COVID-19 takes lives, heals nature


Human actions and profit-driven industrial activities over decades have ravaged the Earth beyond repair. Even the most powerful nations seemed helpless in the battle to save the planet and, in turn, human lives. However, the lockdown initiated to control the spread of COVID-19 is healing the Earth in more ways than one, says
Manu Shrivastava.

When residents of a house in Powai area of Mumbai heard a loud thud at about 1.30 am on 10 May 2020, during the lockdown, they woke up to an unusual sight – a deer, on the run being chased by a leopard, crashed down their roof. The incident is a testimony to the fact that the lockdown has changed fates of humans and animals – the former locked in and the latter free to roam, ‘in nature’.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed one thing without an iota of doubt – the vulnerability of nations’ systems and global infrastructure, especially those dealing with critical sectors of economy, public health, commerce, etc. With the pandemic spreading in unexpected regions and evading the best of control measures, it is only a matter of time before the complete impact of the crisis unfolds. The risks are aplenty and human lives are at stake. However, among all the chaos, there is one ‘positive’ emerging from the lockdown that doesn’t scare – the positive impact on the environment.

The Earth is healing

The lockdown initiated to control the spread of COVID-19 is healing the Earth in more ways than one. And nature couldn’t be more ‘aggressive’ in displaying its beauty to humans, even to urban residents who were denied nature’s spectacles between the concrete jungles. India, too, is witnessing some of the most significant and vibrant environmental changes because of the lockdown and decreased human activity, leaving humans awestruck. “The visible changes, that too in such a short time span, show how responsive nature is to humans and human activity,” says amateur wildlife photographer and Pune-resident Amritha S. “It is an indication that this planet can and must be saved.”

The positive environmental changes witnessed globally have humbled even the most materialistically-driven individual as the ‘new earth’ is simply too beautiful to resist. “Nature, in its full glory, has touched each one of us and has made us realise how important it is in our day to day lives,” concludes Amritha.

Human action has ravaged all

Human actions and profit-driven industrial activities over decades have ravaged the Earth beyond repair. International conventions, treaties and agreements – between countries facilitated by the United Nations and between ‘well-meaning’ nations – to preserve nature, save environment and control climate change have failed to protect the planet from these destructive activities. Even the most powerful nations seemed helpless in the battle to save the planet and, in turn, human lives.

Human actions can impact the sustainability of the planet and, in turn, improve human lives — purer air, cleaner water, greener trees and proximity to wildlife. The Coronavirus pandemic has achieved what decades of international negotiations and ‘cooperation’ couldn’t. While the changes may not last once life reverts to ‘normalcy’, even with new benchmarks, they are too significant to be ignored.

“The way nature has responded is miraculous. I have never experienced so much calm and that subtle happiness that one feels only amidst nature in this city, ever!” says Mumbai-based writer Kavita Singh. “I have spent my whole life in this city and have always craved for getaways that would bring me closer to nature. Who would think a deadly virus outbreak would provide this opportunity to the residents? My mother in Lucknow was surprised when I told her I heard a koel in the morning in Mumbai, for the first time in my life!” she grins.

Pollution has been the biggest bane of modern human existence, especially in bigger towns, cities and metros. Every year, millions of people die of pollution of air, water or land. However, since the lockdown, the pollution levels across these cities and metros have plummeted to record lows.

Rare sights on Mumbai’s roads

A constable, currently posted at a South Mumbai police station, could not believe his eyes when he saw a peacock dancing on one of the service roads in the area. As it meandered its way out of the parked cars, he hurried to the spot to click a picture of this once-in-a-lifetime-moment, probably historic, holding his baton in one hand and mobile phone in the other. As he took off his face mask momentarily to “live in the moment completely,” he experienced a rare kind of happiness. “It’s a shame because back in our village, my mother and grandmother would spot peacocks on trees like we see dogs on Mumbai roads. When I tell my mother how I ran to shoot a dancing peacock, she will have a hearty laugh.”

“It’s because of the decreased human activity and even lesser noise pollution levels that birds and animals have been making their appearance felt in ‘human’ zones,” says activist Sudha Krishnan. “Even urban birds like crows and pigeons are being spotted in record numbers across the city.”

The flamingoes are back and how!

Navi Mumbai and Thane – areas adjoining Mumbai and seasonal home to the migratory flamingoes – had been witnessing a gradual drop in the number of winged visitors every year, for the past few years. However, now because of the lockdown, thousands of flamingoes have begun flocking the creeks of Navi Mumbai. The birds are visiting in record high numbers despite the ‘delay’ in registering their ‘annual migration to wetlands’ in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) this year.

According to the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), there has been a 25 per cent increase in flamingo migration since 2019, and in the first week of April itself. Lower human and construction activities in Sewri, Thane Creek and adjoining areas, owing to the lockdown, has led to the increase.

Lockdown cleaned up Delhi’s air too

In the meantime, in New Delhi, ranked the most polluted city in the world by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in May 2014, the air quality (AQI levels) fell below 20 when the 11 million registered cars went off the roads. The sound of birds chirping in the mornings, even evenings, is like icing on the cake. The usual AQI levels in Delhi used to be 200 (25 per cent above unsafe level as deemed by the WHO) and would also reach 900 on the worst days. The average concentration of PM 2.5 dropped from 91 micrograms per cubic meter on 20 March 2020 to 26 micrograms per cubic meter a week later on 27 March, after the lockdown began – a drop of 71 per cent. The drop in PM or particulate matter is attributed to no construction activity, no vehicles on the road and factories ceasing production. “Delhi skies were never this pristine and blue!” says resident Dinesh Kumar.

Ganga’s waters turned fit to drink

Ganga, ironically, always slated to be the most polluted, couldn’t be far behind. The Uttarakhand Pollution Control Board tested water from Har-ki-Pauri in Haridwar and the results revealed the water was ‘fit for drinking after chlorination’, for the first time in decades. Officials involved in the ‘Clean Ganga Project’ said the pollution levels in the river decreased due to the stopping of industrial waste drainage into the river that came to a halt during the lockdown.

In Jalandhar, the residents woke up to a spectacular sight of the picturesque Dhauladhar mountain range in Himachal Pradesh, over 213 km away, and after three decades. “I could not believe my eyes when I woke up that morning. I used to tell my son that as kids we could see the mountains in the backdrop of the city…gradually losing out to the air pollution that became the new normal. I am so happy I can show him how I saw the city as a child,” quipped shop-owner Amandeep Bakshi.

…And elsewhere too, nature responded

Several other instances have been reported and recorded across the country that show how nature is responding, positively, to decreased human activity amid the lockdown: Dolphins spotted in Mumbai along the coast at Marine Drive and Breach Candy; Ganges Dolphins surfacing at the ghats at Kolkata; monkeys frolicking in dozens on commercial roads in Ahmedabad; deer bolting through a residential area in Assam and other places; etc.

Coronavirus has taken an unprecedented toll on the world, in general, and India, in particular. Humans known to go close to nature found, for the first time, a reversal in roles.

Manu Shrivastava

Manu Shrivastava is a media legal researcher with DraftCraft International, and co-convener of ‘The Woman Survivor’ initiative that documents abuse of women and children within families.