When I arrived in the village of Los Encuentros in Nicaragua in 1986 to participate in a three-month building project, the biggest immediate impact was not the poverty, the lack of electricity and running water, or even the physical work in the heat for eight hours a day. It was the wildlife, especially the insect life. Nights were lit by the dimmest of kerosene lamps, or by the moon. Insects of all sizes flew unseen into your face; there were rats in the rafters; my family had a pig that I grew very fond of, until it was inevitably sold and slaughtered. We checked our boots each morning in case of scorpions. We went to the river in the jungle to wash. There was a wonderful little pool fed by the tiniest of waterfalls that served as a bath. Just ten minutes walk along a path took you past snakes eyeing you from less than five metres. They were potentially lethal. The nearest anti-serum was in Jinotepe, a two-hour walk away. There were monkeys in the trees – Bonobos, I think, with deep voices and aggression if you went too close. There were parrots and humming birds. There was everything you would expect from a healthy Central American jungle.
The noble false-widow spider is, as the professional entomologists of the charity Buglife put it, a ponderous, solitary and non-aggressive spider. And yet four schools in East London closed for up to a month when there was an infestation of these spiders. No entomologist was consulted. No experts. Under the directions of someone in the Health and Safety Dept., this decision was taken without any knowledge of the risks they posed (none!). Rather than use this event as an exciting and educational experience for the children, the decision is made to keep them, the spiders and the children, apart at all costs.
When I was in Nicaragua, was I being reckless by exposing myself to such a variety of dangers posed by insects, scorpions, spiders (properly deadly ones!), and snakes? Not to mention the mosquito and dengue fever, which Rene, one of my co-workers, contracted. Or rabid vampire bats, one of whom bit one of the workers in the previous group to mine. He developed rabies. So, there were real dangers. However, no-one in living memory could remember a snake- bite fatality. My memory is that after about two weeks I learned to relax about all the insect life, about the hens that slept under my bed, and even the rats. I had never been afraid of the snakes. I knew they had no interest in me. It turned out to be a wonderful trip living within and amongst the natural world.
Today the entire world is under attack from the corona virus, Covid-19. In a long and comprehensive article published in The Guardian (‘Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?), John Vidal examines the growing scientific consensus that a pandemic such as Covid-19 is a result of our attack on and destruction of nature, rather than nature attacking us. There are all kinds of viruses out there, and if their natural hosts are destroyed they will move on to new ones.
A colleague of mine at work was exasperated at me banging on about the climate emergency when such a crisis as Covid-19 was unfolding. I said to him that these events are linked. Covid-19 is the latest manifestation of the dangers of pursuing the path of relentless economic growth and destruction of nature. We can only hope that when this particular episode is over, we can begin to grasp the urgent need for everyone, and every government, to appreciate that the fight for a future worth having is ongoing, and will be for the rest of our lifetimes.