I remember a muddy green carpet that had seen many tears, a man with a glass of coke on his table to make me feel better, and my mother whispering urgently to me. ‘It will soon be over, and then you will have what you like for dinner.’
And before dinner, there would be small sips from Dr. Singh’s twinkling coke. I was a small, terrified child, waiting close to other not-so-small but equally terrified kids for that dreaded thing: vaccinations.
If one kid started wailing (even before the dose was administered), the other children would join in a caterwauling of combined mourning. I was too young to say ‘infection’ and ‘injection’, and in my head both words were the same. If I had an infection, I was sometimes taken for an injection; and injections could also prevent infections. This was too complicated to understand. It was much easier to hate the doctor, his many questions, and all injections with passion.
Cut to 2021. The world is waiting, with bated breath, and with economies at stake – for a vaccine for COVID-19. It’s been more than a year since COVID-19 ravaged the earth, yet we are still groping through dark tunnels on how to go about our lives. The only way out of this bleak landscape is the hope from the tip of a needle – an inoculation that may save chains of lives. Some still behave like five-year-olds, thinking vaccinations are bad; or will use the promise of vaccinations for political gains. Yet, disease is an equalizer: whether we like it or not, science – and the correct injections – are the only way out.
This month, another new threat has flapped into our lives: bird flu. Wild birds can be a repository for bird flu, which they can spread to other birds. This year, bird flu has impacted poultry and killed migratory birds. There are several human-created reasons for the continued spread of disease – habitat fragmentation, pollution and poaching can stress a wild animal, creating physiological conditions for emergence of virus.
With a world at the edge of one virus after another, what should we do?
One answer is to wait for the vaccine, and trust science.
The other is to exert great care while going out, similar to coronavirus guidelines. Birdwatchers should avoid going close to birds, and should never handle birds or their droppings. All chicken and egg should be properly cooked before consumption.
This January morning, as the first vaccines were loaded on planes and sent to different cities, I thought back about the doctor’s waiting room of my childhood, my blind terror of needles and the idea of feeling feverish after the jab. If people still feel scared of modern medicine, this is the time to get over it.
Birds that come to India often cross the Himalayas. Their journey is cold and arduous. They keep going forward, flapping their wings through nearly sub-zero temperatures, because they feel they will reach a warm place of refuge, a place to eat and refuel. If their wetlands and habitats are swallowed up by development, or if global warming makes their journey longer, they may become more susceptible to disease.
This is why governments are now trying to work on One Health – a concept that links ecosystem protection, good animal husbandry practices and public health to create an approach towards healthy Nature and wildlife.
The tired duck that flew over mountain peaks may never return, struck by viruses. But just like the little girl scared of everything, we find ourselves looking straight at fear. The bird’s disease and our own welfare are linked. If birds drop dead, we are at risk too.
The struggling bird mirrors our own struggle in a world that can go from shiny and happy to diseased in a heartbeat. So, the answers are circular – we must join hands in saving wetlands and forests, keeping wild and domestic animals separate, and we must ask for funding for new vaccines for newly emerging disease.
As of now, a muddy green doctor’s carpet is laid out for us all – we must all take trusted vaccines, despite the pain and discomfort.
Read more about migratory birds here: