Unprecedented Opportunity for the Environment and Science

April 22, 2020, marked the 50th Earth Day, half a century since the original Earth Day in 1970 that turned environmentalism into a mainstream global movement. All of us eagerly waited for this occasion, as huge commemorations were planned around the world with as many as one billion people expected to participate. Environmentalists planned to hold massive rallies akin to the ones in 1970 and prepared to launch various programs such as the Great Global Cleanup, a campaign of volunteering for cleaning up litter. In the wake of 2019’s strong climate change activism, Earth Day 2020 was supposed to be one more watershed occasion for our struggle to safeguard the health of our planet.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic. The rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2, a virus new to mankind, is a huge and completely unexpected shock to the world system. It has upended societies and turned the lives of billions upside down. Social interaction has been curbed dramatically, as people are keeping physical distance from others and staying home. Most of the activities we spent years planning for Earth Day 2020 have therefore been cancelled. Earth Day organizers have done their best to adjust by turning Earth Day commemoration into a largely digital affair, with much success.

The real challenge, however, has just started.

Earth Challenge 2020, launched last month, is one of the biggest environmental campaigns scheduled to be held in heel of Earth Day 2020. The largest citizen science program ever, it is working to mobilize millions of people around the world to collect data on environmental conditions, so the data can be analyzed and combined to provide a clearer picture on planet’s overall ecological health. Basically, the Earth Challenge campaign has been formulated with the goal of getting ordinary people to monitor threats to the environment in a coordinated manner.

The coronavirus pandemic throws a curveball in our path. Environmental monitoring is still possible while maintaining social distancing, but the fact remains that it will have to be done under very challenging circumstances.

Additionally, the pandemic and the disruptions to society it has wrought actually diminish the intended usefulness of the Earth Challenge campaign. We are supposed to be making observations about current environmental conditions so we can better understand how human activity is impacting the Earth, but those very conditions have changed momentarily as the virus brings most human activity to a halt. For instance, air pollution, generally one of the biggest environmental problems, is one of the main topics pursued by Earth Challenge but lockdowns around the world have suddenly made the air much cleaner, which is only for a short period. The problem for Earth Challenge is that if we study the environment during the pandemic, we will be presented with a picture that does not entirely reflect how the environment normally is. To put it simply, we cannot monitor threats to Planet Earth when these threats have gone into hiding for the time being. 2020 is therefore the worst time to hold this ambitious environmental science program as we planned for it.

This need not be the case if we reevaluate our goals. We have good reason to, because the spread of COVID-19 presents the world with an incredibly unique opportunity. By dramatically suppressing many human activities, the pandemic has provided Planet Earth with an enormous relief. As a result, our environmental dreams have come true for the time being. The world has struggled with air pollution. Now, much of that has vanished. Animal habitats have been constrained by human trespassers. Now animals are wandering everywhere freely in the relative absence of humans. Human activity has been pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere non-stop, while we have yet to find out how to stop ourselves. Now, carbon dioxide emissions all over the world have plummeted.

If we conduct a scientific study of the environment now, we will see something extraordinary – a world that we have been fighting to create for half a century.

It is extremely important to study this world while it lasts. It will inform us of how the environment reacts to the cessation of manmade disturbances, as well as how the strategies to mitigate these disturbances can be implemented. It will provide us with enormous insights into environmental dynamics and how the natural environment and human society interact. As we fight to create a healthier planet, observing how things are now will allow us to better know what our desired planet will be like and how we can create it.

This makes 2020 the most important time for environmental science ever. All those who spent years preparing for Earth Challenge may not have gotten what they were planning for, but instead they have something very, very special. Because of COVID-19, the world’s largest citizen science program will not be able to investigate much how the natural environment generally fares but will be able to discover more about how it works and how certain changes impact it. It is a rare opportunity that has come our way.

Of course, citizen scientists and professional scientists alike face challenges in carrying out their work because of COVID-19, but it is very important that we overcome them in order to avail our great opportunity. Now is the time for scientific endeavor to become more active, not to slow down. That shouldn’t be too difficult for environmental science. Right from the beginning, Earth Challenge 2020 is meant to largely consist of activities happening in the telecommunication sphere and in the great outdoors. Volunteers are supposed to explore and examine the natural environment, such as wildernesses and even just the air around them, which they can easily do while staying away from people. Then they are to upload the data they collect onto digital networks for others to view. Communicating with others remains vital and can be done virtually, which is how all social interactions are being done wherever the fight against the virus is in full gear. The Earth Challenge platform has created a variety of digital resources for use by citizen scientists. We have to rapidly innovate to get our work going, as the impacts on nature of our responses to the pandemic are likely to be short-lived, although, as of late June, the coronavirus pandemic seems to be just starting in the developing world and is seemingly making a comeback in developed countries.

2020 is a year of unprecedented challenges, but there is a lot of benefit we are capable of getting out of it in the field of scientific research. As a result, Earth Challenge 2020 has acquired more significance than we could ever have imagined.

Shahzeb Khan is environment journalist, writer, student of Earth sciences, and director at Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management (https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/). He tweets at https://twitter.com/justinshahzebkh.

PAKISTAN FACES TWIN THREATS OF PANDEMIC AND FAMINE

The following issue brief was released by PPLDM on 26/04/2020

“We should therefore be hugely alarmed that Pakistan is in the throes of what is very likely the worst pandemic and worst food crisis of the twenty-first century both at the same time. The outbreaks of coronavirus and locusts may together overcome our modern defenses against disease and starvation and, because the rest of the world is so badly affected, Pakistan should not expect much relief coming from abroad.”


