We Need to Rethink our Economics to Avoid Future Epidemics

Debanjana Dey & Taposik Banerjee

During the late 1950s when villages near the Kyasanur Forest in Karnataka started to become crowded, farmers began to clear the forest to find new land for agriculture as well as for construction of houses and roads. This brought them to close contact with the primates in the forest. When Kyasanur Forest Disease (KFD) outbreak took place among monkeys, the virus did not take much time to jump species and infect humans[i]. The disease which originated in Shimoga district in Karnataka in 1957, since 2012 has spread to other areas of Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Goa and Maharashtra, infecting around 500 people each year and killing several. Expansion of agricultural and industrial activity, mining and infrastructure development are some of the economic activities that are responsible for massive deforestation which in turn facilitates animal to human transmission of diseases.

Exploitation of nature to make profit is not new. But the ease with which economic concern almost always wins over environmental concerns is remarkable.  The answer to this lies in the reasoning with which the institution of market operates. Market evaluates economic activities on the basis of pecuniary gains. If the monetised value of benefits from an activity is found to be higher than the monetised value of damages then it is considered to be efficient to carry on with such an activity.  Many important functions of environment, however, have no market and hence have no economic value. As a result damages to the environment is often severely undervalued and degradation of environment is considered more profitable than preserving it. As a consequence, the model of economic development that is predominantly followed across the world causes serious damages to environment, biodiversity loss and habitat destruction for a large number of species. There is no dearth of example for such cases. The Environmental Justice Atlas (ejatlas.org) which is a project that maintain a repository of instances related to socio-environmental conflicts has more than 3000 cases reported globally among which more than 300 cases were reported from India. These conflicts are linked with a wide range of economic activities that include mining, dams, fracking, infrastructure construction, tourism recreation, water management, waste management, alternative uses of biomass and land etc. Surely this is not an exhaustive set of cases and there are many more cases around the world where we would find ecosystems getting threatened and damaged to promote economic activities. All such activities however, are considered to be value-creating according to the principles of market.

Over the years encroachments into forests and other habitats has caused disruption to the ecosystem processes that govern the planetary health and well-being of all life forms. This has also led to a rise in infectious diseases caused by pathogens which otherwise circulate mostly in the wild[ii]. The Ebola outbreak in Africa was a result of forest clearance which led to closer contact between wildlife and humans. SARS in China was associated with contact with civet cats either in the wild or in live animals market. There may be three pathways that can trigger a virus to move from animal to human[iii]. First, if there are changes in the environment ranging from ecosystem degradation to climate change, which influences the environmental conditions for distribution, reproduction and survival of virus, vectors and hosts. These changes are usually brought about by rise in urbanization and increase in settlements in peri-urban areas, frequent visit to forest for fuel-wood collection, increased travel, migration etc. which push the animals out of their natural habitat and increase human contact with wildlife and subsequently with the virus. Second, if there are changes in human or animal hosts. The spillover of virus from animal to human is usually bridged by livestock. Intensification of livestock production[iv] and animal trade fueled by increase in demand for livestock product increase such risks. The Nipah virus or Avian influenza virus used intensive farming as a bridge to pass into humans. Third, if there are changes in the biological structure of the virus to invade new hosts or to evade the host’s immune response. The recent ongoing pandemic (COVID19) might be attributed to all these three factors together, which created an ideal environment for transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from animal host to human.

