HomeCoronavirus crisisThis pandemic is an environmental issue

This pandemic is an environmental issue

intext-blog-deforestThis post is an Inside Track long read by Tony Juniper, writing in a personal capacity. It was first published in the Evening Standard.

For years it has been known that the risk of novel diseases in humans can be increased through our behaviour in relation to the environment and wildlife. Recent events underline the issue.

Last week I spoke to a friend who’d recently began working at the front line of wildlife crime enforcement in a southern African country. With massively inadequate resources, he was part of a team supporting the government there to crack down on the illegal trade in rare animals. A number of operations had just taken place, leading to arrests of people with live pangolins.

The scaly anteaters were destined for trafficking, both to markets in Africa and also Asia. In China, and other countries, the huge demand for pangolins every year pulls a supply of tens of thousands of these endangered creatures from their native woodlands and into clandestine global commerce. Many finish up being slaughtered in live animal markets, their flesh consumed as food, foetuses used to make wine and dried scales sold to remedy, among other things, hysterical crying in children.

These particular animals were lucky and were released back into a National Park. But, despite the global lockdown, despite the pressure to close wildlife markets in Asia and Africa going back years, despite the risks of enforcement, people are still out scouring the bush looking for these and other creatures, because market demand remains undiminished. For conservationists, this is a depressingly familiar story, where a well-known problem has not been addressed with the vigour and priority it demands. Perhaps now, however, things will change.

Novel diseases are never really new
When ‘new’ diseases appear, it is easy to believe that they have spontaneously sprung up, coming from nowhere to cause chaos and misery without warning, deadly new enemies that test our defences with devastating surprise attacks. This perception is quite wrong though, for the viruses that from time to time cause us to raise defences, and even reorganise how we live, are not new, they are ancient. Hiding in dark recesses, the lungs of a bat, or the blood-filled capillaries of a monkey, they lurk, awaiting opportunities to multiply and spread, including by jumping out of their ancestral homes and into new host species.

In 1990, shortly after I arrived at Friends of the Earth to lead the organisation’s tropical rainforest campaign, I read a piece in New Scientist magazine about how deforestation could increase the risks of diseases leaping out of the animal world and into humans. There was mention of a terrifying pathogen (later named Ebola) that had popped up from time to time since the 1970s, and an emerging view that the risk of outbreaks was increased by forest loss.

Since then, various studies have concluded that the threat is indeed real, as forest loss ‘squeezes’ wildlife populations, bringing animals into contact with people in ways that they previously didn’t. One 2012 paper concluded that “The increase in Ebola outbreaks since 1994 is frequently associated with drastic changes in forest ecosystems in tropical Africa. Extensive deforestation and human activities in the depth of the forests may have promoted direct or indirect contact between humans and a natural reservoir of the virus.”

Fruit bats have been identified as the ultimate wild source of Ebola, and as these animals’ habitat has shrunk so they are forced to concentrate in what is left of their natural forest home, increasing the likelihood of closer contact with the people who encroach ever deeper into once wild lands. Another example of how this can lead to disease among people is seen in a different virus, one that jumped into humans in South-East Asia.

The Nipah virus was first identified as a new pathogen in humans in the late 1990s, initially affecting abattoir workers in Singapore. The virus was leaping from pigs into the human population via people slaughtering animals imported from Malaysia. The ultimate source of the virus was, however, found to be bats. An analysis of over 1,000 bat urine samples revealed the presence of the virus in a species of flying fox. The virus was also found in a piece of fruit that had been partially eaten by a bat, suggesting the presence of the pathogen in the animal’s saliva.

Many Malaysian pig farms had fruit trees, and as bats fed above the pigs the virus seems to have been transmitted to the farm animals when they ingested infected bat urine or saliva coming from above on fruits discarded by the bats. With the wide-scale depletion of natural forest, fruit-eating bats were forced to occupy farmed landscapes, bringing them into contact with the pigs. Alongside human suffering (about 700 cases were reported by 2018, but with a fatality rate of 40 to 75 per cent), the Malaysian pig industry was devastated, leading to major economic impacts.

