Villagers from Chanderi, in district Sihor in Madhya Pradesh, have started putting masks to their livestock, made from local materials. By doing this, the farmers are not only trying to protect their livestock but also ensuring that possible infection does not spread in the village and to their families. It is really commendable that farmers from Chanderi have come up with this idea of ‘animal mask’ from locally available materials in a situation when the entire nation is focussed on protecting and saving human beings.

We seem to have forgotten that India’s human and animal population is almost same; 121 crore people (2011 Census) and 125.5 crore livestock and poultry. While we are nervous if we will actually have an enough PPEs (masks, gloves, hazmat suits etc.), ventilators, testing kits, hospital beds and trained frontline health workers in case of more coronavirus cases, a network of 1.90 lakh health institutions in the government sector, supported by large number of private facilities and growing support from various parts, continue to give us hope and confidence that we will be able to handle the pandemic.

Animal health support system

Growing worry is actually at the animal front where unlike human health support system, there are only 65,000 veterinary institutions catering to the health needs of 125.5 crore animals; and this includes 28,000 mobile dispensaries and first-aid centres with bare minimum facilities. Private sector presence in veterinary services is close to being non-existent.

Unlike human-beings, animals cannot be transported to hospitals as there are logistical challenges involved and especially in times of lockdown it has become far more challenging. India is one of the few countries still plagued by Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), Brucellosis and Peste des Tetits Ruminants (Sheep and Goat plague).

Our approach to animal diseases management has been largely limited to cattle and buffaloes, excluding sheep, goat or swine and even large number of free-roaming range cattle. Partial vaccination coverage is flawed as it covers less than 100 per cent of the population at risk. A major cause of zoonotic diseases and challenges in addressing them today is the absence of animal identification and traceability mechanism.

While the importance of capturing a host of data and information has been realised and even the beginning has been made by the government, it will take several years before India will finally have the reliable animal database. In absence of this, farmers, processors, animal husbandry department officials and healthcare professionals cannot devise appropriate strategies for livestock management. It will be hard to ensure the traceability and separate products, be it milk or meat, originating from diseased ones and prevent pathogens into the food chain.

Looking back

We don’t seem to be learning from history. It has been 17 years, when in year 2003 a respiratory virus called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) suddenly emerged in China. Within months, SARS spread to more than two dozen countries in Europe, North America, South America and Asia. By the time the global outbreak was contained, the virus had spread to over 8,000 people worldwide and killed almost 800. At that time also the Chinese government was criticised for responding slowly to the outbreak and concealing the seriousness of the illness.

Again in March 2013 in China, Avian influenza A (H7N9) or bird flu (a subtype of influenza virus) as it is commonly known, was detected in birds. It created panic when most patients that had become severely ill reported to have the exposure to the live poultry or markets where live birds had been sold. It created nationwide panic in India resulting in culling of millions of poultry birds. The outbreak of coronavirus illness known as Covid-19 with no specific antiviral treatment or vaccine for it, has already surpassed SARS and expected to continue to grow, putting nearly 206 countries at risk, with unprecedented loss of life and livelihoods.

Millions of migrants have either reached or will reach sooner or later to their respective villages. India has a small window of opportunity to implement prevention measures to stop and delay the further spread of the pandemic. Lockdown measures seem to have not taken the livestock farmers’ need into account — the need of timely artificial insemination, their timely pregnancy check, vaccination, de-worming and, more importantly, feed, fodder and water. Livestock will continue to produce, cows will not stop eating and lactating even if they are at home. They would also be needing regular veterinary medicines and healthcare services.

Healthcare workers

To keep the animals alive, healthy and prevent them from getting any infection we need to give equal importance to community level ethno-veterinary practitioners, private para-vet and other veterinary service providers who may not have proper ID and recognised certificate, but have better rapport with farmers and are far more accessible compared to government functionaries.

Like human healthcare staff, we need to allow their smooth movement so they can administer the insemination when the animal is on heat and other veterinary services that animal might require. And, equally, to keep a tab on the rise in rates for the next 100 days and invoke the Disaster Management Act to ensure price regulation and availability of medicines and other inputs.

We need to remember the World Organisation of Animal Health (OIE) concept of “One Health” where human health and animal health are interdependent and bound to the health of the ecosystem in which they exist. OIE estimated that 60 per cent of existing human infectious diseases are transmitted from animals, three out of five new human diseases appearing every year originate from animals and nearly two billion cases per year resulting in more than two million deaths account to zoonotic diseases.

With close proximity of animals and human in India, due to 70 per cent of the population’s dependency on agriculture — directly or indirectly — this calls for reaching every livestock farmer, not only for treating disease but for prevention and surveillance to minimise the threat to human health. As we do not yet fully understand the behaviour of coronavirus, the newly created Ministry for Animal Husbandry, Dairy and Fisheries will have to be on the forefront, making farmers and civil society an ally in the battle, pool together best practices and collaborate with Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and come up with the mechanism for joint surveillance and monitoring before the window is lost.

The writer, a livelihood expert, currently works with the American India Foundation as Director

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