Pakistan, along with a large number of other countries, is currently battling two major outbreaks. One is the novel coronavirus causing the disease called COVID-19, currently sweeping the entire world. The other is the desert locust, which has been ravaging large areas of Africa and Asia for some time.

COVID-19 has so far infected nearly 3 million people globally and killed around 200,000, with the numbers continuing to rise. The virus was first discovered in Pakistan at the end of February. Since then it has been spreading rapidly throughout the country. Over 12,000 Pakistanis are now infected and no one can tell how it will turn out. In China, it appears to be dying down after two months of successful containment measures that can be tolerated by countries that have the resources to compensate for periods of low productivity. Some predict that Pakistan will see tens of millions of infections by June (https://www.dawn.com/news/1542651). The death toll could be in the hundreds of thousands.

Meanwhile, the locust swarms are being referred to as an “unprecedented threat to food security” by the UN’s Locust Watch (http://www.fao.org/ag/locusts/en/info/info/index.html). Swarms originating in East Africa started to rampage in countries including Pakistan in mid-2019 but really kicked off after 2020 began, prompting Pakistan to declare a state of national emergency when February began. The infestation has been steadily increasing in Pakistan, causing huge crop losses, and continues to persist without signs of dying down, while countries to the west are being devastated. Experts predict the coming of rising temperatures and summer rainfall might cause locust populations across the region to further explode 400-fold by June (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-africa-locusts/running-out-of-time-east-africa-faces-new-locust-threat-idUSKCN20L1TY). Who knows how much they will grow in South Asia when the summer monsoon comes.

So we now have two severe crises at the same time, one attacking our health and the other our nutrition. Our government has declared that a national lockdown policy is not feasible because the country is too poor to afford its supply chains shutting down, so the virus spread must be countered through other measures. The locust outbreak is wreaking massive economic damage and driving people to hunger, vastly aggravating this conundrum. In turn, the COVID-19 pandemic is hampering international efforts to fight the locust outbreaks. Together the calamities present Pakistan with an unprecedented challenge.

In fact, the danger looming ahead may be something greater than we could ever imagine. Pakistan is facing both an epidemic and a famine at the same time and, throughout history, epidemics and famines have both consistently been the greatest threats to human lives and well-being (besides intra-human war and violence).

Disasters in which people died of other causes usually have minute casualties by comparison. The 1556 Shaanxi earthquake in China, the deadliest known earthquake in history, killed around 830,000 according to historical accounts. The deadliest tsunami, Boxing Day 2004, killed nearly a quarter of a million in the Indian Ocean. Cyclone Bhola, which killed anywhere from a quarter of a million to half a million in East Pakistan in 1970, is the deadliest tropical storm on record. In the same region, a tornado that killed 1,300 people in 1989 is the deadliest known tornado. The deadliest flooding, the 1931 Yangtze floods in China, is believed to have killed more than 150,000 people directly. The deadliest known volcanic eruption, 1815 eruption of Tambora, directly killed perhaps more than 10,000.

All of this is nothing compared to the enormous death tolls of history’s worst epidemics and famines, not to mention the suffering and havoc inflicted alongside. As a side effect of the above calamities, in fact, the 1815 Tambora eruption resulted in epidemics and famines that killed 60,000 people in the local region and more than 90,000 people worldwide, the so-called Year Without a Summer, while as many as four million Chinese may have died from the disease and starvation that stemmed from the 1931 Yangtze floods.

The deadliest pandemic in history is either the 1918 Spanish Flu, which may have killed as many as 50 million people, maybe even 100 million people, worldwide, or the 14th century Black Death, which killed probably as many as 200 million people across Eurasia, including perhaps as much as 60% of Europe’s population. Both pandemics were similar to COVID-19 in that they involved spread of pathogens new to the world. The worst epidemics in history were those of diseases brought to the Americas by European visitors after 1492, which wiped out 90% of American Indians, turning the continents into pristine wildernesses. The sixth century Plague of Justinian may have killed 25 million in the Eastern Mediterranean. 5 million Romans may have been killed by the Antonine Plague of 165 to 180 AD. In the late 1950s, Asian flu killed 1 to 2 million worldwide.

The deadliest famine in history is the Great Chinese Famine of 1959-1961. Caused in part by outbreaks of insects like locusts as well as governmental mismanagement, both concerns for Pakistan right now. Upper estimates of the death toll are 36 or 45 million. As many as 25 million people may have died from the 1907 Great Qing famine in China. Three famines in India in the late 1700s killed at least ten million people. That includes the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 which may have killed a third of Bengal’s population. From 1315 to 1322, more than 7 million were killed in widespread famine across Europe. 5 million Russians starved to death during the famine caused by the Russian Civil War in 1921-22.

With this kind of record, it is clear that epidemics and famine are immensely deadly forces, even if they have been somewhat calmer in modern times. We should therefore be hugely alarmed that Pakistan is in the throes of what is very likely the worst pandemic and worst food crisis of the twenty-first century both at the same time. The outbreaks of coronavirus and locusts may together overcome our modern defenses against disease and starvation and, because the rest of the world is so badly affected, Pakistan should not expect much relief coming from abroad. Both the virus and the locust multiply extremely rapidly and have the potential to infect all people and consume all crops respectively.

