The coronavirus pandemic and the continuous climate crisis -‘Nature is sending us a message’, the UN’s environment chief, Inger Andersen says. Covid-19 is a ‘clear warning shot,’ and the climate crisis is now hurting humanity, say experts.
The pressures on the natural world are immense with damaging consequences by humanity, Andersen said and warned that our failure for taking care of the planet meant failure for taking care of ourselves.
As per the leading scientists, the Covid-19 outbreak was a “clear warning shot,” which means that much more deadly diseases existed in wildlife and that civilization of today was “playing with fire.” It was always mostly human behavior that caused infections to spill over into humans, they said.
The global heating and the destruction of the natural world for farming, mining, and housing have to end to prevent further outbreaks, the experts said, as both bring wildlife into contact with people.
They also urged authorities that live animal markets must be put to an end, which they called an “ideal mixing bowl” for disease and the same for the illegal global trade of animals.
Andersen, the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, said saving people from the coronavirus and prevent it from spreading was an immediate priority. “But our long-term response must tackle habitat and biodiversity loss,” she added.
“Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people,” she told the Guardian, explaining that 75% of all emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife.
“Our continued erosion of wild spaces has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbour diseases that can jump to humans.”
Other environmental impacts include the Australian bushfires that broken heat records and the worst locust invasion in Kenya for 70 years, she noted. “At the end of the day, [with] all of these events, nature is sending us a message,” Anderson said.
“There are too many pressures at the same time on our natural systems and something has to give,” she added. “We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves. And as we hurtle towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we need to go into this future armed with nature as our strongest ally.”
In recent years human infectious disease outbreaks are rising. Bird flu, Ebola, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), Rift Valley fever, sudden acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), West Nile virus, and Zika virus all pass from animals to humans.
“The emergence and spread of Covid-19 was not only predictable, it was predicted [in the sense that] there would be another viral emergence from wildlife that would be a public health threat,” said Prof Andrew Cunningham, of the Zoological Society of London. A 2007 study of the 2002-03 Sars outbreak concluded: “The presence of a large reservoir of Sars-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a timebomb.”
The fatality rates in people had been much higher in other diseases from wildlife like 50% for Ebola and 60%-75% for the Nipah virus, transmitted from bats in south Asia, Cunningham said. “Although you might not think it at the moment, we’ve probably got a bit lucky with [Covid-19],” he said. “So I think we should be taking this as a clear warning shot. It’s a throw of the dice.”
“It’s almost always a human behavior that causes it and there will be more in the future unless we change,” said Cunningham. The most obvious example is markets that were butchering live wild animals from far and wide, he said, as a market in China is believed to have been the Covid-19 source.
“The animals have been transported over large distances and are crammed together into cages. They are stressed and immunosuppressed and excreting whatever pathogens they have in them,” he said. “With people in large numbers in the market and in intimate contact with the body fluids of these animals, you have an ideal mixing bowl for [disease] emergence. If you wanted a scenario to maximise the chances of [transmission], I couldn’t think of a much better way of doing it.”
China has banned such markets, and Cunningham said this must be permanent. “However, this needs to be done globally. There are wet markets throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa and a lot of other Asian countries too.” The ease of travel in the modern world exacerbates the dangers, he said, adding: “These days, you can be in a central African rainforest one day and in central London the next.”
Aaron Bernstein, at the Harvard School of Public Health in the US, said due to the destruction of natural habitats, wildlife was compelled to live close to people and was forced to move also because of climate change: “That creates an opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts.”
“We’ve had Sars, Mers, Covid-19, HIV. We need to see what nature is trying to tell us here. We need to recognise that we’re playing with fire,” he said.
“The separation of health and environmental policy is a dangerous delusion. Our health entirely depends on the climate and the other organisms we share the planet with.”
John Scanlon, the former secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, said, the billion-dollar illegal wildlife trade is another part of the problem.
“Importing countries should create a new legal obligation, supported by criminal sanctions, for an importer of wildlife to prove that it was legally obtained under the source country’s national laws,” he said. “If we can blend taking a hard line against transnational organized wildlife criminals, while also opening up new opportunities for local communities, then we will see biodiversity, ecosystems, and communities thrive.”
The crisis of Covid-19 may bring an opportunity for change; however, Cunningham is not convinced it will be taken: “I thought things would have changed after Sars, which was a massive wake up call – the biggest economic impact of any emerging disease to that date,” he said.
“Everybody was up in arms about it. But it went away, because of our control measures. Then there was a huge sigh of relief and it was back to business as usual. We cannot go back to business as usual.”