Fiona ArmstrongExecutive Director of the Climate and Health Alliance, Periodic Lecturer, School of Public Health and Human Biosciences, University of La Trobe; Anthony Capondirector of the Monash Institute for Sustainable Development, Monash University and Roe McFarlaneAssociate Professor, Department of Environmental Health, University of Canberra
The global COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis we are creating.
This is a message from experts in infectious diseases and the environment, as well as from those in planetary health – a new field that connects human health, civilization and the natural systems on which they depend.
They may seem unrelated, but the COVID-19 crisis and the climate and biodiversity crisis are closely linked.
Each stems from our apparent reluctance to respect the interdependence between ourselves, other animal species, and the natural world at large.
To put this into perspective, then the vast majority (three out of four) new infectious diseases in humans come from animals – from the wild and from the animals we keep in increasing numbers.
To understand and respond effectively to COVID-19 and other new infectious diseases that we are likely to face in the future, policymakers need to recognize and respond to “planetary consciousness”. This means a holistic view of public health that includes environmental health.
Risk of animal diseases
Biodiversity (all biodiversity from genes, species to ecosystems) decreases faster than ever in human history.
We are clearing forests and removing habitats, bringing wildlife closer to human settlements. And we hunt and sell wildlife, which is often endangered, which increases the risk of transmitting diseases from animals to humans.
Land use changes have forced chimpanzees and bats near human food resources. Shutterstock
The list of diseases transmitted from animals to humans (“zoonotic diseases”) includes HIV, Ebola, Zika, Hendra, SARS, MERS and bird flu.
It is believed that, like the predecessor of SARS, COVID-19 is originated in bats and subsequently transmitted to humans through another host animal, possibly in a wet market where live animals are traded.
The Ebola virus originated in Central Africa when changes in land use and climate forced bats and chimpanzees together concentrated areas of food resources. And the Hendra virus is associated with the urbanization of fruit bats after habitat loss. Such changes are happening all over the world.
Moreover, human-induced climate change is exacerbating the situation. Along with habitat loss, climate change is causing wildlife to migrate to new locations where they interact with other species they have not encountered before. This increases the risk of new diseases.
COVID-19 is just the latest new infectious disease that has arisen as a result of our encounter with nature.
Because of its ability to spread at an alarming rate, as well as its relatively high mortality rate, pandemic experts are such pandemic experts a warning will appear from environmental degradation.
We saw this in 2018, for example, when disease ecologist Dr. Peter Dashak, contributor Register of Priority Diseases of the World Health Organization, introduced the term “Disease X”. This describes a then-unknown pathogen that is predicted to come from animals and cause a “serious international epidemic”. COVID-19, Says Dashakit is a disease of X.
Climate change makes us vulnerable
But Climate change is undermining human health worldwide other profound ways. It is a risk multiplier that exacerbates our vulnerability to a number of health threats.
Earlier this year all eyes were on the vast, life-threatening forest fires and as a result smoke pollution. It has affected more than half of Australia’s population for weeks and resulted in the deaths of more than 400 people.
Smoke from forest fires engulfed major Australian cities and exacerbated respiratory diseases. Image by AAP / Stephen Sapphor
For infectious diseases such as COVID-19, air pollution poses another risk. This new virus causes respiratory diseases and, as in SARSexposure to polluted air exacerbates our vulnerability.
Also air pollution particles act as a transport for pathogenscontributing to the spread of viruses and infectious diseases over long distances.
It may be clear to readers here that human health depends on healthy ecosystems. But this is rarely taken into account when making policy decisions on projects that affect natural ecosystems – such as land clearing, major energy or transport infrastructure projects and industrial agriculture.
The current COVID-19 pandemic is another warning shot about the consequences of ignoring these links.
If we want to curb the emergence of new infections and future pandemics, we simply should stop our exploitation and degradation of the natural world, and urgently reduce our carbon emissions.
Pandemic control is properly focused on mobilizing human and financial resources to provide medical care to patients and prevent human-to-human transmission.
But it is important that we also invest in solving the problem the root causes of the problem by conserving biodiversity and stabilizing climate. This will primarily help to avoid the transmission of diseases from animals to humans.
Read more: 222 scientists say cascading crises are the biggest threat to the well-being of future generations
The health, social and economic implications of COVID-19 should be a wake-up call for all governments to sum up, scrutinize the evidence and ensure that the responses after COVID-19 turn our war on nature. Because – as a pioneer of the 20th century Rachel Carson argued – the war with nature is ultimately a war against ourselves.
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