I don’t think it is dramatic to say that we humans are at a dangerous crossroads because of the coronavirus pandemic. The COVID-19 virus has brought our entire existence to a standstill. Make no mistake, humans are the infection that gave rise to this virus. Our over-exploitation and complete disregard of the natural world is what caused all of this. Look at the world around us, 25% of the world’s species are currently at risk of going extinct, and we are losing species 1,000x faster than any other time in human history. We, humans, have overrun the world and our planet is headed for disaster.
“If we (humans) do not do things differently, we are finished. We can’t go on very much longer like this”.
This was Jane Goodall’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis. As our human race stands at this tipping point, one thing is clear, we cannot continue to disrespect our natural environment. With today being World Environment Day and its theme being “Celebrate Biodiversity”, I wanted to explore why the destruction of our environment and biodiversity gave rise to this pandemic. I will also try to answer the question, will the continued destruction of wildlife make pandemics like these the new normal.
A Sombre World Environment Day 2020
There is a genuine worry among scientists and conservationists that this coronavirus outbreak could be the beginning of many other such pandemics. They believe habitat and biodiversity loss are the main driving force behind it. The 2008 paper, “Global trends in emerging infectious diseases” published by Kate E. Jones and her team of researchers found that out of the 335 diseases that appeared between 1960 and 2004, nearly 60% of these diseases came from animals.
Even with this data, you might wonder how human destruction of biodiversity links with diseases jumping from animals to humans. David Quammen, who is the author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic summarises this eloquently. It goes something like this. We take our tools and machinery and invade our lush and beautiful tropical forests. These are places that are home to many plant and animal species. Within these species, many un-discovered viruses. When we cut these forests down and kill these animals, we inadvertently disrupt the natural ecosystems and release the viruses from its natural hosts. Now, these viruses need a home to live in, and we are often that home.
Why are we cruelly snuffing out habitats and reducing the population of wild animals? In many of these places, we are replacing this land with farm animals. These industrial farming practices produce a copious amount of food at a very cheap price. However, this has a steep hidden cost, the rise of antibiotic–resistant superbugs. Many farm animals like cows, chicken, pigs are crammed in small spaces where they are mutilated and injected with anti-bacterial drugs. Our disrespect of both the wildlife and farm animals has created a reservoir of animal diseases that have now started to spill over and hurt our society.
Informal Wet Markets – A Symptom of a Much Bigger Problem
You may be wondering why I haven’t talked about the most cited problem of diseases spreading from animals to humans – informal wet markets. Well, this is because the narrative of unsafe food from informal wet markets is not as accurate as you would think. This is because many studies in this area reveal that perceived risk of disease transmission from informal wet markets to humans is not always in line with the evidence. In laymen’s terms, there is a lack of evidence to prove informal wet markets are the main culprit in this. We are basing this fear on a matter of concern and not relying on evidence. If you have time, I urge you to read “Does urbanization make the emergence of zoonosis more likely? Evidence, myths, and gaps” by Sohel Ahmed and his team of researchers. It goes into much greater detail about why the link between informal wet markets and disease transmission is not so clear cut.
Moreover, these informal wet markets are often the main source of food for many poor people. If we want informal markets to disappear, we need to address the problems that make it a necessity in the first place. Eradication of poverty needs to be the first step. People who are desperate and need to somehow feed their families are going to choose the cheapest food option. On top of this, if the destruction of the forest guarantees their survival, they will be forced to cut it down and we can’t entirely blame them. The next step is education and awareness building. This information about animal disease transmissions needs to be taught to local communities and market traders. Only then will they be able to understand the problem and try to look for safe alternatives.
What Has This World Environment Day taught Me?
After reading many of these research papers and books about the destruction of wildlife and its biodiversity, two things are very clear to me. One, if we don’t change our ways and continue to destroy our beautiful environment, our race might not stand a chance in survival. Pandemics like the COVID-19 will become the new normal for humanity. Second, we must empower local communities to protect and serve the natural forests. They have both the resilience and the wealth of knowledge to do so. I don’t think scientists and conservationists can warn us any better. They have done rigorous research and provided us with the evidence. Let us not become apathetic to the situation. For the sake of our beautiful forests, animals, and the future of our generation, let us Act Now before it is too late!
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