Science tells us that animal-human interaction is likely behind the global COVID-19 pandemic with the virus most probably entering the human population through interaction with bats. While banning the global wildlife trade is one obvious preventive step that could be taken, it is not enough. We need a more holistic approach. To stop future pandemics, we must reimagine our relationship to the environment and the inequities that drive its destruction.
An estimated 75 percent of new infectious diseases are zoonotic, or a direct result of human – animal contact. A number of these diseases have made headlines in recent years, including Zika, Ebola, SARS, avian influenza, MERS and, of course now, COVID-19.
According to the United Nations Environment Program, among the main drivers of the increased virus “spillover” into the human population are deforestation, intensive farming and climate change. A number of studies have found that the global approach to the production of goods?including key agricultural products like beef, palm oil, coffee and cocoa?facilitates greater resource depletion in poorer countries than in rich nations.
This leads to deforestation and biodiversity loss?key drivers of cross-species disease transmission. The regions of the Global South that produce these products?Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America?tend to not be consumers themselves; for example, in most coffee- and cocoa-producing nations, well over 95 percent of coffee and cocoa is exported to the Global North, mostly North America and Europe
These patterns also mirror climate change dynamics: poor nations tend to suffer the most harmful effects of climate change despite the fact that developed nations have the most responsibility for global greenhouse gas emissions and generation of other harmful pollutants. There is already clear evidence of the impact of climate change on mosquito-borne diseases. Even very small increases in temperature are currently facilitating the spread of mosquitoes to new areas where people lack immunity to the diseases they carry.
Eroded environments in less developed nations tend to lose large predatory animals first. Left behind are bats, rats and mosquitoes, the very species that usually transmit zoonotic diseases to people. Loss of natural resources compounds this problem as these species compete for fewer resources. As they expand their territory in search of food and places to reproduce, these animals are forced into more populated areas and come into increasingly closer contact with humans.
It is time to connect the dots. Global infectious disease pandemics like COVID-19 and others are the indirect result of a global economic order that depends on unequal access to power and resources. While the environmental harm is localized and thus out of sight for most consumers, the consequences are not. They are far-reaching and, as we now know, potentially deadly.
A disease- or germ- specific response is never going to be enough. On average, a new disease surfaces in humans every four months. Unless global environmental, health and development issues are addressed holistically, new pandemics will continue to emerge. New priority must be given to reducing consumption levels, eliminating trade and economic inequalities and creating sustainable production systems for people and the environment.
The current coronavirus crisis provides us with the unique and necessary opportunity to reimagine and restructure our relationship with the environment. International policy and development initiatives must prioritize health and environmental well-being. Creating sustainable and effective interventions requires a recognition of the larger causes underlying global environmental degradation and of the geopolitical dynamics that make economic growth a higher priority than the health of humans and the natural world.