What can planetary health tell us about COVID-19?

The pandemic raises a number of significant questions concerning social, economic and environmental systems. Many wonder why we were so poorly prepared, why some communities have been disproportionally affected and how our systems may look once we return to ‘normal’, although I question whether we actually want to return to this. We are facing an unprecedented crisis and whilst the world focuses on tackling the impacts of the virus, some individuals have begun questioning its origins.

Earlier this year, scientists from the World Health Organisation (WHO) were finally granted access – albeit limited – to China for investigations. They are ruling nothing out but current evidence is inconclusive. What we do know is that COVID-19 is a newly-emerged zoonotic disease and DNA evidence suggests the virus was first transmitted to humans from bats through pangolins as an intermediate host. Some reports suggests factory farming or wildlife markets may have facilitated this transmission although the exact route remains unclear at present.

Transmission of this kind is by no means a unique incident. In fact, two-thirds of emerging infectious diseases affecting humans have a wildlife origin and it has been reported that the frequency of spill-over events has been increasing in recent years.

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that human activities may be responsible for this increase. A 2016 report from the UN stated that such emergence is often associated with changes to the environment or ecological disturbances, including agricultural intensification and encroachments into forests and other habitats as these activities create opportunities for pathogens to spill-over from animals to people. Land-use change is cited as the most significant driver of past disease emergence and climate change (a global crisis in itself) is a factor of growing concern.

The relatively new field of planetary health highlights the connections between the health of our planet and human health. Scientists have been warning us for years that the next pandemic could arise from deforestation. As forests are exploited for logging, mining and pasture land, these once traditional buffer zones which previously separated humans from animals (along with the pathogens they harbour) are remarkably reduced or lost altogether.

Past examples of diseases emerging from human activity include avian influenza (bird flu) which was linked with intensive poultry farming and Ebola which occurred after contact increased between wildlife and human settlements following the loss of forests in West Africa.

It is likely that the incidence of newly-emerging diseases will continue to increase unless we change how we interact with nature. Exploiting exotic animals for trade, raising livestock in intensive conditions, urbanisation and encroachment into wild areas all increase the risk of transmission.

Some experts suggest that prevention is better than the cure. Dr Peter Daszak, president of Ecohealth Alliance – a charity that monitors the emergence of infectious diseases – said that “If we could deal with the trade in wildlife and deforestation we wouldn’t need to stop an outbreak… we would have already dealt with it.”

There remains hope that we will learn some valuable lessons from this pandemic and begin to work more collectively to protect nature and people. Preventative measures are already starting to be enforced. For example, China implemented a ban on all wildlife trade and consumption last year (although this ban contained significant loopholes). They also removed pangolin scales from their official list of traditional medicine ingredients and in a crackdown mission, Chinese authorities reportedly shut down 20,000 illegal farms raising livestock ranging from peacocks to porcupines. Vietnam also announced a ban on all trade of pangolins and it is hoped that other countries will take more action.

COVID-19 shows us that protecting our natural world is now more important than ever. We need to allow ecosystems to not only function, but thrive without interference or destruction. The services they provide are vital for the health of animals and for us. With billions of us still living under some sort of lockdown, I hope that we may use this time to reflect on what is important and consider a future which prioritises people and planet over profit.

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