Clean air in Delhi, clear waters in Venetian canals, and wildlife roaming the deserted streets of Japan. However, the question we must consider is, at what cost has this been achieved? As the world at large has fallen prey to the novel Coronavirus (Covid-19), nearly three billion people are under lockdown in their homes. In this historical turn of events, the human race, which once dominated the food chain – has now become the hunted, and the Coronavirus, a manifestation of nature – has become the hunter.
With nearly half of the world’s population under lockdown as a result of this pandemic, all forms of travel – air, public transport, and railways are operating minimally, if at all. Simultaneously, with the closure of non-essential industries in many countries, pollutant emissions (both airborne and waterborne), have fallen. New Delhi, the infamous ‘pollution capital’ of India, experienced a 70% drop in Nitrogen Dioxide and PM 2.5 emissions. Meanwhile, Greenhouse Emissions within the European Union fell by a stunning 58% as compared to the period before the crisis. Amusingly enough, environmentalists around the world who are sharing their delight (about this improvement) on social media are being accused of deriving sadistic pleasure from the condition that the human race is facing.
Sadistic pleasure or not, it certainly is a wake-up call for policymakers – this lockdown has undoubtedly proven the extent of damage that is inflicted by mankind day after day upon our planet. While the present environmental situation is certainly pleasing, the reality is that it’s not going to last. Whenever things return to normalcy, we will return to the rat race, pick up the batons where we left them, and yet again, compete in running towards the finish line. To nobody’s surprise, we will find cars crowding the streets again; coal-powered industries releasing noxious fumes and chemical industries releasing toxic waste into the rivers and seas.
In its arrogance, the human race seems to believe that it will continue to evolve and that it will come up with creative solutions to the problems it faces, just like it previously has. With over three million confirmed cases of the Coronavirus globally, and no vaccine nor medicine, this is indefatigable proof that in a race between nature and mankind, nature will always win. Of course, while it’s unlikely that this disease will wipe out the planet, it’s certainly going to leave its mark on this planet and in the History books of those that occupy it. Scientists and environmentalists alike are far from celebrating. They’re already foretelling that if not this disease, there will certainly be more to come which will try their hand at wiping out mankind. And if even they fail, we’re here to keep damaging the planet until climate change wipes us out. Much like this disease, climate change is going to be our silent enemy – striking unpredictably, taking the world by storm – literally, through cyclones, floods, and earthquakes. The cherry on the cake is, it’s because of our environmental encroachment that we’re facing this disease in the first place.
While there is an ‘enviro-scientific’ argument that scientists are working on, the media reported the crux of their argument, which is that increasing deforestation has led to a greater incidence of human-wildlife interactions. As wild animals are increasingly being driven out of their habitats, they’re adjusting to sharing their space – and diseases – with humans. Zoonotic diseases, that is, those diseases which are normally found in animals, are increasingly crossing the species barrier and are infecting humans. Much like other deadly viruses such as Nipah, Marburg, SARS, and Ebola, the Coronavirus too is believed to have crossed the animal-human species barrier through bats. Not only this, but research has also shown that those exposed to higher concentrations of air pollution are more likely to suffer a fatality from Covid-19.
Day in and day out, people are tracking these fatalities, cases, and recoveries across the world. Sitting inside their houses, now more than ever, people are relying on technology to get their daily dose of information about this outbreak which has landed us in this previously unimaginable situation. This information is being reported by journalists through social media, print, television, and digital news. Reporting Coronavirus is a challenge like never before – it’s not like a natural disaster nor a conflict zone. The threat is from an invisible enemy – one which reporters can contract by touching surfaces on which the virus can survive for days at end, or through transmission from people the reporters come in contact with. In India’s Mumbai alone, 53 TV reporters have contracted the life-threatening disease. Nevertheless, the media yet again has risen to face this challenge and continues to sustain the 24×7 news cycles to report on the disease.
While there’s no doubt that the media is the unsung hero in facing this pandemic, heroes aren’t perfect – even Superman wasn’t immune to Kryptonite. All forms of media are primarily focused on the numbers of deaths, recoveries, and cases across the world. Indeed, the numbers are important, but isn’t it at least as important to know how to prevent a repetition of a similar pandemic? Isn’t it important to know what went wrong and what should be done to undo the damage?
