Opinion

We Can Fight Pandemics Like the Coronavirus by Protecting Nature

A woman wearing a protective mask takes pictures of cherry blossoms at a park, in Beijing, China. March 23, 2020.
Thomas Peter/Reuters

When the time comes to address the causes of the coronavirus outbreak and what lessons to draw to prevent future pandemics, there will be no avoiding acknowledgement of the ecological disruption mankind is doing to the world. This disruption significantly magnifies the potential of the spread of pathogens like viruses, bacteria and parasites.

In recent years, several international bodies have recognized the urgent need to address the causal connection between the destruction of nature and the spread of disease. A study published at the start of the last decade found that about two-thirds of infectious diseases that erupted in the previous decades originated in animals, some domesticated by man, some hunted or collected from nature.

Four years ago, the UN Environmental Protection Agency published a report on emerging issues of environmental concern. A special section was devoted to diseases transmitted through human-to-animal contact. "Never before have so many animals been kept by so many people, and never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals ... to affect people,” the report said.

The coronavirus pandemic is especially acute in scope and effect, but we should remember that it is just one link in a recent series of diseases originating with animals. The UN report also cites the Ebola and SARS outbreaks. In an ominous tone that has proven prescient, the report also notes: “In the last two decades, emerging diseases have had direct costs of more than $100 billion; if these outbreaks had become human pandemics, the losses would have amounted to several trillion dollars.”

The transition of diseases from animals to humans is causally linked to land use by humans. Things like the clearing of forests, climate change and the emptying of wild habitats due to hunting all increase the likelihood of pathogens flowing into human environments. A healthy ecological system creates natural resistance to pathogens and isolates them. When this system is breached and fragmented, natural resistance to the pathogens disappears. Climate change could seriously accelerate these processes. Changes in humidity and heat in different regions could spur the development of a certain pathogen or of the animals that transmit it, including insects.

South Korean soldiers in protective gear make their way while they disinfect buildings downtown, in Daegu, South Korea, March 15, 2020.
Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Changes in agriculture also accelerate these processes. Today there is much closer contact between domesticated animals and wildlife, which creates an accelerated pathway for pathogens to pass from animals to humans. The markets that sell wild animals for food are another contributing factor. Half of the first wave of cases of the new coronavirus are believed to have involved people who worked in a local market that sold wild animals for consumption.

The hardest challenge that humans will face after the coronavirus, besides coping with the health and economic effects, will be to reexamine their relationship with nature and the way in which animals are exploited. Clearly, the first move that must be made is to impose drastic restrictions on wild animal markets. In addition, reduced meat consumption should be promoted, as the food production for these animals requires the destruction of natural areas. Such measures will reduce the chance of disease outbreaks and allow ecological systems like forests, rivers and lakes to recover. As they recover, these ecological systems will be better able to supply their services that are so vital to the planet’s existence.

In recent years, scientists have tried to highlight the importance of these ecological systems, without much success. The economic implications of the coronavirus may change the attitude of the decision-makers, but it’s hard to rely on their ability to see the big picture and plan for the long term. As long as man continues to abuse and destroy nature, he keeps raising the odds of ecological and health catastrophes occurring at an ever faster rate. Medical technology will help to identify disasters in the future and treat victims, but the current crisis has taught us that it could not prevent the worst crisis the world has seen since World War II.