All indications, therefore, are that Pakistan is in for what may be the biggest calamity in its history. We need to wake up to the unprecedented danger we are in and we need to do something. Putting Pakistan on a war footing immediately, along with the rest of the world, is perhaps our only choice. Importantly, we have to apply our minds to the task, because discovering innovative solutions that could save us will be an epic endeavor. The severity of the crisis at this stage may be nothing compared to what is coming. We need to avail this time for preparation, which will significantly improve our chances. Every effort will be worth it, for the very survival of our nation is at stake.

THIS ISSUE BRIEF HAS BEEN PREPARED BY SHAHZEB KHAN, DIRECTOR PPLDM.
Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management
PO Box 552
Islamabad PC 44000

Questions about the Coronavirus Pandemic

COVID-19 is a disease completely new to the world. The virus that causes it, SARS-COV-2, evolved recently and was first detected only a few months ago. The pandemic it is causing so far appears to be only beginning. There is a lot we need to find out concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are therefore many questions that we have to ask that urgently need to be answered. Some of these questions the experts may already know the answer to, so they just have to explain it to the general public. But many questions nobody knows the answer to yet. There remains a lot for us to discover about the virus, the disease it causes, its spread around the world, and what we can do about it. There also seems to be a great deal of confusion in the information being given out. Many questions, of course, are widely asked and researchers are trying their hardest to find answers to. But we should also keep thinking of new questions to ask. Asking questions is the most important thing we can do. It helps to guide the research.

So, to aid in the world’s struggle against COVID-19, presented here is a list of questions about the new coronavirus, most of which are rarely asked and none of which are clearly answered. You can present them to local experts or you can disseminate them broadly.

The first questions we need to ask are about the viral disease itself, of course.

•(1) Is it possible for some people to be exposed to the virus but not get infected? Is there immunity that we don’t know of?

•(2) How clearly is the distinction made between illness, which is people being affected by the virus, and infectiousness, which is people being able to transmit the virus to others? For example, when they say that sick people have recovered from COVID-19, do they mean those people are also safely non-contagious?

•(3) When the virus is detected, whether inside the human body or not, how do we distinguish between finding live viruses and the remains of viruses that once were?

•(4) Can it be indicated how people who have the virus got infected?

•(5) There are indications that some people have died of COVID-19 without them being known to have the virus. If an infected person dies and is buried and significant time passes, is it possible to examine their remains to detect if they had the virus?

•(6) Exactly where in the human body is the virus to be found and how many types of bodily fluids can harbor the virus?

•(7) There are some hints about the virus being able to infiltrate the circulatory system. Some infected people display cardiovascular symptoms and sources say some of these cases are from the virus infecting the heart. Also, the virus attacks cells with the ACE2 receptor, which are found in the lungs but also in the blood vessels. This raises the serious question: can the virus be found in blood?

•(8) Can you get the virus through a cut on your skin?

•(9) Could the virus possibly then be vector-borne, like by mosquitoes or ticks?

•(10) They say the virus cannot be contracted by eating food. Presumably, this is because, while the mouth leads to a respiratory tract, it closes when eating. But after food passes by, doesn’t it leave behind virus particles sticking to the walls of the throat and esophagus which can then go into the respiratory tract?

•(11) Also, aren’t gastrointestinal symptoms of COVID-19 a sign that the virus can infiltrate the digestive system?

•(12) Does the likelihood of contracting the virus increase if there are a lot of dust particles in the air and they carry the virus?

•(13) They say that sneezing is not a common symptom of COVID-19, but can people infected with COVID-19 also have another condition at the same time that makes them sneeze, like another infection or an allergy attack, and can this sneezing transmit the virus?

•(14) Does being exposed to any other virus in the past give people a level of immunity to SARS-CoV-2, like how contracting cowpox used to protect people from smallpox? The virus that caused SARS back in 2003 is similar to the virus causing the current pandemic. Are people who were infected with SARS back then less affected by COVID-19 now?

•(15) Can people be immunized against COVID-19 by being exposed to such a low infectious load of the virus that it does not progress to any significant illness but results in antibodies being created?

•(16) We hear that people with underlying health conditions are especially vulnerable to contracting the virus. What happens when people are infected with COVID-19 and with other infectious diseases (of the kind caused by viruses, bacteria, etc.) at the same time? Do other diseases have the same effect they normally do?

•(17) Does COVID-19 leave healthy people with new morbidities, which is to say that they have lingering health damage they did not have before?

•(18) How does childhood stunting affect a person’s vulnerability to COVID-19?

•(19) The old and those in poor health are who usually succumb to Covid-19. Is there any indication that most of the people who died from COVID-19 were already going to die shortly of old age or health complications?

•(20) We understand why the virus goes hard on the old, but not why it spares the very young. The immune systems of young children are yet to fully develop, rendering them vulnerable to many diseases. Why isn’t COVID-19 one of them?

•(21) Are there any conditions which allow the virus to survive for a long period of time outside the human body?

•(22) Can the virus be transmitted through water, rendering COVID-19 a waterborne disease?

•(23) What is the longest length of time a person has been infected or ill with COVID-19?

In a similar vein are the questions about the pandemic, the way the infection is spreading through the world and its impact.

