COMMENTARY

Covid-19: Bats in the house

The majority of bats will live just like other bats in the world.

In Summary

• Research suggests bats are a reservoir for a whole group of viruses that seem to cross over into humans, causing great disease.

• SARS in 2002-04 was a previous outbreak. Both these outbreaks had their start in China.

 

Bats in the house
Bats in the house
Image: OZONE

Many of us have built rural homes. For some, it is the nostalgia of ‘one day’, away from this city life. For others it’s the shame, were I to die, “people would come and find I didn’t have a decent home”, the thought!

For a few, it has been the place to do their laundry, haul in last-mile electricity, borehole, and take social media pictures of expensive kitchens costing millions of shillings, and instant green lawns, even swimming pools and large car garages.

The problem is that after the grand homecoming party, we live in these rural homes less than 10 days in a year, on average. So things begin to revert to the average. Life obeying the laws of physics where any isolated system degenerates into a more disordered state.

The surrounding rural area is not an estate of affluence, but of grinding rural poverty, with pockets of development; the odd person trying out small scale dairy farming; the local teachers’ economy; the boda boda shade.

A nice house, built and then not occupied, naturally will invite visitors. The human type will find the stone wall, locked grilled gate and doors, a little intimidating. Insects, such as bees, small animals, such as geckos, snakes and bats will not.

Imagine you are living in some diminishing bush, climate change is real, Kenyan humans are increasing at 2.5 per cent per annum. Any thinking living creature will look at the options, consider what Darwin said, the survival of the fittest and try to find some way to move into this opulent unoccupied space. In the way that we have ordered the animal kingdom, bats being mammals are quite high up in the hierarchy. So if other mammals are not occupying the house, who is next in line? Bats.

Most of us, instinctively do not like bats. It is hard to find a picture of a cute bat. Despite being small creatures, they look a little menacing. If you are ever anywhere that there are bats, they fly past you, diverting at the last minute, as if their real intention was to scratch or bite you. It is hard to believe that they are law-abiding, fruit-eating creatures. Why then do they fly only at night? In the darkness? It is difficult to like bats.

Covid -19 is associated with bats. Research suggests bats are a reservoir for a whole group of viruses that seem to cross over into humans, causing great disease. SARS in 2002-04 was a previous outbreak. Both these outbreaks had their start in China.

The myopic among us may, therefore, conclude that it is a Chinese bat problem. It may not be. A bat is a bat. What differentiates a Chinese bat from an African one may only be the geography. Okay, some of our bats live in great luxury in our rural areas, but that is only a few. The majority of bats will live just like other bats in the world.

It would be foolish to assume that African bats do not harbour any disease that can be transmitted to humans. It is also not inconceivable that in this current Covid-19 epidemic, with people retreating to rural areas, with the virus, that transmission occurs from human to bat. We could then be in the dangerous position of creating a reservoir of Covid-19 that can come back to haunt us.

We do not have a strong public health system. We have many mediocre people holding positions they should not. Over time many qualified people have been sidelined into submission in a corrupt inept system. The same people will obviously deny the state of affairs.

The easy option is for the bats to protect themselves. Buy masks so that they do not get infected. Maybe, the bats already realised their predicament and took off with the six million German masks, at night. The better option would be to continue studying the bats, get the Institute of Primate Research and Universities (One Health programme) actively involved, sensitising people.

For those who have built mega houses in rural areas as part of laundry, soap and water, frequent hand washing is the best way to keep clean.

Director Science and Technology Park, University of Nairobi