Recent reports by the World Health Organization state that human activity leading to climate change greatly affects the prevalence and spread of infectious diseases like the novel coronavirus that has thrown the world into a state of crisis.
As humans continue to degrade the planet’s natural processes and systems life as we know it at risk. Deforestation, limitless growth of agriculture and farming, mining, land development, urbanization, and exploitation of wild plants and animals have allowed for disease outbreaks like COVID-19. These activities bring humans into closer contact with each other and with wild animals, from which 70% of emerging human diseases come, according to a planetary health check published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in 2019.
Human-caused changes to the environment leading to disease outbreaks are not a new phenomenon. The Ebola outbreak corresponded with agricultural deforestation in West Africa which led to habitat loss for bats carrying the virus. SARS and COVID-19 were also carried by bats faced with habitat loss and climate change. The swine flu epidemic came about due to confined animal feeding operations. Rising global temperatures lead to more extreme weather events which are predicted to cause changes across the planet, including the intensity and frequency of infectious diseases. West Nile virus first appeared in North America after a period of heavy rainfall and high temperatures in 1999.
The health of people is irrevocably intertwined with that of wildlife, livestock, and the environment. Large areas of undisturbed natural habitats serve as natural protective buffers between humans and wildlife. Thriving ecosystems can help stop the spread of disease outbreaks, while disrupted ecosystems can make us more vulnerable to disease.
Leading experts warn that coronavirus is likely to be followed by even deadlier and more frequent pandemics if we do not immediately change the way we interact with the planet. Scientists are recommending that pandemic relief packages be used to bolster and defend environmental protection rather than be used to loosen climate regulations and support agriculture, airlines, and fossil-fuel-dependent energy sectors.
While humans are responsible for the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, there is a small window of opportunity as we address this pandemic to prevent future ones. Governments are recommended to take drastic and radical actions to put the planet over profits following this pandemic. Investment in both environmental protections and health services are crucial components of both preventing and being prepared for future pandemics. UN Secretary General António Guterres said that governments and countries must “build back better” after the pandemic using more ecological societal practices. As the UN climate chief, Inger Andersen, advised following the outbreak of COVID-19, “If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves.’
Sources: The Guardian 04/27/20, 03/25/20, NPR WYFI 03/24/20, Greenpeace 04/10/20, World Health Organization 2003