•(24) What is it exactly that makes the pandemic such a severe crisis for people? Is it the mortality from the pandemic that people are mostly concerned about or is it also the debilitating or damaging effects of so many people falling ill (similar to how the recent Australian bushfires and the 2010 Pakistan floods are considered huge disasters despite their very low death tolls)?

•(25) If infections from the virus are undetected, can we find evidence of them by noticing a rise in the general rate of illness?

•(26) How is the COVID-19 pandemic, and our response to it, impacting the treatment of other diseases?

•(27) Are the measures being taken against the pandemic, including lockdowns and keeping people home, resulting in smaller numbers of people falling victim to other illnesses and injuries like car accidents, workplace accidents, violence, and respiratory ailments from pollution, thus compensating for the burden the pandemic is placing on healthcare systems?

•(28) Does the coinciding of the COVID-19 pandemic with flu season and allergy season in many parts of the world worsen the spread of the virus by resulting in many virus-infected people also having flu or allergic reactions and therefore sneezing/coughing the virus out?

•(29) If the virus can be found in human feces, does it have potential to become another one of those diseases spread through the fecal-oral route i.e coming out through feces, contaminating water, therefore food that is ingested?

•(30) What are the implications of the two disasters co-coinciding – the desert locust outbreaks in Africa and Asia and the COVID-19 pandemic?

Then, of course, we need to know all about the actions being taken against the spread of the virus. The ways we are responding to it have to be thoroughly scrutinized and suggestions need to be given as to what can be done.

•(31) Why is it going to take a very long time to develop a vaccine for the virus? Simply exposing the virus to soap causes it to burst open, rendering it inactive but leaving its individual components, like the RNA and spike proteins, intact. These are all that are needed to provoke the needed immune response in the body. Why not collect enough of the virus particles, split them open, and inject the remains into people?

•(32) In the bat species that harbors the ancestral virus, do the bats have antibodies or anything that could be used to help humans?

•(33) They say that flattening the curve could result in the same number of people being infected in the end anyway. The goal is just to make sure too many are not infected at the same time. But in China, the epidemic (at least its first wave) seems to have petered out after two months. How it is that they have so far shortened the curve in addition to flattening it and could this work for other places?

•(34) We have two ways to respond to the pandemic. One is to slow the spread of the virus, flattening the curve, and the other is to do nothing. It is generally believed that the former option will result in the outbreak lasting a longer time while the latter option will result in the outbreak quickly running its course, as was demonstrated by St. Louis and Philadelphia during the 1918 Spanish Flu. But there seem to be indications that blocking the spread results in the epidemic quickly coming to an end, including the fact that it seemingly happened in China, and that letting the virus spread unabated may result in the epidemic lasting a very long time. So which is it? Will flattening the curve prolong or shorten the duration of the outbreak?

•(35) Since COVID-19 patients are being concentrated in hospitals, do those hospitals become highly hazardous places where anybody present is at risk of contracting the virus, including patients hospitalized for other conditions? For that reason, shouldn’t separate facilities and clinics be set aside for COVID-19 patients?

•(36) The severity of the pandemic means that people with limited qualifications are being called upon to help treat the virus, including medical students being allowed to graduate early. But providing the wrong care can be much worse than providing less care. How do we safeguard against these sorts of dangers?

•(37) In hard-hit places, medical practitioners of every specialty are being recruited for the fight against COVID-19. But how qualified are they for the job and how does each medical field provide the ability to deal with COVID-19?

•(38) Given the enormity of the disaster, is there any possibility of resorting to using human experimentation to make inroads into treating the disease?

•(39) We are told that making the immune system healthier can improve our chances of fighting off COVID-19, can immunity boosting for that purpose be done quickly enough through injections of nutrients to keep people safe in this current pandemic?

•(40) Can we coat surfaces everywhere with copper if it is an effective anti-microbial agent against the virus?

•(41) Can dogs or other animals sniff out coronavirus infections?

•(42) Why can’t static electricity be used to filter out tiny particles, like the virus we are all concerned about? Electrostatic forces act on small objects but not on air. So if a facemask has a net static charge, which can easily be created, couldn’t it either make virus particles stick to the fiber or keep virus particles away from the mask while allowing air to flow through?

Lastly, we need to broaden our scope and delve into the more general subject matter that surrounds this current pandemic.

•(43) Why is it that viral infections are such a widespread phenomenon anyway? Viruses do not force their way into cells. What goes on is basically the cell sensing virus proteins, letting the virus in, coming into contact with the virus genome, and deciding to follow its instructions. It appears that cells allow themselves to be victimized by viruses. If nature did not do it, can humans simply design cells to keep viruses out?

•(44) The perfect recipe for a pathogen with high potential to go pandemic includes a long incubation period, high virulence, and hosts with no immunity. But if a pathogen has a very long incubation period, during which time it is present in the human body while causing no harm, doesn’t that give time for the immune system to develop antibodies against it, therefore compromising the pathogen’s ability to progress to causing serious illness? (Might this explain SARS-CoV-2’s low virulence?)

These questions will hopefully serve as useful guidance for both researchers and ordinary folks trying to understand Covid-19. There will be many more we will be asking as we proceed on the voyage of discovery alongside this pandemic.

