Humanity’s broken relationship with nature is leading to new zoonotic diseases such as coronavirus emerging at an alarming rate, posing an acute threat to human life

There is a strong link between the destruction of nature and human health (Photo by Sathish Kumar Periyasamy)

There is a strong link between the destruction of nature and human health (Photo by Sathish Kumar Periyasamy)

A combination of environmental factors, which include trade and consumption of high-risk wildlife, land-use change leading to deforestation and conversion, expansion of agriculture and unsustainable intensification and animal production driving the emergence of zoonotic diseases such as Covid-19 have been around for years. There will be more zoonotic disease outbreaks unless urgent global action is taken, warns WWF.

In a new report, COVID 19: urgent call to protect people and nature, the global NGO points out that the World Economic Forum ranked pandemics and infectious diseases as one of the top global risks over a decade ago, posing “an acute threat to human life.”

Questions remain about the exact origins of Covid-19, but all available evidence suggests that it is a zoonotic disease, meaning it jumped from wildlife to humans. China announced a temporary ban on the consumption of wild animals on February 24, and now its National People’s Congress is supporting the revision of the existing law on the protection of wildlife. WWF says other governments must follow and close their high-risk wildlife markets and end this trade once and for all.

But that will not be enough to prevent the next pandemic. The unsustainable global food system is driving large-scale conversion of natural spaces for agriculture, fragmenting natural ecosystems and increasing interactions between wildlife, livestock and humans, the report points out. Since 1990, 178 million hectares of forest have been cleared, and around 10 million hectares of forest are still being lost each year through conversion to agriculture and other land uses.

The report advocates a ‘One Health’ approach linking the health of people, animals and the shared environment and wants this to be included in decision making on wildlife and land use change. This should also be incorporated within all business and financing decisions, particularly related to global health.

Increasing risk

The whole world now knows about Covid-19. Few people know that three to four new zoonotic diseases are emerging every year, and the risk keeps increasing as humans encroach more and more into wild habitats, either to clear the forests or to hunt. Given the fear that the current pandemic has generated, this is a good time to push policies that will protect natural ecosystems, the report says, and urges developed countries to keep their commitments to help developing countries increase the area under forests.

WWF also wants a complete stop to illegal, unregulated and high-risk wildlife trade and consumption. The report says most countries have the necessary laws, but those are implemented poorly or not at all.

Whether tackling environmental issues, health crises or economic challenges, solutions with a single focus or leverage point are unlikely to be successful, says the report, given the deep interconnections of different systems. “Cross-cutting responses are required, such as promoting more sustainable and efficient food systems, encouraging healthier and more sustainable diets, reducing overproduction and consumption, and moving towards nature-positive and climate-neutral financial systems that incorporate environmental risks in their decision-making processes.”

There is support for this right now, says WWF, citing a recent opinion poll in 14 countries that found 65% of respondents supported a “green economic recovery” process that would prioritize the environment and climate change within it.

“We must urgently recognise the links between the destruction of nature and human health, or we will soon see the next pandemic,” said Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International. “In the midst of this tragedy, there is an opportunity to heal our relationship with nature and mitigate risks of future pandemics, but a better future starts with the decisions governments, companies and people around the world take today. We need a New Deal for Nature and People.”

“The challenge and opportunity before us today is to begin to think of development through the lens of environmental health,” said Ravi Singh, Secretary General and CEO, WWF India.

 

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