The nature of pandemics


Over 172 million infections and nearly 4 million lives later, the exact origin of the Covid-19 pandemic is still a matter of debate. But scientists have a pretty good guess.

Early studies pointed to bats as the source of the 2019 novel coronavirus and epidemiologists say the virus could have jumped to an intermediary species like the pangolin, which is a delicacy in certain parts of China, and on to humans.

There is now a better understanding of how the rise of zoonotic diseases is associated with the destruction of nature and the flourishing illegal wildlife trade. This could be how the cross-species transmission of SARS-CoV-2 took place in late 2019, but there is little political will to stop the destruction of nature.

“There will always be a risk of pandemics as long as there is demand for bush meat and the destruction of biodiversity,” says Tulshi Laxmi Suwal of Nepal’s Small Mammal Conservation and Research Foundation who has been involved in pangolin research.

Scientists are still debating the natural origin hypothesis for the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in late 2019 in Wuhan, but the absence of an intermediary host and lack of a chain of mutations in the SARS-2 is shifting attention to the lab-leak theory once again.

Whatever the root cause, this is not the first pandemic and it will not be the last if the planet’s current rate of biodiversity loss continues. The link between the destruction of nature and the rise of new infectious diseases is now recognised, a trend exacerbated by the climate crisis.

“The coronavirus pandemic is a much-needed wake-up call but people have short-term memory, they will soon forget the connection to habitat destruction,” says environmentalist Kumar Paudel of the Greenhood Nepal. “Politicians can’t keep destroying the ecology for the sake of economic growth.”

Indeed, Finance Minister Bishnu Paudel’s new budget announced this week places emphasis on infrastructure and development at the expense of nature preservation. It will allow further plunder of the fragile Chure Hills for quarrying to reduce the $10 billion trade deficit with India.

This tendency has seeped down to local governments which are building poorly-designed roads, view towers and concrete monuments at breakneck speed.

New highways, irrigation canals, transmission lines and now new rail tracks are slicing through national parks.

The most serious destruction is of the last tract of native forests in the eastern Tarai for the construction of the mammoth Nijgad project for which Paudel set allocated money for infrastructure, international investor selection, land acquisition and site clearing.

On the occasion of World Environment Day on 5 June, nine of Nepal’s development partners issued a statement cautioning the government about the project.

‘It is important to ensure that decisions ... for large projects such as Nijgad Airport, are based on sound economic, financial, climate, environmental and social impact analyses in line with Nepal’s established economic, environmental and social regulations, as well as climate and other commitments,’ the statement reads.

It is signed by the embassies of Australia, Britain, EU, Finland, France, Germany in Nepal as well as the Kathmandu offices of the Asian Development Bank, United Nations and World Bank in Nepal.

With the monsoon approaching, there is the threat of a repeat of last year’s deadly flash floods and landslides triggered by haphazard construction of roads and embankments. These are not ‘natural disasters’ but the result of bad engineering and unsustainable exploitation of nature.

“Covering everything with concrete is not development, and our development model is suicidal, the coronavirus pandemic is just the latest example of this,” explains naturalist Tirtha Bahadur Shrestha. “Even urban life needs to be integrated with natural elements like water bodies, trees, groundwater recharge.”

Conservation need not be anti-development. Green policies actually boost the economy: in Nepal protecting charismatic big mammals promoted ecotourism and created jobs, community forests yielded ecosystem services by augmenting ground water recharge, a shift to renewable energy can reduce petroleum import.

Switching to electric public transport and battery vehicles to reduce the petroleum import bill by just 10% would save Nepal Rs21 billion a year – besides promoting domestic clean energy from hydropower, and improving air quality.

“We need to link conservation with economy to drive the change, nature-friendly policies and conservation education must be at the forefront,” adds Shrestha.

Yet, Nepal’s current economic model threatens the conservation successes that have earned the country international praise. By allowing logging in community forests, building dams in national parks, clearing vast tracts of forests to build Nijgad airport, and destroying rivers through sand mining will undo decades of achievement.

The theme of this World Environment Day on 5 June is ‘Ecosystem Restoration’, and despite lip service Nepal’s government is too distracted by politics to act on this motto.

Warns Kumar Paudel: “If we do not change our ways, many more health and environmental crises await us in the near future.”

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.