When Disasters Strike

This year is the last year of my schooling and I was determined to make the best out of it, unlike what I have been doing for more than a decade now. Disaster, aka COVID-19 struck and I was left staring at my pillow-sized books, feeling a pang of sympathy for them. Would they ever meet other books in school or see what new teachers were like?

But for India and many other countries, it was COVID-20 instead of COVID-19, by the time the weight of the issue was realised. Or should I say COVID-2.0, since it is backed by so much fake news and conspiracy theories? Casual attitude in the beginning and bungled responses during its heights turned the viral tide against us, making us hostage to fortune.

Spanish flu, Corona’s grandmother, had taught us quite a few lessons. But we barely listen to grandmothers on normal days. Why bother during a pandemic? So, we just keep her safe – in a lock-up at the back of our brains.

Unfortunate. Surely, we could ask someone young and sapient for advice. Guess what? I know someone like that. That’s exactly why I am writing this essay! This person is one of Corona’s siblings, just a year or so elder to it and most willing to help. So, let me waste no further words and introduce you to….

In the middle of the year 2018, we were planning to go to Gir National Park. Disaster, aka Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) struck and I was left staring at my grade 10 books, wondering when we would get totally fed up with each other.

Within a month, 25 lions died in Gir. At first (as usual), the government blamed the lions themselves for territorial fights. But when the death toll rose and started including lionesses (which do not participate in infighting) the lions finally got the lion’s share of time during official meetings and deliberations. Then, the death of five lions was confirmed as due to CDV.

Although CDV and the COVID-19 are quite different – COVID-19 is due to novel coronavirus while CDV has previously infected members of the cat and the dog family – how we responded to both is quite similar.

CDV has left the endangered Ethiopian wolf in Africa dangling by a single thread and wiped out one-third of all the lions in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania in 1994. Finally, in September 2018, an outbreak in India’s Gir National Park threatened the survival of the Asiatic lion. The Saurashtra region in Gujarat is the only home of this species in the entire world.

In the beginning, when the COVID-19 outbreak was reported in China, the Chinese government tried to hush it up by waving aside it’s seriousness. Pretty much the same happened in Gujarat when the government initially said that infighting was the cause of the death of the lions. Later it was confirmed that the well-known canine distemper virus killed most of the lions, along with a protozoan friend called Babesiosis.

However, after these hiccups, the WHO sought international collaboration on the COVID-19 as it was soon becoming a globetrotter. In case of lions, the Centre for Animal Disease Research and Diagnosis (CADARD) and the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) were called upon for help. As a matter of fact, the ICMR-National Institute of Virology (ICMR-NIV) played a major role in CDV and is doing so for COVID-19 too. Just like the COVID-19 patients have been misdiagnosed often, CDV was suspected in the lions only after seven decomposed lion carcasses were found. This was because forest officials were unable to identify the symptoms as they were not given the training to do so.

Now, hospitals are grappling with the surge in the COVID-19 cases and there is clearly a lack of resource management. The lions, which were essentially wild, suffered similar consequences, for they were taken into captivity for testing and forced into really close contact.

But a stark difference is that while all of us are fervently hoping that the vaccine for COVID-19 comes up soon, wildlife experts were thinking more than twice for vaccinating the lions against CDV. Vaccinating wild animals might compromise their immunity in the future and also interfere with the natural process of life and death.

Thanks to globalisation and the ease of travel these days, COVID-19 has affected so many parts of the world. Besides frequent cleansing and sanitization, social distancing is the preventive measure being advocated widely to combat the COVID-19. But for the Asiatic lions, it is different, or rather drastic. Since an outbreak like CDV could eliminate the only remaining population of the species, ‘population-distancing’ or the creation of new metapopulations would enable genetically different populations to be safeguarded from further epidemics (suggested by the Supreme Court itself).

Now, I put forward the final similarity between COVID-19 and CDV. The novel coronavirus (causing COVID-19) is believed to have jumped from pangolins or bats to humans, and CDV from feral dogs to lions. In both cases, human encroachment in wild habitats is the key cause. So, let’s quit accusing animals of spreading diseases. When we leave wildlife alone, such transmissions harmful to humans and wild animals are quite unlikely to happen. And I would have been narrating how much I enjoyed in Gir.

-Yazhini Sathiamoorthy (Winner of Third Prize, Covid-19 Article Writing Competition, 13-17 Age Group)

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