An Age of Storms: COVID-19 Pandemic and the Weather

It’s been raining a lot in Pakistan these days. For the last several days, it has been constantly raining hard in Islamabad. It is often raining in the morning and then again in the night. There has also been heavy rainfall in other parts of the country through the month of March. Unfortunately, these rains have caused a number of deaths and serious injuries. They have even been so severe as to make houses collapse. Reportedly, 7 people in Khyber-Pakhtunkwha have recently died because of the storms. In early March, up to 24 people were reportedly killed across Pakistan.

A lot of damage has also been caused because of these rains and various other forms of severe weather occurring across the nation. Pakistanis in many areas have had to contend with heavy snowfall, freezing temperatures, hail, landslides, and minor floods. As a result, they have suffered significant agricultural losses. Wheat harvests in Bahawalpur appear to have been completely devastated. In addition, roads have been blocked, structures have been damaged, and people have suffered major disruptions of gas and electricity supply (Source: https://tribune.com.pk/story/2171627/1-24-killed-heavy-rain-wreaks-havoc-pakistan/).

Of course, such spells of bad weather are right now seemingly the least of our concerns as Pakistan battles the COVID-19 pandemic. Though it has not yet affected us severely, fear of how bad it could ultimately get is goading the nation towards extreme measures like imposing lockdowns on the population. The consequences of this contagion could be devastating for the entire country. But in this difficult time, in which everything is changing in ways we could never have imagined, experiencing the familiar sight of spring rainstorms got me thinking about what it can mean for us in our present situation.

For starters, people everywhere are supposed to stay home and limit how much they go out, including in Islamabad. The rain and cold makes it a little bit easier. People always stay indoors during rainy days. Perhaps, then, rain could be a boon for us during this pandemic. Whenever bad weather is happening somewhere, the spread of the virus probably slows down there. The rain, the cold, and the snow are keeping many Pakistanis indoors and preventing them from traveling. Landslides have also blocked a few transportation routes, which could limit the spread of the disease. We cannot rely on this weather to be any kind of saving grace, but the authorities might utilize it and formulate their coronavirus strategy in conjunction with the spells of severe weather happening across the country.

For example, they can relax their virus response in areas suffering bad weather, diverting resources and personnel from there to other places, trusting nature to keep people quarantined for the time being. Or they can send workers to weather-stricken areas to fix things up for the virus response, expecting that other people won’t go outside and potentially infect them. But it may not be all that good. The pandemic is already severely straining the country and the occurrence of any extreme event like severe weather in such a time can be disastrous.

When I took one of my rare excursions outside my home in Islamabad during one of the recent rainy days, I saw that water was flowing across the streets. I wonder if this gives us a sort of beneficial cleansing for these times. As infected people move around outside, the coronavirus they shed may end up contaminating the streets by the landing of respiratory droplets, people spitting, and the littering of objects people were touching. People who go out can get the virus on their shoes and then bring it into their homes. So if rain comes and gives the streets a cleansing, what sort of effect does this have on possible coronavirus contamination? Does the rain wash the virus away and make the ground safer? Does it also, on the other hand, spread coronavirus contamination? Does the water get to be contaminated and be therefore a COVID-19 hazard? I have no idea but I think the ecology of the virus outside the human body is more complex than we realize and we really should study it more and seek to fully understand how SARS-COV-2 moves through the environment.

In this time of unprecedented crisis, when it seems that any feasible solution is out of our grasp right now, we will need to think outside the box and get really creative. Some unusual solutions could help us in the fight the pandemic and one we should look into is welcoming the landslides. It is a regular occurrence in Pakistan’s mountainous areas. A landslide occurs, blocks travel, and then we rush with bulldozers to clear it out. But if the virus spreads through people traveling, then maybe the blocking of roads due to landslides, avalanches, rock falls, and floods could be a lifesaver. The virus outbreak is severe in Gilgit-Baltistan. If we give nature free rein to block roads there and even help it to do so, then we may have fewer of these spreaders introducing the virus to new communities while our efforts remain devoted to the handling of the pandemic.

This tactic, however, has potentially huge downsides. When people do get infected, medical care needs to be delivered to them and bad weather getting in the way of delivery is a recipe for disaster. The spread of the virus may be less but the danger it poses may be more. Also, aid workers need to be sent around to help communities safeguard against the outbreak. Lastly, keeping people supplied with the necessities of life is one of the biggest issues in this epidemic. As travel is restricted and national production slows down, bad weather closing the roads can further add to the deprivation that people already face due to COVID-19.

So if we have landslides or storms or snow blocking traffic in Pakistan, what is its net impact on society during this pandemic? Does the good it causes outweigh the bad or does the bad it causes outweigh the good? We need to conduct comprehensive situation analysis to find out and then let it inform our decisions. We are treading on a thin line in almost everything when it comes to COVID-19. It has just been announced that the authorities are sealing off one part of Pakistan, the mountainous area of Chitral, where no cases of COVID-19 are known yet (Source: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/pakistan-seals-northern-region-with-no-covid-19-case/1788194). This is a sensible measure for any place where the virus has not gained a foothold. But where the virus has already reached and is spreading, there has to be a flow of some people there to bring aid. It wouldn’t really matter if any of them carry the virus because the virus is already there.

Sealing off travel can be quickly implemented and quickly reversed by the authorities at will. But if some untoward phenomenon like the weather gets involved in this, we can only observe what will happen. I wonder what would be the consequences of an event like the 2010 Attabad landslide happening right now (https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/43175/landslide-lake-in-northwest-pakistan). The impounding of the Karakorum Highway and the trapping of entire communities behind a dammed lake could be a saving grace for the region, containing the virus or at least hampering its spread. But on the other hand, the people suffering this incident while the pandemic is already coming upon them could have devastating consequences.

