Leaders from the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the World Health Organization and the World Wide Fund for Nature joined to issue a stark warning that pandemics such as COVID-19 are a direct result of the destruction of nature caused by human activity. In an op-ed published by The Guardian June 17, top figures from each organization state that the destruction of forests and other habitats for wildlife, coupled with trafficking in wildlife, is causing a growing number of animal diseases to migrate to human hosts. In their call to action ahead of the UN Biodiversity Summit to be held in New York in September, the three senior representatives cite examples from prior incidents of environmental destruction that triggered new virus outbreaks in humans.
“We have seen many diseases emerge over the years—such as Zika, AIDS, SARS and Ebola—and although they are quite different at first glance, they all originated from animal populations under conditions of severe environmental pressures,” the authors write, adding that those examples “all illustrate that our destructive behavior toward nature is endangering our own health.”
As the Washington Post noted, the original host of the novel coronavirus was probably a bat—the same host that was also linked to SARS, Ebola and MERS, among other viruses. The Guardian editorial recalled the 1997 emergence of the Nipah virus, which “spilled over from infected bats to pigs, and from pigs to pig farmers,” as agriculture ate into rainforest in Southeast Asa. “Over the next two years, the disease would kill more than 100 people. This should have served as a warning.”
The three authors call for a post-pandemic recovery that heeds such warnings. They note the importance of ending agricultural practices that destroy nature, and the need to change meat-intensive diets. Yet they see signs that the world could go precisely the wrong way.
“Worryingly, while COVID-19 has given us yet another reason to protect and preserve nature, we have actually seen the reverse take place,” the authors write. “From the Greater Mekong to the Amazon and Madagascar, alarming reports have emerged of increased poaching, illegal logging and forest fires, while many countries are engaging in hasty environmental rollbacks and cuts in funding for conservation. This all comes at a time when we need it most.”
A WWF report entitled “COVID 19: Urgent Call to Protect People and Nature” was also published June 24. It warns: “The risk of a new [wildlife-to-human] disease emerging in the future is higher than ever, with the potential to wreak havoc on health, economies and global security.”
As Oceanographic Magazine adds, the WWF report shows that 60 to 70 percent of new diseases since 1990 started in wildlife. During the same time period, an area of forests measuring roughly seven times the area of the UK has been destroyed.
“We must urgently recognize the links between the destruction of nature and human health, or we will soon see the next pandemic,” states a WWF press release announcing the new report. “There is no debate, and the science is clear; we must work with nature, not against it. Unsustainable exploitation of nature has become an enormous risk to us all.”
Photo: Schadomski/DW, used with permission