Monday Reads: Where the Wild Things Are after Pandemic Shut DownsPosted: April 20, 2020
Good Day Sky Dancers!
One of the things that is happening right now as a result of social distancing is that Mother Nature appears to be reclaiming that distance. Maybe she’s fighting a virus of sorts too.
A wolf slinks out of a park in Sesto Fiorentino, an industrial centre near Florence. Goslings waddle behind their mothers along deserted thoroughfares in Treviso. Fallow deer invade a golf course on Sardinia and take a dip in the clubhouse swimming pool. As Italians entered the sixth week of Europe’s longest covid-19 lockdown on April 13th, one thing they had to cheer them up was the sight of animals in spaces that humankind had temporarily abandoned.
At Cagliari on Sardinia, bottlenose dolphins have long been known to wait at the mouth of the port to play in the wake of departing motor vessels. But since the lockdown some have entered right into the port, where they have been filmed swimming up and down under a quay, looking at the humans above. A similar phenomenon has been observed morat Triesste. “A non-scientist might speculate that the dolphins are thinking: ‘Why aren’t you moving around in your boats any longer?’” says Giuseppe Bogliani, formerly a University of Pavia professor.
Mr Bogliani cautions against assuming that nature is reclaiming its own. Some mammals, like foxes, may have been in the cities already, prowling undetected at night. A golden eagle spotted gliding above a main road in Milan posed a different question: “Is it there because of the lockdown, or did we just see it because of the lockdown?”
The canals in Venice are clearer than they have been for a long time, due to lockdown measures taken in the face of coronavirus.
As countries and their governments are urging their populations more and more to ‘self-isolate’ and stop all non-essential travel abroad, tourist “honey traps” including Venice are seeing hardly any visitors.
And so, in Venice’s case, there is less need for transportation of any kind to be running, and the canals with less boats are coming up clean, clear and beautiful.
“The water now looks clearer because there is less traffic on the canals, allowing the sediment to stay at the bottom,” a spokesperson for the Venice mayoral office told CNN.
The Guardian reports that “Covid-19 – a blessing for pangolins? Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked mammals, but there is evidence that they were the source of the new coronavirus – which could end the trade”. Great News for Pangolins!
Pangolins look like scaly anteaters. Uniquely among mammals, their bodies are covered in hard protective scales made of keratin: the same material as our nails. They feed on insects such as ants and termites, and are often nocturnal and shy. While they look like anteaters, they are not closely related to them, and their closest living relatives are actually carnivores: the group that includes wolves and cats.
There are eight species of pangolin. Four live in Africa and four in Asia. All are at risk of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Two of the African species are considered vulnerable and two are endangered. Of the Asian species, one is endangered while the other three are critically endangered.
Pangolins are illegally hunted and traded for two main reasons. First, their meat is considered a delicacy in several south-east Asian countries, especially China and Vietnam. And second, their scales are used in Chinese traditional medicine. As a result, they are the world’s most trafficked mammals.
The idea that pangolins gave us Covid-19 emerged at a press conference given by the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou on 7 February. Two scientists there, Yongyi Shen and Lihua Xiao, were said to have compared coronaviruses from pangolins and from humans infected in the outbreak. The viruses’ genetic sequences were said to be 99% similar. One co-author, Wu Chen of Guangzhou Zoo, had previously helped show that Sunda pangolins carry coronaviruses.
However, the results had not been published at that stage, so other scientists could not examine them in detail. Meanwhile, there were many other possibilities. The virus could have come from an animal and seafood market in Wuhan, where many species were held. Animals in such markets are often kept in closely packed, unsanitary conditions, with many people nearby: a perfect opportunity for a virus to jump species. Many pointed the finger at bats: the virus is genetically similar to those in bats, and it would not be the first time a disease passed from bats to humans. There was also a study linking the virus to one found in snakes, but this is now considered unlikely.
Over four months after the first cases of COVID-19 surfaced in China, the world remains in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, with nearly 1.5 million confirmed cases and almost 89,000 deaths as of April 9. The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is believed to have originated in bats and jumped to humans, most likely at a wet market in China’s Hubei province where wild animals were being sold. A move to amend wildlife laws to prevent future outbreaks is now gaining momentum in the country.
The Chinese ban on consumption of wild animals is likely to become permanent in the coming months, according to Aili Kang, Executive Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asia Program. This means it would be enshrined in the country’s wildlife legislation. A decision taken by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on Feb. 24 will serve as the basis for amendments to existing wildlife laws.
But the truth of these videos seems less interesting to me than the reasons behind their popularity. What is it that we are desperate to see in the natural world right now, and why? Anyone who has had a bird or a bat fly into her home knows how disturbing it can be when animals appear in spaces you assumed were your own, as if they were heralds of luck or future disaster. This sudden, unusual visitation of animals to our streets and cities feels similarly portentous, their presence newly freighted with human significance.
And because in times of dislocation and crisis we search for familiarity to ground ourselves, many of these videos work for us because they show scenes straight out of the cinematic imagination, in which the still, empty streets of postapocalyptic cities are often accompanied by a flourishing of vegetation and wildlife — most famously in the movie “I Am Legend,” in which herds of white-tailed deer bound among abandoned cars in the overgrown streets of Manhattan. We know these places. We have seen them before, and that knowledge carries with it a promise of survival.