Weather forecasting may potentially be of great use to us during the pandemic. Weather likely plays a big role in how COVID-19 spreads and how we can react to it. So if we know what the weather will be like in the days ahead, we may be able to make predictions about the course of the pandemic and what measures we should prepare. The weather may slow the spread of the virus by itself and make it easier for us to do so or it may worsen the spread of the virus and the illness of those infected by it and hamper our response to the pandemic. Whatever the case, we got to watch out for whatever weather is coming and figure out how it may interact with the virus outbreak.

It is very important. Pakistan is a country very prone to natural hazards. We might be used to it, but as stated before, an extreme event occurring during this pandemic can result in calamity. We just won’t be able to handle so much. Right now is a pretty dangerous time. Severe weather often occurs in Pakistan in the spring, including cyclones. But in this part of the world, the season for hazardous weather does not kick off until the arrival of the summer monsoon.

Widespread flooding frequently happens in Pakistan during the summer monsoon. It can often be very severe, such as in the years 2010-2014. When such a thing happens, people’s lives can be turned upside down and their homes can be destroyed and they can be displaced. In such circumstances, Pakistanis would not stand a chance against the COVID-19 pandemic. In a mild flood scenario, people may be stranded at home and prevented from moving about, acting to hamper the spread of the virus. But in severe flooding, social distancing, sanitation, medical care, and everything needed to fight the virus can become impossible. If large numbers of people are displaced, they can travel long distances and congregate together. Whether in a refugee camp or a small piece of land remaining above the water, people can crowd and live together very densely in filthy conditions with no ability to wash their hands or wear protective gear. People who are sick may not be able to be quarantined in any way. Their access to medical treatment may be impossible. Floods are very good at blocking access to supplies. Plus, the floods themselves can create a large number of people needing medical treatment in addition to COVID-19 patients, overburdening the healthcare system.

The healthcare system being overburdened is a huge concern, and so, unfortunate to say, disease outbreaks are very common in Pakistan during the summer monsoon, especially during floods. The mosquito-borne disease dengue is a particularly big concern. A dengue outbreak in 2011 strained the nation’s healthcare system, requiring military help and the construction of field hospitals (Sources: https://dailytimes.com.pk/477797/dengue-and-how-it-was-controlled-in-2011/, https://tribune.com.pk/story/250366/emergency-measures-army-joins-dengue-fight-on-sharifs-request/). If a major epidemic of dengue or cholera occurs while we are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, the consequences could be very bad.

The summer monsoon always plays Russian roulette with the livelihood of millions of Pakistanis. It sometimes brings less rain than usual, resulting in water shortages that farmers can’t handle. Sometimes, full-scale droughts occur. If devastating floods occur, that can also cause immense damage to the agricultural sector, as well as all kinds of other damage. Transportation can be blocked and infrastructure can be destroyed. Life can grind to a halt for millions. It is not a good idea for any of this to happen when Pakistan is in the throes of this coronavirus. Treatment for coronavirus and measures to stop its spread can be hampered, for one thing. Also, deprivation will be pushed on Pakistanis by many people falling sick and by measures being taken to stop the disease spreading. Deprivation caused by floods will be added to this.

Our biggest famine threat right now comes from the locust swarms currently ravaging Africa and Asia (Source: https://www.csis.org/analysis/africa-and-asia-have-several-hundred-billion-more-problems-besides-covid-19). Generated by heavy rainfall in East Africa, it has been going on for a long time and seems to only be getting worse, as locusts are breeding within and around Pakistan (Source: https://www.iol.co.za/business-report/international/our-children-will-starve-say-pakistan-farmers-as-locusts-breed-45118469). The summer monsoon is a good time for locusts to breed because they abound when heavy rainfall causes vegetation to bloom. Flooding could therefore bring us further locust plagues and with some crops smothered by water and other crops devoured by the insects, there could be severe food shortages. People will then have to go out and interact with each other as they work harder to get food, social distancing will be impossible, and the virus will spread. Also, locust outbreaks can often be controlled with modern techniques, but it will be hard to apply them when there is also a severe pandemic to fight.

Even if the monsoon rainfall up ahead is not severe enough to cause flooding, it could worsen the locust outbreak, along with causing outbreaks of dangerous mosquitoes. People can’t stay home. They have to go out to struggle to get food, contracting COVID-19 or a mosquito-borne disease along the way and too many people fall sick for hospitals to handle. Not a very good situation all around. There is just so much that can go wrong in the months ahead.

Right now is the beginning of April. The monsoon rains usually arrive at the end of June. That is only three months away. Some experts predict that, without strict containment measures, 20 million people in Pakistan could be infected by June of this year. (Source: Coronapocalypse! https://www.dawn.com/news/1542651.) This would truly be a catastrophic situation. Then the summer monsoon will begin shortly afterwards and if it gives us any trouble, we simply won’t be able to cope. Plus, the outbreak could expand even more and millions more could end up infected. Assuming we do adopt strict containment measures and keep the virus under control, if we have to continue doing so during the monsoon season, severe monsoon weather could make it much, much more difficult. We might be forced to yield and then cases of infection will explode.

