Don’t blame the bats, or the pangolins, scientists say. Just one species is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the planet and its economies: humans.
While more than 70 percent of emerging diseases affecting people have origins in wildlife and domesticated animals, pandemics are caused by activities that bring growing numbers of people into direct contact—and often conflict—with pathogen-carrying animals, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), a Germany-based intergovernmental body with ties to the United Nations.
There is also a “small window of opportunity” to ensure that recovery and stimulus measures designed to cauterize the current fiscal bloodletting won’t amplify the risks of future ones.
Rampant deforestation, aggressive expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure, along with the exploitation of wild species, have created a “perfect storm” for the “spillover” of diseases from wildlife to humans, particularly in areas populated by communities most vulnerable to infectious disease, wrote Josef Settele, Sandra Díaz and Eduardo Brondizio, co-chairs of the 2019 IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, and Peter Dasza, president of New York think tank EcoHealth Alliance, in a blog post last week.
Human actions, they said, have impacted more than three-quarters of the Earth’s land surface, wrecked more than 85 percent of wetlands and annexed more than one-third of all land and nearly 75 percent of available freshwater for crop and livestock production.
Couple this with unregulated trade in wildlife and the booming air travel industry and it becomes apparent how a virus that circulated “harmlessly” among a species of bats in Southeast Asia has infected more than 3.3 million people and caused 238,000 deaths, per the May 3 situation report from the World Health Organization.
“This is the human hand in pandemic emergence,” the scientists wrote. “Yet this may be only the beginning.”
With as many as 1.7 million unidentified viruses of the type known to infect people lurking in mammals and water birds, the next “Disease X”—one “potentially even more disruptive and lethal than COVID-19”—could be bubbling under the surface, they said.
Without extreme caution about the possible impacts of the choices we make today, future pandemics are likely to occur more frequently, spread more rapidly, inflict greater economic chaos and kill more people, they added.
Governments, businesses and civil society groups must first ensure the strengthening and enforcement of environmental regulations, and “only deploy stimulus packages that offer incentives for more sustainable and nature-positive activities,” the scientists wrote.
“It may be politically expedient at this time to relax environmental standards and to prop up industries such as intensive agriculture, long-distance transportation such as the airlines, and fossil-fuel-dependent energy sectors, but doing so without requiring urgent and fundamental change, essentially subsidizes the emergence of future pandemics,” they added.
Moving forward, all stakeholders should adopt a “one health approach” at all levels of decision making, from the global to the most local, while recognizing the interconnections between the health of people, animals, plants and “our shared environment.”
Third, decision makers must “properly fund and resource” health systems and incentivize behavior change on the “frontlines of pandemic risk,” which means mobilizing international finance to build health capacity, including clinics and surveillance programs, in emerging disease hotspots in partnership with indigenous peoples and local communities.
“It also entails offering viable and sustainable alternatives to high-risk economic activities and protecting the health of the most vulnerable,” they said. “This is not simple altruism—it is [a] vital investment in the interests of all to prevent future global outbreaks.”
And the most important piece? “Transformative change.” Humanity needs a “fundamental, system-wide reorganization” across technological, economic and social factors, including goals and values, paradigms and social and environmental responsibilities across all sectors.
“Responding to the COVID-19 crisis calls for us all to confront the vested interests that oppose transformative change, and to end ‘business as usual,’” the scientists said. “We can build back better and emerge from the current crisis stronger and more resilient than ever—but to do so means choosing policies and actions that protect nature–so that nature can help to protect us.”