In a new paper, published in Frontiers in Microbiology, researchers from the University of Adelaide found that humans in urban populations are in dire need of more natural habitat to address chronic disease rates.
This could be achieved through the restoration of urban microbial biodiversity through rewilding.
Lead author Jacob Mills, from The Environment Institute at the University of Adelaide, said evidence pointed towards humans needing healthy, natural, and microbially-rich environments to properly develop as healthy holobionts – a symbiosis of host and microorganisms reliant on ecosystem health and biodiversity for optimal health outcomes.
He said a decrease in biodiversity, including microbial diversity, of human habitat through urbanization was thought to be a cause of the rapid increase of non-communicable diseases in urban populations.
“We are more than human, cell-for-cell we are 57 per cent microbial, we’re walking ecosystems,” Mills said.
“Our symbiotic microbial partners, or our ‘Old Friends’ as they’re known, come from our mother and wider habitat when we’re young. These microorganisms play vital roles in our health, particularly our immune training and regulation.
“As it stands with current urban designs, people are poorly exposed to their ‘Old Friends’ and partially because of this we have decreased our health status through improper immune training and regulation. Most microbes are actually beneficial or neutral, only rarely do they cause disease.”
The researchers say the modern urban habitat is low in macro and microbial biodiversity and discourages contact with beneficial environmental microbiota.
They also claim these habitat factors, alongside diet, antibiotics, and others, are associated with the epidemic of non-communicable diseases in these societies.
You’ll recognize this as some of the co-morbidities increasing Covid 19 deaths.
Loans supposedly granted to help struggling small businesses have been gobbled up by huge ones in the world of Trumpist corruption and greed. From today’s WAPO: “White House, GOP face heat after hotel and restaurant chains helped run small business program dry. With program out of money, backlash prompts executives at Shake Shack to return $10 million loan.”
The federal government gave national hotel and restaurant chains millions of dollars in grants before the $349 billion program ran out of money Thursday, leading to a backlash that prompted one company to give the money back and a Republican senator to say that “millions of dollars are being wasted.”
Thousands of traditional small businesses were unable to get funding from the program before it ran dry. As Congress and the White House near a deal to add an additional $310 billion to the program, some are calling for additional oversight and rule changes to prevent bigger chains from accepting any more money.
Ruth’s Chris Steak House, a chain that has 150 locations and is valued at $250 million, reported receiving $20 million in funding from the small business portion of the economic stimulus legislation called the Paycheck Protection Program. The Potbelly chain of sandwich shops, which has more than 400 locations and a value of $89 million, reported receiving $10 million last week.
Shake Shack, a $1.6 billion burger-and-fries chain based in New York City, received $10 million. After complaints from small business advocates after the fund went dry, company founder Danny Meyer and chief executive Randy Garutti announced Sunday evening that they would return the money.
They said they had no idea that the program would run out of money so quickly and that they understood the uproar.
“Late last week, when it was announced that funding for the PPP had been exhausted, businesses across the country were understandably up in arms,” the two wrote in a letter posted online. “If this act were written for small businesses, how is it possible that so many independent restaurants whose employees needed just as much help were unable to receive funding?”
Politico reports that: “A watchdog out of Trump’s grasp unleashes wave of coronavirus audits. The Government Accountability Office is moving quickly to conduct oversight — and it’s got more protection than other Trump targets.”
Lawmakers handed President Donald Trump $2 trillion in coronavirus relief — and then left town without activating any of the powerful new oversight tools meant to hold his administration accountable.
But with little fanfare, Congress’ independent, in-house watchdog is preparing a blizzard of audits that will become the first wide-ranging check on Trump’s handling of the sprawling national rescue effort.
And even as Trump has gone to war against internal watchdogs in his administration, the Government Accountability Office remains largely out of the president’s grasp because of its home in the legislative branch.
The GAO has quickly taken advantage of its perch, exploring the early missteps inherent in launching a multitrillion-dollar law that touches every facet of American life. By the end of April, at least 30 CARES Act reviews and audits — “engagements,” per GAO lingo — are expected to be underway, according to interviews with senior investigators.
Topics will range from the government’s handling of coronavirus testing to its distribution of medical equipment, and from the nation’s food supply to nursing home infections and any missteps in distributing the emergency cash payments that began landing in millions of Americans’ bank accounts this week. The office’s top fraud investigator said it’s already received a complaint about a check landing in the account of a deceased person.
“We’re moving forward very quickly,” said Angela Nicole Clowers, chief of the GAO’s health care unit. “We’re an existing institution and have a lot of institutional knowledge about all these programs. It gives us sort of a leg up.”
At a time when Trump has sought to undermine nearly every independent review of his administration’s conduct, the GAO is likely to dispatch most of its 3,000 investigators, experts and analysts into an arena that could make it a target for the president’s fury. And its quiet early work could soon become very loud: The office is required under the new law to brief Congress every month and issue a bimonthly public report on its findings.
Meanwhile, it will be another day of crazy Trump Pressers, crazy Trumpist supporters marching around with guns decrying public health initiatives because they want haircuts, and DEATH.
Be safe. Stay Home.
What’s on your reading and blogging list today?