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COVID-19: A Hidden Connection Between Zoonotic Diseases and Class Differences

COVID-19: A Hidden Connection Between Zoonotic Diseases and Class Differences

An elephant. Photo: Pixabay/Pexels.

June 5 last week was World Environment Day. This year’s theme was ‘Time for Nature’, with the declaration: “It’s time to wake up. To take notice. To raise our voices”. This day is usually a joyous occasion but this year, it has been subsumed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and less so also by the death of the pregnant elephant in Kerala.

The pandemic and the elephant’s death are both associated with biodiversity and its destruction. However, viruses and elephants occupy two ends of our normative horizon. The former is the spreader of fear and the uncontained pandemic – the biodiversity to be repressed. The latter is the subject of compassion and spectacular nature – the biodiversity to be embraced. This leads us to a curious situation: how must we mourn an elephant’s death during a pandemic?

Zoonoses, wildlife and conservation

Zoonoses are diseases caused by germs that are passed naturally between vertebrate animals and humans. The novel coronavirus is one such germ, and the disease it causes, COVID-19, is a zoonotic disease. We already know that the large-scale destruction of natural animal habitats increases human society’s exposure to diseases like COVID-19. Corporatised meat production systems as well as the trade in wildlife, and wildlife products, also heighten our contact with these pathogens.

In similar vein, discussions on elephants always include references to ivory. Human-wildlife conflicts, habitat fragmentation and poaching for skin and ivory endangers these pachyderms. In response, images of burning ivory stockpiles serve as commitments to end elephant poaching. Campaigns on elephant corridors emphasise the need to preserve vast inter-connected habitats for elephants to roam and migrate.

However, reactions to the elephant’s death in Kerala weren’t mindful of these wider factors. High-profile individuals spewed condemnations, but they also reduced the human-elephant conflict to a single incident. Theirs was selective outrage, and can be linked to the programme build a certain image of elephants, and the special position they occupy in wildlife narratives.

Elephants are charismatic creatures. They stoke emotions simply because they’re big. By uprooting trees, dispersing seeds and producing gigantic volumes of dung, their labour builds forests. They exist in socially complex herds. This caricature makes them worthy of respect, and so they are promoted as flagship species “popular, charismatic species that serve as symbols and rallying points to stimulate conservation awareness and action”.

The Parambikulam and Nilambur Elephant Reserves in Kerala use the ‘elephants as flagships’ model. Powerful environmental actors like the state, wildlife NGOs and multilateral organisations like CITES1 mobilise resources to create these symbols, and the media sustains it. The Hindu’s World Environment Day cover is a case in point: it deployed the elephant’s appeal as an “uncrowned king of the jungle”, and many people consumed this narrative of elephants as charismatic megafauna.

The other side of charisma

However, this is a simplistic view of elephants – a view often associated with animals “out there” in nature. It is also an urban elite outlook that shrouds the complexities of human-elephant relationships. Banal narratives built around charisma don’t offer solutions when humans and elephants are as entangled as they are. Charisma doesn’t produce conservation outcomes when elephants raid crops or injure and kill people. In these cases, elephants become unwelcome, and are even seen as pests. In these contested spaces, neither humans nor elephants flourish – but these are spaces where mainstream environmentalism can accept the narrative of an elephant being “fed” a cracker-laden pineapple.

Even as the elite grapple with the elephant’s death in Kerala, there is apparently some comfort to be had  in exploiting elephants in the popular culture. The charisma of wild elephants disappears when elephants are tamed performers in temple rituals functioning as “gentle giants”. Further, urban India presents an uncanny problem: it rides on the elephants’ backs (subservient nature) while experiencing forests (wild nature).

Elephants are exploited by capital-intensive heritage and eco-tourism industries that normalise their labour. These industries provide tailor-made and hyper-romanticised experiences for tourists looking for the “real experience”. But it does more: it also provides fertile grounds for zoonotic transmissions between humans and elephants.

Studies (like this and this) have already raised concerns on tuberculosis spreading from humans to elephants. Captive elephants in India have displayed asymptomatic infections of Mybobacterium tuberculosis, the disease’s causative bacteria. Similarly, studies (like this) have illustrated the risks of disease transmission from elephants to humans.

This means tourism models using animals as performers can be potential drivers of zoonotic diseases, with implications for public health and elephant populations at large.

Time for the Anthropocene

The current period of geological history is called the Anthropocene epoch because human activities dominate the planet’s environment. However, human activities aren’t homogenous. There are complexities between the natural and the cultural. Natures and cultures are deeply entwined. The class differences between exploiting elephants for ivory and killing an elephant for raiding a field are stark. One happens thanks to an organised international network; the other is a localised response to wider processes like intensified agriculture, forest loss and systemic poverty.

Zoonotic diseases are a manifestation of this class difference. Capitalism is the driver of the Anthropocene – fittingly mocked as the ‘Capitalocene – and extracts biodiversity to the point of no return. Its steady evolution appears as an inevitable process. It goes unnoticed but establishes conditions to pass diseases between animals and humans. Over time, it creates fertile grounds for zoonoses.

So the elephants of the Anthropocene are caught in a phantasmagorical reality. Will we soon witness the reactionary killing of elephants when they become zoonotic hosts? (There is currently a witch-hunt against bats because of their misconceived association with COVID-19). This is a dystopian rendition, but only because it is predicated on a hitherto simplistic and visible representation of biodiversity. Capitalism works with biodiversity on a different level altogether.

Moving beyond the framework of ‘wildlife as charisma’ illuminates the complexities of biodiversity. First, it addresses the importance of habitats and functioning of ecosystems that maintain ecological integrity. Second, it looks at biodiversity as a multi-species concept, without limiting it to individual elephants that preoccupy the day’s news.

Finally, we must conquer our own millennial fears rather than forge apocalyptic futures. That is, the future must address the health of animal populations as a whole, and not just the welfare of individual animals. The pandemic has brought to the fore the ‘One Health’ research approach that recognises the well-being of humans and animals together. It provides hope – hope that is emancipatory and promotes interspecies conviviality.

As we mourn the death of an elephant, we should care for biodiversity at scales that can resist capitalist exploitation. This can only happen by going beyond the individual, and making the herd resilient to the Anthropocene’s tensions.

This article is a contribution from the Secretariat, National Mission on Biodiversity and Human Well-Being. The author thanks Abi T. Vanak and Ravi Chellam for their feedback.

Dhruv Gangadharan is a geographer affiliated to the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru. He tweets @Dhruv_KJanaki. The views expressed here are personal.

  1. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora

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