The squeeze created by habitat loss is evidently one route whereby the risk of novel disease outbreaks among humans can be elevated. Another comes from the consumption of so called bush-meat, that is, wild animals hunted for food. Viruses hidden in animal populations can be released into the human world when hunters come into close contact with wild animals that might otherwise be only fleetingly glimpsed. A particular risk has been identified in relation to the consumption of non-human primates (apes and monkeys), animals which are in big demand for food across much of West and Central Africa, and which are supplied further afield through a lucrative illegal trade.

Covid-19 has increased illegal hunting
With the spread of Covid-19, enforcement teams working in Africa have reported an increase in bush-meat hunting.  This is being driven by people in wildlife-rich areas losing income because of the collapse of wildlife tourism, park guards having less resources for the same reason and who are also in lockdown, so able to do less surveillance in the field. At the same time, and because of disruption to supply chains, normal meat prices in shops have risen, so the temptation and incentive to load a gun and go into protected areas to shoot wild animals for meat has been considerably elevated.

On top of this is the capture of and trade in live animals and birds, and not only for food but also a range of other purposes, including for claimed medicinal benefits. Many different species enter this commerce, including endangered animals that are trafficked illegally. Endangered or not, this is another route through which viruses in live animals can be brought into proximity with humans, and also into proximity with intermediate hosts that act as stepping stones between the original source creatures and the human population. The bat-pig-human route mentioned above is an example of how that can go.

This is how the Covid-19 virus might have made its way into people. In this case it seems a virus originally found in bats was transferred to pangolins, and from there into humans. Alternatively the virus might have jumped to people directly from pangolins, as there is a close similarity between viruses carried by those animals and the pandemic pathogen that is now causing a global health crisis. More research will shed light on this, but in the meantime an origin in traded live wild animals seems highly likely.

These and many other creatures are sold in different markets, including so-called wet markets, where animals from different species are kept in often cramped conditions under great stress, thereby permitting viruses to jump species, sometimes including people. It is one such market in Wuhan province, China, that was identified as the epicentre of the pandemic that has now delivered body blows to economies and societies right around the world.

We need to start taking the risks more seriously
With the World Health Organisation estimating that 70 per cent of novel viral diseases in people come from animals, it is clear that the management of this risk needs to be taken far more seriously than has hitherto been the case. Perhaps Covid-19 will provide the wake-up call needed, although it would be wise not to take too much for granted, considering how the world has been here before, including in the aftermath of SARS in 2003 and 2004.

The outbreak of SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, that caused an emergency response across many countries during 2003 and 2004 had its origins in captive palm civets. These cat-like arboreal omnivores are eaten and kept as pets and, despite regulations to control the trade, much commerce continues today, including illegally. The SARS outbreak was traced to a restaurant in Guangzhou, China, where live animals were kept for consumption. In the wake of the outbreak there was aggressive official action, with a sweep through farms and food markets to destroy animals that might harbour the virus. The crackdown was, however, temporary and, at best, only partially successful, as evidenced in the continued trade in them.

And, as the current coronavirus crisis gathered momentum, there was a reminder that it is not only wild animals that can be a source of risk, but also, in some conditions, domesticated ones. In February 2020, just as the world began to slide into the grip of Covid-19, two potentially dangerous strains of bird flu that can jump to humans were reported in two Chinese provinces. Birds were dying from H5N1 and H5N6. This caused officials to cull large flocks of captive birds in attempts to contain outbreaks that it was feared could lead to deadly infections in people.

Crisis prevention must be the priority now
As the world has brushed with near disaster during recent decades, it is quite understandable how the emphasis has been mainly on reacting to crisis, to limit the spread of infection, investing in vaccine development and bolstering healthcare systems. All this is vital but, considering the catastrophic scale of the social and economic dislocations of the Covid-19 pandemic, this time it is clearly necessary to plan beyond crisis management, and to embrace a far more aggressive programme of crisis prevention.

