pork industry was warned in May that 10 million pigs would be culled by September. Farm animals are being ‘depopulated’ using brutal methods such as water-based foam generators, whole-house gassing and ventilation shutdown. The report goes on to say how NGOs fear that ‘under-regulated and poorly monitored animal disposal during the pandemic’ will create serious public health risks. Where animals are incinerated on farms, ‘on-site incineration by pyre’ risks exacerbating air pollution, which is ‘a factor linked to higher Covid-19 death rates’.

First, we adopt inhumane methods to breed livestock, then use them for meat, then when factories shut down, we cull them in equally inhumane ways. Covid-19 has once again brought to light our collective failure as a society. We are not concerned about human life and even less about the environment and the wildlife it supports. The wildlife trade monitoring network, Traffic, has recorded a significant increase in poaching in India during the lockdown. The deadline for filing objections to the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020 has been extended until August 11, but can we expect the government to take objections seriously?

The novel coronavirus isn’t going to go away anytime soon. And a vaccine is going to take time. There is still an absence of well-thought out and informed discussions on tackling not just the health crisis but the looming environmental one. The pandemic has served governments, experts and the public a vast timeline to study and alter laws and mindsets. Not just for wildlife but for everything from public mobility and pollution levels to waste management and construction practices. We could use this crisis to create a new world order.

Instead, we have governments busy altering the names of cities, clearing projects detrimental to the environment, and MLAs hosting lavish weddings.

When are we going to take ownership of earth? To quote WWF UK’s Chief Executive Tanya Steele, “We are the first generation to know we are destroying our planet and the last one that can do anything about it.” How soon we start doing something about it will determine our future and that of generations to come.

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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 10:16:54 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/why-covid-is-an-opportunity-to-make-wide-reaching-changes-in-the-way-we-live/article32001119.ece

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