Nature calls the shots

COVID-19 has brought the country to a standstill. We are not isolated from nature and its forces at work around us. We are not immune, not just from viruses, but from the forces of nature.

Today it’s the pandemic COVID-19 that’s ploughing through. Tomorrow it will be climate change.

Nature acts in a non-discriminatory manner.

The coronavirus pandemic is thought to have had its origins at the Wuhan wild animal market in China through the sale of meat derived from various wild animals, primarily bats.

This is not the first time for such an occurrence. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), is another respiratory disease which was detected some 20 years ago, when it had a limited spread. It was traced to a virus belonging to the same family of viruses as the Coronavirus, also traced to viruses originating in wild animals. Incidentally, bats seem to be the point of origin in both cases.

At other times HIV (Human immune-deficiency Virus) which destroys the human immune defences, was traced to the eating of meat of infected chimpanzees. Likewise, the Ebola virus, causing outbreaks of fatal infections, is transmitted from infected animals such as fruit bats, chimpanzees, and monkeys, to humans, generally through the consumption of infected meat.

Nature has a habit of calling the shots whenever it deems fit. Viruses follow natural paths and until brought in check by proper behaviour on our part, they will reign supreme.

Tinkering with nature and natural processes always backfires. There is then a price to pay and we ignore this at our peril.

None of us, most probably, has consumed infected meat from bats or chimpanzees. However, we tinker with nature in other ways, which, in the longer term are just as lethal as viruses which jump from bats to man.

The quality of our air is poor. The European Environment Agency in fact, at times, describes it as very poor.

Yet after the Coronavirus mitigation measures came into force there was a substantial decrease in air pollution registered at the air-monitoring station in Msida operated by the Environment and Resources Authority. Data available indicates a significant decrease in pollutants associated with a decrease in car use during the past weeks as more work from home and the educational institutions closed their doors. Car use has decreased substantially, as a result leading to an all-round decrease in traffic generated pollutants.

It had to be the Coronavirus to commence seriously “implementing” Malta’s National Transport Master Plan which identified car-dependency as a major issue ignored continuously by our transport planners. A basic statistic which stares at us in the face is that 50 per cent of car trips in Malta have a duration shorter than 15 minutes. It follows that mobility is primarily local and regional in nature and on very short routes. Do we need private cars for this? Are the available alternative means of transport not sufficient for this need in a country where practically everywhere is a stone’s throw away?

The impact of COVID-19 on the generation of traffic and consequently on air quality should be an eye opener indicating that we do not need to waste public funds on unnecessary infrastructural road works. We need to understand that it is possible to substantially reduce our impacts on air quality if we address car-dependency head-on. The traffic impacts of Coronavirus could be of help to transport planners to do their job properly.

The impact of traffic on air quality is a significant contribution from Malta towards climate change.

Climate change is nature’s reaction to man-made pollution of the atmosphere. This is already manifesting itself through changes in temperatures, extended periods of drought and changes to rainfall patterns. The seasons at times seem to be inversed. It could get worse, much worse in fact.

The Coronavirus impact has introduced some much-needed breathing space for nature and natural forces, not only in Malta. There are significant lessons to be learnt in order to adjust our behaviour. When the full force of nature releases additional impacts of climate change, the coronavirus impacts would pale to insignificance. Is it not about time that we start listening to nature and act accordingly?

Published on The Malta Independent on Sunday : 29 March 2020