Every single South Asian monsoon season is unpredictable. We never know what it will bring us and that is why we should be really concerned right now. The worst monsoon flooding ever to happen in Pakistan was in 2010, when a fifth of the country was flooded and 20 million people were affected. If 20 million really do fall sick from COVID-19, then a comparably severe disaster will ensue after the passage of ten years. But let us imagine that both of these disasters occurred at the exact same time. Imagine that 20 million Pakistanis are infected by June and then the 2020 summer monsoon brings the same sort of rainfall to Pakistan that the 2010 summer monsoon did. I imagine the result would be apocalyptic for our nation.

This is very unlikely to happen though. The monsoon was recently behaving in an unusual manner. We had these unprecedented floods in 2010 and then more flooding every monsoon up to 2015. But after that, the summer monsoon has been relatively calm every year. But judging by its historical patterns, the probability is very good that Pakistan will be struck with severe flooding in the months ahead.

We cannot prevent this if it were to happen. But is there any chance or any way that we can avoid the COVID-19 outbreak happening during that time so that Pakistan doesn’t have to fight a two-front war? In China, the epidemic raged for three months, starting in the beginning of January. Now, it is dying down, new local infections are rare, and life in China is starting to come back to normal. If the same thing happens here in Pakistan, then the epidemic, which began at the beginning of March, will go away in time for the arrival of the monsoon. But China successfully contained the virus by enforcing strict lockdown measures and it is a very prosperous country. Pakistan has very little capacity to do any of the things China did. PM Imran Khan has said that locking down Pakistan will cause more harm through impoverishment than the virus will, especially with the economic problems and rising food prices happening right now. So it is expected that the virus outbreak will progress to a very high level in Pakistan. That means that it should go on for a long time.

Now, hold on a minute, the epidemic going on for a lengthy period of time is also what everyone is clamoring for. This is the whole “flatten the curve” protocol. With proper medical treatment, people have a high chance of recovering from being ill with COVID-19. But the pandemic is wreaking so much havoc because it is causing so many people to be infected so rapidly that healthcare systems around the world cannot cope. So if we slow the spread of the virus, the burden on the medical sector is kept low, even if it persists for a long time until the virus runs out of fresh people to target or a medical breakthrough that can fight it is achieved. Therefore, if Pakistan successfully flattens the curve, the coronavirus outbreak will be kept under low intensity, but it may continue going on and on for a long time, most likely well into the monsoon season. If that season brings severe flooding or some other disturbance, everything could break down and Pakistan will have a convergence of calamities on its own.

(Note: Reading the two paragraphs above might be confusing, as the first one says lack of containment measures will prolong the epidemic and the next one says that it is containment measures that will prolong the epidemic. But there is an explanation of the confusion several paragraphs down. Also, by the end of this article, you will hopefully understand the perplexing nature of the subject.)

We may therefore be standing on the cusp of a profound quandary. If we let the virus run rampant, it will infect huge numbers of Pakistanis in a short period of time. Medical services will be overwhelmed and many, many people will die. But the virus will have probably run its course by the end of June.

If we put roadblocks in front of the virus, then the number of people who fall ill every day is very low, so hospitals can take in the steady stream of patients and save many lives. But this goes on for months on end and then the monsoon season begins. If it brings widespread flooding to Pakistan, then “flattening of the curve” will come to an end as we cannot fight the pandemic and the floods at the same time. This will cause the spread of the virus to skyrocket, leading to a flood of infections at the same time the country is dealing with a flood of water. Locusts may be swarming everywhere and we cannot fight them effectively because we are fighting coronavirus at the same time. Mosquitoes may be biting everyone, clogging the hospitals even harder. We cannot deliver essential supplies and lifesaving medicine to people across the floodwaters while flood-stricken people who desperately wade through these waters will spread COVID-19. Pakistan is smothered under the combined burden of all these events and, in the end, many, many more people could end up dead and the survivors will be left to struggle in a devastated nation.

So do we flatten the curve or do we let it grow? The idea of foregoing “flattening the curve” has already been considered elsewhere during this pandemic. The alternative is achieving “herd immunity”. It involves letting the infection spread unhindered and Britain originally planned to do this. The idea is that only a small minority of people will die if infected by the virus, but they all run a big chance of contracting the virus because everyone around them is being infected and is passing on the virus. The virus is spreading through the general population because they lack immunity, but they will gain immunity to it after recovering from the illness. So the epidemic, if unhindered, will run out of steam after a short period of time. During that short period of time, people who are especially vulnerable if they get infected can be kept well-protected. Afterwards, they will be protected by the herd immunity of their country.

Sounds like a plan crazy enough to work, but by now, it has been generally rejected as too risky. But in Pakistan, where we have to deal with the contingency of a very erratic rainy season from June to September, is it possible that “flattening the curve” is actually the riskier option? Perhaps if we go with seeking to achieve herd immunity, we can make the coronavirus outbreak as brief as possible. Then, when the summer monsoon arrives, we can concentrate on preparing for whatever trouble it brings us without having also to deal with the coronavirus. If done right, we can successfully minimize the number of people who die or are seriously harmed.

