Why humankind is suffering

Have you ever wondered why stray animals that eat from the garbage bin rarely fall sick? Or how our pets who consume the family’s leftover food manage to remain hale and hearty? In contrast, we have been washing our hands, using different kinds of sanitisers, wearing a mask and eating fresh and clean food. Despite this, we seem to remain at constant risk of all kinds of pathogens. Why are humans so weak? Or, what has made humans so weak? The reality is the exact opposite. Humans are fairly strong but we suffer due to our behaviour and actions.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s definitely a good idea to maintain a very high degree of hygiene. I have now learnt to trust the wisdom of the famous Ladakhi word: Lobs, which means “getting used to”. For instance, elders often say, “Don’t give boiled water to your children all the time or they will get used to it.” Most of us have survived on tap water and stream water while our children have grown up on filtered and boiled water. Similarly, the elders also say, “Oh, don't wear that feather jacket. What will you wear in the winter?” In the same vein, they would also say, “Oh, don’t keep that baby so clean all the time, let it play in the dirt. It will make the baby strong.” Yes, diarrhoea and similar infections are most common among children who maintain a high level of hygiene. I have noticed that children from Europe and other developed countries are very susceptible to diarrhoea and contact infections such as Hepatitis A when they visit India.

Our immune system is very strong and dynamic. Though it faces challenges tackling some pathogens, our body is able to deal with most pathogens and provide immunity cover for the rest of our lives. Over several generations, we have developed an innate and natural immunity for many pathogens. In this regard, the novel coronavirus is different as it is a new virus that may have come from wild animals or may even be “artificial”...who knows!

This year has been exceptional in many ways. Besides the COVID-19 pandemic, other diseases seem to be lying low. For instance, we didn’t have diarrhoea during the diarrhoea season. Similarly, we always get several patients with pneumonia or the common cold in the hospital but the numbers have been much lower this year. In fact the incidence of most infections seems to be at the lowest I have ever seen. I cannot help but wonder what happened to the never-ending line of children in our OPD and the clinics. And what happened to waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea and jaundice?

We contract most infections due to our behaviour and actions. Our body has evolved to fight off most infections. However, most epidemics are caused by pathogens that originated in nonhuman animals. These pathogens do not cause their host animals any harm and become virulent when they manage to jump to humans who do not have any natural immunity to such new viruses. Similarly, we too have pathogens in our body that do not harm us but can cause infections in other species that lack immunity to them. Such ‘good bugs’ help us remain healthy. Through the course of history as we started domesticating and consuming various animals, many of their ‘good bugs’ started mutating and crossing over to humans.

A good example of this process is measles, which is caused by the measles virus. Measles is a common infection amongst children. It has caused epidemics and claimed the lives of millions worldwide. This virus is said to be closely related to the Rinderpest virus, which is a pathogen found in cattle. It is believed that the smallpox virus shares many similar characteristics. Smallpox has wiped out whole civilisations. Most researchers assume that animal domestication and their consumption that started around 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, created conditions that facilitated the emergence of smallpox. Similarly, a virus that causes common cold-like symptoms in humans originated in poultry and may have crossed the species barrier around 200 years back according to an article in the Journal of General Virology. An international team of scientists traced the origins of human tuberculosis to early humans when they lived in hunter-gatherer groups in Africa some 70,000 years ago. Similarly, chimpanzees in West Africa have been identified as the source of the HIV infection in humans. It is believed that the chimpanzee version of the immunodeficiency virus (called Simian Immunodeficiency Virus or SIV) was transmitted to humans and mutated into HIV after humans hunted these chimpanzees for meat and came into contact with their infected blood. Over decades, the virus spread across Africa and the world beyond. Other diseases such as Plague, Brucellosis, Lyme diseases, and Rabies have a similar history.

This seems to be true for the novel coronavirus too. We know that it originated in a wet market in Wuhan where a wide variety of wild animals like snakes, mongoose, bats, and wild cats were slaughtered for consumption. It is believed that the novel coronavirus has a zoonotic origin as it has a close resemblance to the bat coronavirus. However, there are some claims that pangolin may have served as an intermediate reservoir for the virus as it passed from bats to humans.

Overall, it seems we are suffering largely because of the suffering we have inflicted on animals and other life-forms. Although humans are physically small, our brain is disproportionately large and has enabled us to control the whole planet. In fact, many species have become extinct due to human activities.

Humans have long consumed other animals as food. This may have been relatively safe when these animals were raised in the backyard. However, this is now being done on an industrial scale and has become inhuman and unethical. In the last 50 years, while the human population has doubled the amount of meat being consumed has tripled in addition to the tonnes of fish being harvested. Intensive farming operations housing tens of thousands of animals in close quarters serve as ideal incubators for disease transfer of infectious agents from animals to humans, antibiotic resistance, food-borne illness, and the emergence of new viruses like the novel coronavirus. Antibiotic resistance, stems from the use of antibiotics to promote growth and suppress disease in confinement operations and poses a serious health concern. In fact a majority of the antibiotics produced are consumed by animals that are then consumed by humans.

Furthermore, the ever increasing demand for food has shifted the focus from ethics to efficiency. Animals are now being slaughtered by machines and through electrocution, which are painful. At the same time, many industrial farms employ procedures such as de-beaking, de-horning, de-tailing, castration, overcrowding etc. to increase their meat output. However, these practices cause physical stress to the animals and there is growing concern that meat produced in such facilities is laden with various stress hormones in addition to various pathogens and antibiotics.

By Dr Spalchen Gonbo

Dr Spalchen Gonbo is a Paediatrician based in Leh.

2 thoughts on “Why humankind is suffering

  1. Hi,
    The reality of human sufferings which has been brought by pandemic, creates grave doubts about the future of the world.The Novel Coronavirus, that is having its origins to the bats has proved that human beings have been tinkering with nature far too much.
    Already many people have truly started to believe that if present human behavior toward the nature continues, there will be no hope for a sustainable life. Therefore, it is vital that human behavior toward nature be corrected. Here comes the role of a long forgotten tool called ethic. Although, ethic is traditionally concerned about relations between individuals, but today is getting more attention from the scientific side as a sine qua non for modifying human behavior in order to correct human-nature interaction and establish a well-intentioned one.

    The covid-19 outbreak raises unique ethical dilemmas as it points fingers at our everyday manners and relationship with nature. But it also tells us that we need science and ethic together (secular ethics, of course). Science helps us to understand the anatomy of nature and whereas ethics teach us how to define right and wrong behaviors toward this body. In that manner, the writeup is an excellent perspective that will compel ourselves to ponder upon some of those relationships that exist between nature and ethic.

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