Only one species is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic: ours. As with the climate and biodiversity crises, the recent pandemics are a direct consequence of the of human activity, in particular our global financial and economic systems, based on a limited paradigm that values economic growth at all costs. We have a short-term window of opportunity to overcome the challenges of the current crisis and avoid sowing the seeds of future ones.
An analysis carried out by IPBES guest experts Professors Josef Settele, Sandra Díaz and Eduardo Brondizio (1) and Dr. Peter Daszak (2) on April 27, 2020, which demonstrates that VIDOC-19 stimulus measures must save lives, protect livelihoods and safeguard nature to reduce the risk of future pandemics.
Diseases like COVID-19 are caused by micro-organisms that infect our bodies, with over 70 % of these emerging human diseases originating from wildlife and domestic animals. Pandemics, however, are caused by activities that bring increasing numbers of people into direct and often conflicting contact with animals carrying these pathogens.
Unbridled deforestation, uncontrolled agricultural expansion, intensive agriculture, mining and infrastructure development, and wildlife exploitation have created the "perfect conditions" for the spread of wildlife diseases to humans. This often occurs in areas where communities most vulnerable to infectious diseases live.
Our actions have had a negative impact on more than three quarters of the Earth's surface, destroyed more than 85 % of wetlands and use more than a third of the Earth's surface and almost three quarters of our freshwater reserves for agriculture and livestock.
Add to this the unregulated trade in wildlife and the explosive growth of global air travel, and it is easy to see how a virus that once circulated harmlessly among a species of bat in Southeast Asia has been able to infect more than two million people, causing incalculable human suffering and bringing economies and societies around the world to a standstill. Here, in a nutshell, is the human role in the emergence of this pandemic.
This may only be the beginning. Diseases transmitted to humans by animals are already responsible for about 7,000,000 deaths each year. The potential for future pandemics is even more devastating. An estimated 1.7 million unidentified viruses of the type known to infect humans are present in mammals and waterfowl. Any one of these could be the next "disease X" - potentially even more disruptive and deadly than COVID-19.
Future pandemics are likely to occur more frequently, spread more rapidly, have more severe economic repercussions and kill more people if we are not extremely careful about the possible impacts of the choices we make today.
In the immediate term, we must ensure that the measures taken to reduce the consequences of the current pandemic do not themselves amplify the risks of future epidemics and crises. The billion-dollar recovery and economic stimulus packages already implemented should be directed towards three important areas:
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Firstly, we must ensure that environmental regulations are strengthened and enforced, and only deploy recovery plans that provide incentives for more sustainable and nature-friendly activities. It may be politically expedient at the present time to relax environmental standards and support industries such as intensive agriculture, long-distance transport such as airlines and fossil-fuel-dependent energy sectors, but doing so without requiring immediate and fundamental change will subsidise the emergence of future pandemics.
Second, we must adopt a "One World, One Health" approach at all levels of decision-making, from the global to the most local, recognizing the complex interconnections between the health of people, animals, plants and the environment we share. Forest services, for example, usually set policy on deforestation, and much of the benefit goes to the private sector, but it is public health systems and local communities that often pay the price for the resulting epidemics. A "One World One Health" approach would ensure that better decisions are made that take into account the long-term costs and consequences of development actions for people and nature.
Thirdly, we need to adequately fund health systems and encourage behavioural change as close as possible to areas at risk of pandemic. This means mobilizing international funding to build health capacity in emerging disease outbreaks at the clinic level; surveillance programmes, including in partnership with indigenous peoples and local communities; and funding behavioural risk surveys and specific intervention programmes. It also involves providing viable and sustainable alternatives to high-risk economic activities and protecting the health of the most vulnerable.
This is not mere altruism, but a vital investment in the interest of all to prevent future global epidemics.
Perhaps most importantly, we need transformative change - of the kind highlighted last year in the IPBES Global Assessment Report (which showed in particular that one million species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction in the coming decades): a systemic rethinking of our technologies, economies and societies, as well as our paradigms, goals and values, and the promotion of social and environmental responsibilities in all sectors. As daunting and costly as it may seem, the cost of this change is derisory compared to the price we are already paying.
Responding to the crisis at VIDOC-19 requires us to challenge the interests that oppose transformative change and end the "status quo". We can rebuild better and emerge from this crisis stronger and more resilient than before, but this requires political choices and actions that protect nature, so that nature will protect us.
Professors Josef Settele, Sandra Diaz, Eduardo Brondizio
And the Dr. Peter Daszak
This article is not a formal product of IPBES, but of four global experts, based on the results of the IPBES assessment reports. Three IPBES assessments with direct relevance to the current crisis and future pandemics are being produced on thes sustainable use of wildlife, invasive alien speciesand the different ways of understanding the plural values of nature. Other work has also just begun on the links between biodiversity, water, food and health in the context of climate change.
(1) Co-Chairs of the IPBES Global Assessment Report 2019 on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which revealed, among other things, that one million species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction in the coming decades.
(2) Chairman of EcoHealth Alliance and framing expert for the new IPBES assessment of links between biodiversity, health and food.
Header image : Pangolin, one of the most poached animals in the world and believed to have served as an intermediate species in the transmission of COVID-19 to humans - Photo ©C. Wahyudi-AFP
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To go further :
Video from the National Museum of Natural History, March 26, 2020: COVID-19 or the pandemic of mistreated biodiversity