A tale of viruses, humans, the environment and their common home: Earth.

Words by: Robert Barrie

“The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in his control, and not the other way around…nature has an order, a power to restore balance.”

As the events of current time are laid down on the pages of history these wise words, from the 2014 film ‘Godzilla’, must do more than simply play on the minds of humanity in the face of a creature even more powerful than the great Japanese monster itself.

When an unsuspecting member of the Chinese public became “Patient Zero” of a particularly deadly strain of coronavirus after visiting a Seafood Market in the city of Wuhan in December, only the most astute minds of science could have envisaged the global strangulation that would ensue.

Unfortunately, their words of warning went unheeded by the vast majority of governments, especially those presiding over European countries. It was, therefore, no surprise that on 11 March 2020, now known as COVID-19, the infectious disease was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation.

As of April 9, this single stranded RNA virus has infiltrated at least 184 countries or territories on the planet. Spreading indiscriminately and without hesitation, this unforgiving act of Mother Nature has caused immense pain, grief and sadness.

When the early Homo sapiens went about their daily activities roughly two million years ago on Earth, they were oblivious to the organismal history of the planet to which they had joined and the land they not occupied but inherited. Viruses possess a near flawless design which has allowed
them to exist on Earth for around 1.5 billion years. Thus, it follows as no surprise that one of the theories of how life began on this planet is the ‘RNA World Hypothesis’ which suggests simple RNA molecules were able to copy themselves eventually leading to higher organisational life. Viruses are malevolent, they invade cells of it’s new found host, release their RNA and override the biological machinery of the cell in order to replicate. It then leaves the cell to repeat this process a near infinite amount of times as it gains a foothold in a particular environment or ecosystem. Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the strain of virus that causes COVID-19, has infected more than 1.5 million people worldwide, caused over 100,000 deaths and induced the the greatest change to our daily lives in the UK since the Second World War.

This change, however, has not just been limited to daily activities. Scientific experts have been viewing these strange times as a rare sighting of what life without fossil fuels could have in store for our planet. There have been images, of varying validity, circulating on social media. The story,
although pleasant, of swans returning to Venice due to the reduction in tourist pressure was unfortunately misrepresented; these animals are found in the historic canals annually. It is true to say, however, that the now empty waterways look objectively clearer due to the diminished frequency of tourist boats navigating around the city with even the inhabitant fish now easily visible. These heartwarming images seemed to awaken dormant minds to the very real beneficial climate changes occurring during this turbulent start to the new decade.

On a more global scale there is empirical scientific evidence that our weary and bruised planet is slowly healing. At first what was limited to China, now Europe too is experiencing falls in carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide levels: as much as 40%. Between February and March, China experienced a reduction of fossil fuels in the region of 250m tonnes. A shy number when compared to the forecasted figure of 390m tonnes of output that will be cut in Europe in the coming months. Motorways are not bearing the usual volume of vehicles much like the tarmac at airports where air traffic is approximately half what it was in the not so distant past. With this, the air we breathe has returned to a more natural state. Not carelessly filled with micro-particles of pollution, this cleaner air reduces the risks of asthma, heart attacks and lung disease. Too long has ignorance reigned to the stress that has been exerted on this planet and the wildlife contained within. It is only now, when such positive changes are witnessed first hand that the possibility of it developing from a forced, fleeting occurrence to a sustained, structured transformation becomes distinctively apparent.

While personifying nature into a ‘deity’ of balance admittedly strays from the ‘laboratories’ of science and into the ‘postulations’ of philosophy or the ‘romance’ of the arts, this interdisciplinary approach is useful. While it is not suggestible to envisage the viral cause of this pandemic of our time being conjured up within the walls of the Temple of Gaia (Greek goddess of the Earth) itself, the consequences and implications COVID-19 will have on nature must be carefully considered. The terra of this planet has, for billions of years, been enveloped with organic life spanning every
continent and ocean, each with innumerable, carefully balanced ecosystems. Yet the ‘balancing scales of life’ are being dangerously skewed, and have been for some time since the introduction of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by mankind; since 1950 there has been a 400% increase in carbon dioxide emission. When such a force is being exerted, it is naive to assume an opposite and reactionary force of equal measure will never follow.

With the current status of medical and technological apparatus, COVID-19 will not be as deadly as past pandemics such as The Great Bubonic Plague of 1347 or the 1918 Spanish Flu. However, it is a telling reminder that despite the advancements of the 21st Century, the global death toll has reached an alarmingly high number. Whether this is either due to the perfection of the viral strain present before us, the failure across a number of governmental and health systems or indeed a combination of the two, the inescapable fact is although the death rate in the United Kingdom, for example, is not exponentially rising as it once was, it is showing no signs of decreasing either.

Not just limited to this nation, government negligence has been rife throughout many countries and, despite the majority of their publics adhering to the measures implemented on advice by scientific advisors, the response to this pandemic by the powers that be, on a global level, has been left wanting. Despite the beneficial changes experienced by wildlife, plants, the air and, indeed, nature as a whole these will likely only be temporary unless the repercussions, which will be felt throughout generations to come, are acted upon in a decisively positive manner. It is with regret that such changes by institutions, countries and nationwide-organisations will likely remain unobserved if past records of action are to go by, in addition to current events setting a model:since the lockdown in Wuhan was lifted, pollution in the city’s air has risen.The real power of change does, and will, come from the public: public attitude, public perception and public emotion will all be contributing factors. And perhaps if there is a time, as good as any,when such change can be achieved it is when nations, and indeed the world, stands united.

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