For the last 7 weeks, I've been the target of several minor viruses. They've entered my body through the air, pushed me to exhaustion, forced me to sleep much longer, pummeled my head with a dull ache and sometimes, injected my entire body with low fever. I knock down something for the fever and pain, and carry on with my day. But I am not complaining. Infact, what I really feel is gratitude for being spared the excruciating new illness that's hit the Delhi region this quarter-Chikungunia.
Chikungunia, which means 'all bent up', strikes you secretly, till it explodes in your joints. You get a mild fever, maybe a rash and then, an unbearable pain in your joints. Old injuries are resurrected, and body parts you didn't even know about compete for attention. Like most North Indians, I knew about this disease as something brought about by the bite of a mosquito, Aedes aegypti, after it's bitten someone infected with the virus in the first place. It was something that people in the South of India usually suffered from! Delhi, in the North, is relatively dry and Chikungunia seemed distant. In the last month, every time I've gone out, even to a little bar with only a few peoples, some or the other says they're just about recovering from this miserable sickness. The media reports there is a rise, although it is not being called an epidemic. On November 1st of this year, for example, the Hindustan Times-one of India's leading newspapers- reported a possible thousand cases of Chikungunia in the previous 20 days in Delhi alone!
How did our local ecology change suddenly? How did it become hospitable enough to this nasty mosquito?
We've had an extraordinarily hot summer year in India. It began early. By February, we were already in T-shirts and by late March, the air-conditioners were already running, a good month earlier than usual. The Indian Meteorological Department pronounced it the second hottest March (going by the maximum and minimum temperatures) after 1953, a good fifty-seven years ago. The hottest day in Delhi was over 7 degrees Fahrenheit over the average! There were heat wave conditions in the month most Indian calendars celebrate as the start of spring.
Like the rest of rain-fed India, Delhi prayed for the rains, which wash the bite off the summer. The monsoon came with a vengeance and Delhi was soaked in the wettest year in the last 32 years, plus flooded. Given the heat and the chronic water shortage in the city, everyone let their overhead water tanks fill up, and every bucket was used to store water. As the rains soaked the city unsparingly, Delhi became more like Kerala, and provided a second home to the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which requires fresh, still water to breed. This year, there was so much construction for the Commonwealth Games Delhi was hosting, the mosquitoes had thousands of extra crevices and trenches to breed in. Did this contribute to the outbreak? Who knows?
What we do know is this: a large number of people got a disease that was previously unknown in the Delhi region. The carrier of the disease is a mosquito, which found favorable conditions after and during the wettest monsoon in over three decades. This extraordinary monsoon was preceded by one of the harshest summers in several decades.
I'm not about to point a definitive, accusatory finger at climate change, but I won't rule it out. Extreme temperatures, shifts in known monsoon patterns and weather conditions are part of what is predicted in climate change for India. As I sit here, watching the first of the premature winter sun rising through the morning mist, I wonder if this year has been a sampler of what climate change will bring to us in the future? Will everyone I know in the coming years tell me of how they combated an unknown illness that crept up on us in our own homes? The disease, the heat wave and the floods-was 2010 a year of climate predictions now coming true? At the cost of sounding paranoid, I'm going to say I suspect it may have been. In that case, the average resident of the Indian capital has turned out to be much more climate vulnerable than we ever realized.