Is COVID-19 the canary in the coal mine? What we can learn from this unprecedented situation to safeguard humanity and biodiversity in the future


COVID-19 – it is an issue born out of humanity’s incessant interference with the natural environment.

A predicted health crisis

The world has understandably been focused on documenting and tackling the unfolding human health crisis posed by the novel coronavirus COVID-19; but as the human, economic and social costs of the pandemic continue to rise, we must begin to address the underlying factors that caused the crisis, and the preventive measures we can take to ensure a repeat situation does not occur.

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The virus allegedly originated at a “wet-market” in Wuhan, China. These markets are characteristically overcrowded with stalls selling fresh seafood and meat. Some wet markets sell and slaughter live domestic animals, and the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where it is believed that the virus originated, also sold wild animals. The virus’ origin suggests it is a direct consequence of the exploitative wildlife-trade industry.

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Such events are not a new phenomenon either, as outbreaks of other animal-borne viruses and infectious diseases such as Ebola, SARS, bird flu, Zika, West Nile virus and others have all been gradually increasing. For decades, scientists, conservationists, public health professionals and even philanthropists such as Bill Gates, cautioned governments about these diseases and the possibility of new, more threatening ones emerging.

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As humans continue to expand their activities into previously undisturbed natural areas, through practices of wildlife trade, road construction, mining, hunting and logging, coupled with the often un-hygienic and concentrated conditions of live animal markets and trade routes, the chance of animal to human pathogen transmission is increasing.

Consequences

The devastating impacts of this pandemic are clear for all to see. With the global loss of life already in the hundreds of thousands and growing by the minute, the human health consequences of this event are nothing short of tragic. As states respond with national lockdowns and travel bans, the disruption to modern day society and life as we know it is on a scale that has not been experienced for generations, and maybe only comparable to the disorder caused during the World Wars.

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Financial markets have plummeted and entire sectors like travel, tourism, transport and manufacturing have ground to a halt, jeopardizing tens (maybe even hundreds) of millions of jobs. The full-scale economic impact will only become apparent in the months and years after the situation is resolved, but by most accounts it is going to be catastrophic.

The repercussions of this pandemic have been a challenge that most (if not all) governments would not have anticipated, despite the warnings. The strain on public amenities and finances has been huge. The response has also highlighted some glaring deficiencies in the preparedness of government systems and structures to cope with such an emergency.

It’s clear that modern society cannot afford to be faced with this level of crisis regularly.

A warning of things to come

What is most disconcerting is that due to a myriad of connected, escalating environmental issues, this could be the start of things to come. The most apparent issue is the ever-increasing risk of more health pandemics. Some scientists suggest that most zoonotic pathogens are yet to be discovered and humans seem to be doing everything they can to accelerate the process by melting ice masses, continuing ecosystem degradation and expanding wildlife trade. One thing is for sure, after COVID-19, the threat of a serious global outbreak is no longer hypothetical.

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Another familiar issue which has the potential to alter society as we know it, is climate change. For a number of decades, climate scientists have made alarming predictions regarding the future of the planet in the face of climate change; and it’s no longer an issue that’s just going to affect your grandkids’ grandkids, but an issue with serious present day ramifications. An example is that of global warming, which is one of the most well-established direct consequences of climate change. It is already resulting in sea-level rise, which if pronounced in low lying shoreline areas, will lead to coastal flooding and the loss of homes and infrastructure; forcing people to migrate and resettle inland as climate refugees. Worst still, some small island nations, such as Kiribati, are at risk of being completely submerged. The list of climate change impacts is extensive, but what is most concerning, is that we are perilously close to tipping points such as permafrost loss. If we reach these thresholds, it will have catastrophic and irreversible consequences. Despite these grave issues, climate change denial rhetoric persists in conservative political spheres, such as in Australia, arguably the most impacted developed country to date. Repeated coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in 2016, 17 and again in 2020 and the devastating bush fires in 2019/20 prove to be the most explicit examples. We ignored one group of experts and their predictions on pandemics and are collectively paying the price – can we afford to continue to ignore another?

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Many insect species, including the “most important animal on the planet”, bees, are on the brink of extinction. With about 75 percent of the world’s food crops dependent on animal pollinators, their extinction could lead us towards a global food production crisis. A food security emergency would be exacerbated by the depleted state of fish and seafood stocks due to over-fishing and degrading ecosystems like coral reefs, climate change driven extreme droughts and floods, reductions in water availability and degrading soil fertility. And again, we cannot say we haven’t been warned.

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These issues will continue to undermine human progress – setting us back with each catastrophic event by threatening economic sectors, jobs, food security and human life.

What needs to change to safeguard the future?

Well a lot.

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Economic systems need to be reformed to increase resilience to future shocks. This can be driven by a shift in practices and business operations towards sustainability. Here, both governments and the public have a crucial role to play. By shifting our policies and consumer patterns towards supporting and creating alternative markets for sustainable and ethical products and services, we can incentivise sustainable growth. Some future projections estimate the loss of up to 30% of jobs by the mid-2030s through automation, making it imperative that we work to secure existing livelihoods and jobs by solving processes which could be threatening. Conserving our natural environment is often perceived as costly, burdensome or inconvenient. However, there must be a change in this attitude to acknowledge and respect nature as a crucial component to supporting human life and improving human well-being. Because of the economic turbulence from this pandemic, the inclination may be to withdraw public funding from required environmental and humanitarian causes. Instead, governments should adopt an approach which integrates these issues at the core of any development and economic revival initiatives. It is now irrefutable that the financial cost of inaction far outweighs the cost of action.

Once we overcome this current threat and we resume to a state of normality, how we prevent the occurrence of similar events must be on the top of the political agenda. This will require a switch from an insular, nationalistic approach towards a more collaborative and inter-governmental one. The good news is that governments are all very aware about the environmental issues, with most having already committed (on paper) to resolving them through inter-governmental global agreements and treaties such as the Sustainable Development Goals, Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Aichi and post-2020 targets, and the Paris (climate change) Agreement. The challenge is that countries aren’t taking their commitments very seriously, with only marginal progress being made.

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Model showing benefits to all other SDGs derived from natural capital – Obura et al. 2020

But it’s clear that we no longer have the luxury of time, and inaction is not an option.

Pre-COVID-19, 2020 was earmarked as a pivotal year in terms of human commitment to protecting the environment. And it still could be, if we leverage this pandemic as a watershed to achieve decisive political and socio-economic reform, which could lead to real progress in tackling the wildlife trade, climate change and biodiversity conservation. There is still scope for a win-win situation, where we continue progressing as a society and expand our knowledge and technologies, sustain economic growth and job creation and improve standards of living and human welfare, and do so without the impending risk of collapse.

Only time will tell how we react, whether this becomes another missed opportunity and unheeded warning for and from the planet. We must decide whether we take the business as usual approach until that is no longer possible, or humans, a species which prides itself as being resilient and intelligent, steps up and decides to solve challenges which are still within their control.

One thing is beyond doubt, if this doesn’t motivate the world, it’s hard to know what will.

by Mishal Gudka

 

Special thanks to Alia Bhanji and Dr David Obura for their contributions to the article.