One tends to ask whether the COVID-19 pandemic is nature’s way of getting back at man for his having overstepped his boundaries, and with disregard for his own laws, to contaminate the air, pollute the waters, destroy natural vegetation and kill innocent wildlife.
Arguably, nature has been keeping a check on man, even reducing his numbers with natural disasters such as drought, floods, wildfires and earthquakes, but has never driven man indoors on such a large scale in recent times.
Is man being pushed to the wall to be taught a lesson, once and for all?
Globally, almost all work has come to a stop. Tourism is at a standstill. Many businesses have already folded or are on the verge of winding up. Unemployment is rearing its ugly head. Oil prices have tumbled.
Planes that have to be where they should be – in the air – are lying idle on the ground across the world except for the much-need flights transporting medical and related equipment as well as mail. Private cars are parked at home, save for those used in the e-hailing service.
Most people are working from home, except for the medical and healthcare personnel who are attending to the sick as well as the law enforcers who are doing their best to keep the adamant people indoors, come rain or shine.
COVID-19, caused by a coronavirus, broke out in China in December last year and has spread across the globe, infecting, as of today, over 1.2 million people and claiming the lives of about 65,000 in almost all countries of the world.
It may come as a relief that a quarter of a million people have recovered from the disease which erupted in China’s Wuhan city that has now healed itself. Throughout China, over 81,000 people were infected and more than 3,000 died.
The United States has the highest number of infections, at over 300,000 and Italy, the highest number of deaths, at over 15,000.
In Malaysia, COVID-19 has infected over 3,000 people and killed 61 while over 1,000 have recovered.
Coming back to Mother Nature, she may be fuming over the air pollution — from smog hanging over cities to smoke inside the house – which the World Health Organisation (WHO) says poses a major threat to health and climate.
But, does the man in the street really care that air pollution kills an estimated seven million people worldwide every year? If he himself is unaffected in any way, the numbers are mere statistics for him.
All over the world, man continues to pollute the air with the exhaust fumes from vehicles, smoke from factories and open burning.
Nearer home, the clearing of jungles by the burning method and open burning in the region have left several ASEAN countries choking in the annual haze.
The Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), a United States-based NGO which works to safeguard the earth, its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends, says man is drowning marine ecosystems in trash, noise, oil, and carbon emissions.
It says the impact of these types of ocean pollution is degrading the health of the seas at an alarming rate.
Much of the tonnes of trash discarded into the ocean is plastic. Not that we do not know about this. Haven’t we pulled out ingested plastic from dead turtles washed ashore? Little wonder that the famed and endangered Leatherback turtles are no longer visitors of the Terengganu beaches they used to adore and frequent.
Water pollution surely brings to mind the toxic pollution of Sungai Kim Kim in Johor in March last year, caused by the illegal dumping of chemical waste in the waterway. The toxic fumes released by the chemical waste affected 6,000 people and hospitalised 2,775.
Mother Nature has also not been spared the destruction of her natural vegetation. The direct causes of deforestation are agricultural expansion, wood extraction (e.g., logging or wood harvest for domestic fuel or charcoal), and infrastructure expansion such as road building and urbanisation.
According to the World Bank, between 1990 and 2016, earth lost 1.3 million sq km of forest – an area larger than South Africa. A 2015 study reported that so far 46 per cent of the trees in forests have been felled by man.
In Malaysia, illegal logging especially has had a great impact on the indigenous people who find their ancestral land shrinking and their nomadic life restricted. They depend a great deal on the jungle for their livelihood.
While urbanisation and indiscriminate logging have shrunk the area under natural vegetation globally and caused terrestrial wild animals to retreat further into their jungle habitat, poaching is almost wiping out some wildlife from planet Earth.
Studies indicate that about 30,000 species of wildlife per year – about three per hour – are being driven to extinction and that 80 per cent of the decline in global biological diversity is caused by habitat destruction.
Much of the poaching in the world takes place in Africa because of the numerous types of and rare animals there, particularly in countries such as Zimbabwe and Kenya. South Africa reportedly lost over 1,000 rhinoceroses each year between 2013 and 2017.
Countries elsewhere are not spared by the poachers either. In Malaysia, for example, the Malayan tiger and the pygmy elephant of Sabah have been at the receiving end for far too long. Only 200 of the critically endangered Malayan tigers are left in the wild today. The jungles of Sabah now hold, perhaps, about 1,500 pygmy elephants.
Many will remember the case of a pygmy elephant that was brutally shot about 70 times and its tusks hacked off by poachers near Tawau, Sabah, in September last year. The mutilated carcass was found floating half-submerged in a river, tied by a rope to a tree on a bank.
Sadly, the Sumatran rhinoceros is extinct in Malaysia.
The poachers are just interested in the horns, tusks or hide. Do they know and, if even if they do, do they care that poaching animals also puts the plants and environment at risk of extinction too?
Much of the forests and grasslands rely on the nutrients brought by essential animals to grow and produce their food.
While we lament on the indiscriminate extermination of wildlife around the globe, a frightening fact emerges – that the pangolin is the world’s most-poached animal.
Incidentally, on March 31, the Royal Customs Department foiled an attempt to smuggle into Malaysia about six tonnes of pangolin scales valued at RM78 million. The sacks of scales were concealed among sacks of cashew nuts which were declared as the goods in the container that was seized in Port Klang.
The stay-home order to arrest the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily stopped industrial activity as well as much of the air, sea and land transportation, resulting in a drop in air pollution levels around the world, as proven by satellite imagery.
It may be the imagination but doesn’t the chirping of the birds in the morning sound louder these days? Happier they are, obviously, with the increased breathing space in a world where man dictates, or has dictated thus far.
Residents in the Indian city of Jalandhar captured photographs and videos of the Dhauladhar mountain range, part of the Himalayas, 200 km away, which they were able to see for the first time in 30 years due to the drop in air pollution.
In Malaysia, Environment and Water Minister Datuk Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man said the Movement Control Order (MCO) in place since March 18, and which will end on April 14, has seen a reduction in vehicle exhaust emission, industrial stack emission and open burning and, along with it, the nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and fine particles of 2.5 microns in the air throughout the country.
In Italy, for example, the lack of tourism and the absence of docking cruise ships are said to have brought back the dolphins off the country’s coast and other wildlife to the Venice canals.
As the coronavirus continues to keep man indoors, reports are flooding in of wildlife coming out to claim their place under the sun on the empty streets of cities – wild boars in Barcelona, Spain; sika deer in Nara, Japan; and peacocks in Mumbai, India.
A civet cat was reportedly seen on a deserted street in Kozhikode, Kerala, in India while a puma was sighted in the heart of Santiago, Chile.
COVID-19 is, at the time of writing, second to the 1918 influenza or Spanish flu pandemic in terms of deaths and cases. The Spanish flu reportedly infected 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population at that time and killed about 50 million around the world.
Once the stay-home order is lifted and life edges back to normalcy around the world, will man return to his old ways?
Will open burning be a thing of the past? Will the destruction of the forests cease? Will the poachers put down their weapons? Will Sungai Kim Kim and other rivers boast clear, clean waters? Will man strictly observe sustainable development?
Will man have learned his lesson?
A netizen commented that Mother Nature “just hit the reset button on us”.
Another said Mother Nature is sending man a message that the air, earth, water and sky are fine without him.
“When you come back, remember that you are my guests. Not my masters.”
M. Govind Nair is Chief Sub-editor at Malaysian National News Agency, Bernama