An analysis of the coverage of the environmental impact of Covid-19 revealed horrifying results. From a sample of over 1500 English publications that published several lakhs of stories about the Coronavirus between 13th January 2020 and 27th April 2020, only 3,074 stories contained all three words “coronavirus”, “climate change” and “environmental impact”. The dates were chosen keeping in mind the fact that 13th January was the day the virus was first reported outside of China and 27th April was the day before this article was written, chosen to maximise the timeline.
Keeping in mind the above discussion regarding the relationship between environmental degradation and Covid-19, while there is coverage around the matter, it’s certainly not enough. Knowing very well that there is a scientific explanation underlying this pandemic, media houses have not given the environmental aspect of this story the attention it deserves. As Mr. Chetan Bhattacharji, Managing Editor at NDTV said, “There’s certainly a need for more stories on the environment, but at the same time it’s important to remember that media organisations have endless news to report from across the country and the world to their viewers. Every day, there’s something new to report, there tends to be a focus on immediate developments.” Nevertheless, among the lakhs of stories covering the Coronavirus, with only 3,074 of those pieces focusing on the environmental aspect of the virus, it’s clear that there is a preference to report the numbers rather than to explain the causes and implications to the audiences.
What then, explains this preference? In an interview with the environmentalist and former Environment Editor at NDTV, Ms. Swati Thiyagarajan said, “I personally think it’s about how most of our media organisations are run like corporates. So, it comes down to the bottom line, to who’s sponsoring you.” She argued that especially in countries like India, where the media is heavily dependent on Government advertising for revenue, costs are a struggle for those channels which don’t feature much of those advertisements. She further identified the cause of these troubles to be the hefty costs involved since news channels aren’t “direct to door subscriptions” with many intermediaries involved. For Ms. Thiyagarajan, “the environment versus development argument is a subversive one which has taken root in the minds of many people – and that’s a problem.” Thus, a large part of the issue is that many TRP driven media organisations believe that environmental stories won’t spark as much interest as a Bollywood gossip show or Prime Time Debate.
Another possible explanation is the fact that the audiences themselves are not concerned or interested in consuming such information. Media organisations perceive the audience to be lacking interest in environment-related reports and therefore do minimal stories on them. In turn, the audience doesn’t know the facts nor understands the gravity of the situation and thus doesn’t bother to know more. This cyclical nature of environmental reportage is a cause for serious concern. As Ms. Thiyagarajan profoundly noted, “If the audiences want better quality programmes, they shouldn’t watch the show that they’re watching – this is where I blame the audiences. The fact that you tune in and watch – what motivates these channels to change? Nothing!”
The good news, however, is that it’s not an entirely gloomy picture. A recent survey revealed that there is a tremendous demand for an increase in environment and wildlife coverage. Slowly – be it very slowly, but surely, the demand for coverage pertaining to environmental issues is increasing. In an interview with Ms. Vidya Raja, a journalist with ‘The Better India’, she noted (in her personal capacity), “While organisations like Better India aren’t covering ‘news’ in the traditional sense, they’re doing a lot to further awareness about environmental and social causes by telling the stories of heroes doing their bit in their day to day lives.” She noted that with research showing the causal links between environmental degradation and the coronavirus, “media organisations are finding ways to increase outreach to audiences through innovative ways to invoke interest for such articles”. Observing that there is a preference for short, crisp, and to-the-point-reportage, she said that in light of this outbreak and its environmental impact, “the media is adopting new ways to approach to environmental journalism – whether through short interviews, aesthetic photojournalistic pieces, infographics et cetera. It’s really about trying new things to keep the audience engaged – some work, some fail, but we keep trying.”
Just like the media is evolving their methods of reporting, the human race needs to evolve its means of sustainable living. Economists have portrayed a dismal picture of the international economy. As per IMF statistics, all countries other than India and China are going to have negative growth rates. Simultaneously, the International Conference on Climate Change – COP-26, has been postponed as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. With their economies under pressure, countries will likely compromise on their environmental norms and perhaps even violate their Nationally Determined Contributions established under the Paris Climate Agreement. However, now more than ever, countries need to strike a balance between sustainability and economic pressures. If they bend backwards to support their economies at the cost of the environment, there will soon be no economies to revive. After all, humans can only return to the rat race if they have the Earth to run on.
Abhiir Bhalla is an active youth environmentalist in the field of environmental conservation and protection since 8 years. Currently a second year at Ashoka University, he continues his work as a social and environmental entrepreneur.