Flattening the curve could be considered as being for rich countries, while a country like Pakistan may conceivably have to go with the tougher option of herd immunity. Imran Khan’s rationale is that the country has to keep working. Now, the people who are most vulnerable to coronavirus are the elderly and those with health problems. Such people usually do not work anyway and are a minority in Pakistan where there are so many young people. Our strategy may to identify everybody who is at high risk and have them isolated from the rest of society. All the young, healthy people can continue working and will be trusted to come down with only mild symptoms. Once enough of them have been infected and recovered to achieve herd immunity, the partial lockdown can be ended. Hopefully, this can all be finished before the possibility of floods.

But not containing the spread of the virus is still a drastic course of action. Perhaps we should only resort to trying to make the epidemic end by July if there are indications that the upcoming monsoon season will be hazardous. And just when you thought this year 2020 couldn’t be getting any worse, there are. Floods in Pakistan often occur when there is a La Nina weather condition in the Pacific Ocean. Many meteorologists predict that a La Nina system could develop by late summer or fall. One meteorologist, Dr. Michael Ventrice (http://www.atmos.albany.edu/student/ventrice/documents/Resume.pdf), suggests that it could be the strongest La Nina since the one of 2010-2012 (which caused those severe floods in Pakistan).

(Source: https://www.nbc12.com/2020/03/31/la-nia-may-develop-by-fall-could-mean-active-intense-hurricane-season-ahead/)

Clearly, there are some very dangerous times right now for us. And the worst part is our inability to determine what will happen. There is a lot of uncertainty about the outcomes of whatever option we take. We should expect that containing the virus means the outbreak will last a very long time and letting it spread means the outbreak will last a short amount of time. But in China, where they were containing it, they were able to relax after just two months and the outbreak, so far, seems to have died out. Meanwhile, it is Pakistan not being able to suppress the spread of the virus that is supposed to lead to 20 million infections three months from now if. The fact is that the same phenomenon may lead to different outcomes depending on the situation. Also, in the “20 million by June” scenario, the epidemic might just end there. So there are no more new cases of the coronavirus during the monsoon but the nation will have to take care of a lot of sick people. Also, monsoon floods might add in extra input that leads to even more people being infected. But this is a really big question that we need to resolve. Does containing the spread prolong or shorten the epidemic, or more to the point, where does it do what?

If Pakistan does what China does and achieves the same outcome China did, it would be the best scenario. As few people as possible would be infected and the monsoon season will hopefully be coronavirus-free. But it seems that Pakistan can’t do it. It is impossible. What we could try is deliberately getting most of the population infected very quickly. Maybe we can go and inject the virus into millions of Pakistanis (who are carefully chosen). But, really, it is just very drastic.

If Pakistan does not have hopes of making the epidemic come to an end before the monsoon season is in full swing, then at least we can prepare for a combined coronavirus-monsoon crisis starting right now. A long period of preparation appears to be key. If countries around the world started a full-scale response to the coronavirus as soon as news of its outbreak in China came in late January, then they probably would not be suffering so much right now. Pakistan did not do anything during the whole month of February. Let us not make the same mistake right now. We need to be concerned about any eventuality and we need to build-up our capacity to respond to them. Then, we might be able to respond effectively to disasters possibly coming in the months ahead. We must not be complacent and decide to respond to problems only when they come. At the very least, thinking of solutions to the problems described in this article is a really hard task in itself, so the longer we have the time to do it, the better it is, so we better start thinking now.

Our best strategy, as always, is to hope for the best and expect the worst. Let us hope that nature remains friendly for the duration of the epidemic and doesn’t give us further concerns to worry about, that the rains come in the right manner to allow our agricultural harvests to bloom, and that any bad weather that does happen only has the effect of confining people to their homes and to their local areas so as to restrict the spread of the virus. Let us expect that weather-related disasters could come along and strain our country’s emergency response capacity to the limit, that the locust infestations will get worse as time goes on and produce a severe food crisis, that disasters will turn people into refugees that act as the ideal conduit for the virus and prevent us from delivering the means to fight it, and that the projected La Nina will bring back the monsoon catastrophes of 2010-2012 at a time when our nation is already fighting some of the worst kinds of crises possible.

In the meantime, let us remain calm. We got to think rationally about our situation and our outlook and all of Pakistan has to be united in getting things under control. We are already struggling a lot but much worse is likely to come, both with the current trajectory of the virus and with other circumstances coinciding with it. We must not regard this pandemic as existing in a vacuum, as being an issue separate from all our other issues. When you have a crisis of a nature and a magnitude like the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of different events and circumstances, including other disasters, are going to interact with it and could create a sort of multi-faceted crisis that Pakistan needs to mount an integrated response to.

We may think that because the coronavirus is such a big menace, it should be our
foremost concern and everything else can take a backseat, but actually, this is a time that we especially have to be on the guard against other menaces. We are going through a time of crises. We need to think of a broad strategy to handle what we are faced with. Speed is of the essence, above all else.

These are stormy days. Sitting and listening to the rainfall and thunderstorms outside can give one either a calming sensation or a sense of gloomy foreboding. Our prospects are very uncertain. Maybe we don’t realize that enough. We don’t know if anything that happens makes things better or makes things worse, but we do know that we have to act. As we brace ourselves for the massive storm that is the pandemic, experiencing these real storms should be a reminder for us of how just about anything can happen and we have to get ready for anything. We might have many things coming together to create a perfect storm. If we are to keep our people safe in these dangerous times, if Pakistan is to weather whatever storm comes our way, let us make sure that we are one step ahead.

About the Author:
Shahzeb Khan is a journalist, environment activist, and co-director at PPLDM.