Covid-19 is not the only threat to our respiratory system spreading uncontrollably right now.
With Indonesia’s dry season officially underway, the Lungs of the Earth have ignited once again.
And with Social Distancing measures in place, fewer people are on hand to put out the fires.
Fires have appeared mostly in Sumatra and Kalimantan, some of the world’s largest remaining forest areas.
They also contain highly flammable and carbon-rich peatlands.
Farmers traditionally start their slash-and-burn tactics at the start of the dry season in Indonesia to make way for the next season of planting.
Though 2019’s El Nino weather pattern exacerbated fires across Indonesia so catastrophically, that Indonesia produced more CO2 emissions from deforestation than the entire US economy last the year.
Indeed, a World Bank report claims Indonesia lost $5.2bn, equal to 0.5 percent of GDP in last years fires.
These fires expanding today will only exacerbate the Covid-19 crisis and related deaths.
A recent Harvard study found small increases in long term levels of PM2.5 (harmful particles present in forrest fire haze) may increase Covid-19 death rates by 15%.
A mutation on the invisible killer.
It’s also a part of the unintended consequences of our uncharted solutions.
Firefighters have been trying to extinguish fires in Sumatra’s Riau province since 15th April.
Fires in Way Kambas National Park in south Sumatra, home to one of the last remaining populations of Sumatran Rhino, have been raging since 12th April.
The park is among 56 conservation zones that have been closed tourists nationwide to curb the spread of the Coronavirus.
The fire inside the national park was recorded less than a mile from a restoration area, with researchers suggesting that the burning was likely started by hunters to clear the shrub and let cogongrass grow to attract wildlife.
669 hotspots across the country have been identified by the environmental ministry as of 14th April, which is down from 1,087 this time last year.
Though, fires have already have burned 8,253 hectares of land in 2020.
NGO Auriga Nusantara researcher Syahrul Fitra has said that, with the dry season only just starting, the worst of the burning is yet to come:
“The progress [in reducing forest fires] has been supported by the current wetter weather. But if [the weather] is like 2019, this year’s fires could be more intense.”
Once the fires are in full force, they become even more difficult to extinguish.
This is compounded by the mobility restrictions due to social distancing measures.
“When there are fires, actions [to extinguish them] are needed. People need to go to the field and that takes many people. Meanwhile, during this pandemic, we can’t gather [in large groups].”
“And forest fires can’t be extinguished via Zoom.”
Myrna A. Safitri, an official with the government’s Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) has said social distancing measures have already prevented the rehabilitation of degraded peatlands that help prevent future fires.
She said that as a result, they have been forced to halt construction on infrastructure that rewets drained peat areas.
“We will check our existing infrastructure to see which ones need to be fixed and which ones need to be maintained,” she said.
Myrna also added that the BRG will also continue to educate farmers to not carry out slash-and-burn land clearing, especially during this pandemic period.
But with a Global Economic Depression not experienced since the 1930’s looming over the horizon, how likely will it be that farmers avoid the cheaper option without intervention?
Whilst the world’s attention remains solely focused on an invisible foe, we must remember the calamity facing the jungles on our doorstep.
So intense has the beginning of the decade already been that we easily forget that the year started with the forest fires in Australia.
Those fires alone claimed the lives of over one billion animals.
The tears shed for our biodiversity is till not enough to put these fires out.
What we need is affirmative action, strict regulation of the companies involved in forest industry, and, crucially, a swift revisitation of social distancing rules in forest areas ablaze.
Otherwise, the disastrous impacts will not only significantly compound the effects on our on our respiratory systems in relation to Covid-19.
Once we finally leave our homes again, the Lungs of the Earth will be one step closer to suffocating our species entirely.