Fortunately, we know the main dimensions of that programme, not least because most of it has already been agreed, at least at the level of rhetoric. Take deforestation, and the fact that global accords to reduce forest loss have been in place since the 1992 Earth Summit, and since then have been repeatedly bolstered, including by ambitious programmes for forest restoration including, in 2014, via a global declaration adopted at the United Nations. In 2015, the agenda was strengthened again, under the Paris climate change accord. Yet, when one of the 2014 targets adopted was to halve the rate of forest loss by 2020, the rate of forest destruction had, by 2018, actually increased by 43 per cent.

The wildlife trade has too for some time been a focal point for global attention, including through the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This treaty seeks to achieve sustainable trade in wild animals and plants, with the most threatened banned from international commerce and others, theoretically at least, subject to exploitation that does not lead to their decline or disappearance. Aside from major questions as to whether the pressures on many species are sustainable, a thriving illegal trade worth many billions of dollars per year has continued. That trade includes pangolins, civets and other animals known to be sources of viruses that can jump species.

Covid-19 raises many questions about wildlife commerce, and has caused some to call for an outright ban on all trade, especially in birds and mammals, and to close the markets where they are sold.

Cheap food comes at a high cost
And, despite many warnings as to the dangers posed by some kinds of factory farming to human health, and not only in relation to viruses but also antibiotic resistance, the world’s appetite for ‘cheap’ food has raged unabated. It is, however, difficult to regard some factory produced meat as ‘cheap’, when it has the potential to cause such profound social and economic disruptions, or helps to accelerate the emergence of pathogens that can render some of our most important drugs useless.

All of these subjects, deforestation, wildlife trading and our food system, must be looked at again in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis and, as we prepare for that conversation, it will be vital to consider how these issues are also priorities for other reasons. For example, to avoid the worst of climate change, and in some cases to adapt to its impacts, it is necessary to conserve and restore forests. That in turn will require a hard look at our food system and, for example, the extent to which forest loss is presently driven by rocketing demand for the soya that is fed in such vast quantities to factory-farmed chickens and pigs. And, in relation to climate change, it is also important to remember that the rapid warming of our world is another source of disease risk, as pathogens occupy new territories opened by higher average temperature.

All this looks complex and expensive and, as countries seek to recover economic strength following Covid-19, the environmental agenda is one that we might expect to be deprioritised. This would be a normal reaction in the wake of economic crisis, to scale-back environmental ambition, and instead to foster economic growth at almost any cost. That is after all what has happened in the past.

This time though it will be essential to question that logic. In the wake of the present pandemic, economists and politicians must ask if it is better to redouble efforts to halt and reverse deforestation, to crack down on wildlife trafficking and to foster a truly sustainable food system as part of the wider recovery plan, or will it be better to go hell for leather for short term growth, in the process sidelining these questions?

Considering the impacts on our way of life, society and economic systems caused by Covid-19, and considering how, in the end, the crisis is one manifestation of our broken relationship with the natural world, then any rational economic analysis must recognise that investing in reducing this source of grave risk, by putting environmental recovery front and centre, must be our priority.

The UK has the chance to lead the conversation
For many years the UK has been a leader on the global stage, advocating action on deforestation, wildlife trafficking and climate change. It will host the now delayed COP26 climate change summit and China will host the delayed 15th COP of the Convention on Biological Diversity. These two meetings, and a high level UN Nature Summit, scheduled for September, have the potential to reset the global system, leading to new global accords and momentum behind existing ones, to fix our degraded environment. Galvanising the collective political will to do this must now be central in the global conversation.

As the UK ponders its global environmental role in the post-Covid world, let us not lose sight of the importance of domestic leadership. In Paris in 2015 the UK was able to lead with credibility because of its own 2008 Climate Change Act and the actions it was taking at home to implement its science based targets. With the natural world now thrust centre stage by a devastating pandemic, similarly ambitious plans for the recovery of nature in the UK is also now vital. Signalling our seriousness about that global plan, in part through action at home, could be done, with much of what we need to do already in development.

The choice before us could not be more serious. Do we step up and repair the natural world and our relationship with it, as part of wider post-Covid-19 recovery, or do we go for economic growth at any cost? Let’s hope that at least some of our economists have a basic understanding of ecology, because if they don’t, next time the crisis could be even worse.

[Image credit: Tony Juniper]

Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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