Concerns about ecosystem destruction in India

The hypothesis that diversity of species and diversity within species make it more difficult for a pathogen to spread rapidly among animal hosts has gained much acceptance in recent times among scientists. This is because higher diversity can create a ‘dilution effect’ to reduce disease transmission. Studies on zoonotic diseases like Lyme Disease and West Nile Virus demonstrated that increase in vertebrate species diversity can lead to decrease in disease transmission and spill over to humans[v]. However, the mechanisms driving such relationships and how biodiversity affects these mechanisms need more research for generalized predictions. But there has been a steady increase in zoonotic diseases worldwide over the last few decades, which has been mainly attributed to loss of habitat. India’s track record in preserving biodiversity and species habitat is not satisfactory, largely due to anthropogenic activities. For example, large scale developmental activities in Central Western Ghats in India like dams built on the river Kali, Kaiga nuclear plant and Dandeli paper mill have changed the land-use pattern and shrunken the evergreen forest for the last three decades. The Report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) headed by Professor Madhav Gadgil was submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India in 2011. WGEEP recommended 64 percent of the Western Ghats to be considered as Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA)[vi]. However, the report never gained popularity among policy makers and was considered anti-development. Later it was substituted by another report by a High Level Working Group (HLWG) under the chairmanship of K. Kasturirangan which diluted the concerns of the WGEEP and restricted ESA to only 37 percent of the Western Ghats. Environmentalists have been worried that restricting ESA to such small area would be detrimental to the ecological systems of Western Ghats. What is more worrying is that some state governments now want to reduce the ESA further to facilitate more developmental activities. On 21st May 2020, Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) Prakash Javadekar has agreed to the demands of several Chief Ministers (Goa[vii], Karnataka[viii]) who does not want to implement Kasturirangan report in its present form. The North Eastern states which account for roughly a quarter of total forest cover of the country have also witnessed deforestation in recent years[ix]. In April 2020, in the middle of a country wide lockdown the government has decided to allow coal mining in Saleki which is inside the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in Assam. In another virtual meeting, MoEFCC has cleared a project to build one of the country’s largest hydropower project inside the ecologically rich Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh. All these areas are rich in biodiversity. Both Western Ghats and North Eastern regions are listed among the 36 biodiversity hotspots in the world. Reduction in forest cover will not only lead to loss of biodiversity but also result in destruction of species habitat, thereby increasing human contacts with animals. 

The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have done much damage to the economy and efforts are on to revive it. However, it is important to understand that the market driven economic policies that we have pursued during the last few decades which promoted economic growth at any cost, are partly responsible for the emergence of the crisis that we are presently in. The rise in emerging zoonoses around the world is not a coincidence. Following the same set of policies to get out of the crisis would be a non-starter. Several functions of ecosystems and environment may not have any market value but they play a vital role in ensuring our existence. Unfettered application of market ideology in domains which have environmental implications would be a grave mistake. We need to take the environmental regulations seriously, strengthen them further and enforce them strictly. India accounts for 7-8 percent of all recorded species and comprises 4 out of 36 biodiversity hotspots in the world. While it is important to boost up economic activities it should not be done at the cost of environment and biodiversity. Otherwise it would only be a matter of time before we see a new outbreak.

Debanjana Dey is Researcher at Academy of Scientific and Innovative Research at CSIR-NISTADS

Taposik Banerjee is Assistant Professor at Ambedkar University Delhi

[i]     KFD is also known as Monkey Fever which is a tick-borne haemorrhagic fever caused by a virus (family Flaviviridae, genus Flavivirus). https://www.monkeyfeverrisk.ceh.ac.uk/what-kfd

[ii]  Settele, J; Diaz,S; Brondizio, E and Daszak, P (2020) COVID-19 Stimulus Measures Must Save Lives, Protect Livelihood and Safeguard Nature to Reduce the Risk of Future Pandemics. IPBES Guest Article, 27th April. https://ipbes.net/covid19stimulus

[iii]   UNEP (2016). UNEP Frontiers 2016 Report: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern. United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi.

[iv]   In India, the traditional low-input-low-output system of livestock production has mostly transformed into semi intensive and intensive systems in urban and peri-urban areas which results in reduction of genetic diversity of livestock. Homogenized populations are the most susceptible to any emerging zoonotic disease, and they often serve as the most potential bridge to transmit the virus to humans.

[v]   Ostfeld, R.S (2009) Biodiversity loss and the rise of zoonotic pathogens. Clinical microbiology and Infection,Vol.15 (1), Pp. 40-43.

[vi]  Chopra, K. (2014) Conservation and Development in the Western Ghats: A Tale of Two Committees and More. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 49 (11), Pp. 12-14

[vii]   https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/goa/state-wants-to-reduce-eszs-by-30-villages/articleshow/75878357.cms

[viii]  https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/union-minister-has-agreed-to-hold-talks-with-states-separately-on-kasturirangan-report-on-wghatskarnataka/1842293

[ix]    India State Forest Report 2019, GOI