During the last weeks, the fight against COVID-19 has become the highest priority of more than 200 countries and territories affected by the spread of the disease. Very likely COVID-19 and similar outbreaks of infectious diseases are currently perceived as one of the main threats to humankind for most of the population.
A few months ago, however, the risk of a pandemic caused by an infectious agent was not among the top perceived risks globally, as indicated by the 2020 edition of the Global Risks Report. This year, for the first time in its 15-year history, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report placed environmental risks including climate change and biodiversity in the top positions.
Was the Global Risks Report completely wrong? Well, in fact not, as the origins of new pathogens like SARS-CoV-2 stem from environmental degradation.
Origins of new pathogens like SARS-CoV-2 stem from environmental degradation
It is widely accepted that SARS-CoV-2 originated from wild pangolins sold for human consumption in a wet marked in Wuhan. As previously occurred with SARS (2003), the swine flu (2009) and MERS (2012), close contact between wild species and humans allowed the virus to cross between species resulting in the appearance of a new human disease that rapidly spread in the globalized world.
These interactions are increasingly frequent given the exploitation of natural resources to respond to the growing human population’s increasing demands for energy and animal-based foods. In the last century, about half of the emerging infectious diseases of zoonotic origin resulted from changes in land use, agricultural practices and food production to respond to such demands.
In the last century, about half of the emerging infectious diseases of zoonotic origin resulted from changes in land use, agricultural practices and food production to respond to such demands
The risk of emergence of new diseases is especially high when humans and wildlife interact in areas with rich wildlife biodiversity, such as tropical forests. Such environments are also the principal source of most of the natural resources that sustain the current model of development and consumption. Extraction of fossil fuels, logging and agriculture are the main activities driving the invasion and degradation of the tropical forest. There are many pathways through which these activities pose double risk to our health.
First, as is probably obvious to all of us, the burning of fossil fuels and the deforestation of tropical forests –mainly triggered by the increasing agricultural need to feed livestock,– are the main drivers of climate change and biodiversity loss. The potential effects of climate change on health have been intensively discussed in recent years, and include increases in respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, heat stress, mental health problems, vector-borne diseases and undernutrition. Apart from all the indirect effects on health caused by increased poverty, mass migration and violent conflict. The effect of biodiversity loss on health is mediated by complex mechanisms. Among them, the loss of pollinators jeopardizes food and nutrition security affecting.
Second, and probably not considered an important risk to our health until now, extractive activities in the rainforest encourage the presence of human populations in such areas and give rise toan environment in which there is frequent close interaction between wild fauna and humans. For instance, hunting wild animals for local consumption or selling to distant markets is a common practice in such settlements.
We should not forget that the origins of this pandemic, as well as the origins of the greatest risks acknowledged in the current Global Risks Report, are related to environmental degradation
All of our efforts are currently focused on stopping this current pandemic, and this is the correct action during a crisis. However, we should not forget that the origins of this pandemic, as well as the origins of the greatest risks acknowledged in the current Global Risks Report, are related to environmental degradation.
After the COVID-19 crisis we should adopt a planetary health approach to prevent other potential risks that can arise from it. The concept of planetary health is based on the understanding that human health – and civilisation – depend on flourishing natural systems. The socio-economic progress of the last century has been based in an unsustainable exploitation of natural systems which jeopardizes the continuity of such gains. And this exploitation has taken a heavy toll on our ecosystems, with far-reaching health implications.
After the COVID-19 crisis we should adopt a planetary health approach: protecting the environment is an essential strategy for avoiding other major health crises
This COVID-19 pandemic should make us see the connection between our health and the environment more clearly, and should make us aware that protecting the environment is an essential strategy for avoiding other major health crises in the future.
Photos: (1) Casey Horner on Unsplash, (2) Stiven Gaviria on Unsplash.