A group of scientists from the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) just published an article with a strong message: the only species responsible for the pandemic are humans.
More than 70% of the new diseases affecting us are caused by wildlife and domestic animals. This is not new but, due to human activities, we are increasingly in contact with animals and therefore the possibilities of zoonosis are increasing. On the other hand, deforestation, the fragmentation of ecosystems and in general all the actions by which man invades the wildlife spaces also cause many animals to be displaced and, again, to come into contact with human populations.
Two years ago, the scientific magazine Frontiers in Microbiology published an article entitled "Bats, coronaviruses and deforestation: towards the emergence of new infectious diseases?". In that article, scientists predicted that a new coronavirus could emerge in Asia, due among other factors to the fact that this area of the world suffers from very strong environmental pressures such as deforestation and habitat fragmentation.
Environmental degradation, dense populations and globalisation: the perfect storm
The transmission of viruses from wild or domestic animals to humans is something that has been happening over the centuries, but today something has changed. In addition to the fact that, as we have already commented, our relationship with the environment is much more destructive and certain practices such as the illegal capture and trade of wild species are taking place more intensively, we are more and more, we live more crowded and, worst of all, we move more. These two factors are decisive for new animal-borne diseases to spread around the globe and cause pandemics as destructive as SARS-Cov-2.
"Pandemics originate from activities that directly connect a large number of people and often conflict with animals carrying these pathogens," explains the article published by IPBES. "Unrestrained deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive cultivation, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created the perfect storm for the spread of diseases from wild animals to people".
This is only the beginning, the scientists warn. If we continue along this path, more pandemics will come with overwhelming consequences. In the article, experts denounce that, in these times of economic crisis, in many sectors it is seen desirable to calm environmental standards and support activities such as intensive agriculture, long-distance transport such as airlines and energy sectors that depend on fossil fuels. However, these actions can mean bread for today and hunger for tomorrow: a radical and urgent change is needed if we are to avoid the emergence of new pandemics.
Health as a priority
In their article, scientists propose adopting an approach called "One Health", which is taken into account at all decision-making levels, recognizing that there are very complex interconnections between our health, our activities and our environment. "For example, often the gains from deforestation end up in private hands, but it is public health systems and local communities that often pay the price for the outbreaks of the resulting diseases and pests," they explain. "The single health approach would ensure that better decisions are made that take into account the long-term costs and consequences of all development actions for people and nature".
An opportunity to do things differently
The authors of the article are aware that the change they are talking about will be costly and involves a series of profound transformations, but warn that it will be nothing compared to the price we are already paying with the current pandemic. "We can 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 protects us".