How environmental destruction paves the way for pandemics

We are witnessing the worst pandemic of the last hundred years right now. But it did not happen by sheer conincidence. Many experts have predicted for a long time that a pandemic might be the next big global crisis – besides the climate crisis. Viruses are as old as life on earth and there have always been countless numbers of viruses in wildlife around the world. However, it becomes more common that they are transmitted to humans due to environmental destruction.

As most other recent epidemics, the current corona virus (SARS-CoV-2) was transmitted from wildlife to humans. As we already reported, this contagion was closely linked to illegal wildlife trade in and to China. But wildlife trade is not the only kind of environmental destruction that paves the way for such pandemics.

Safety can´t keep up with population growth

Cities around the globe continue to grow and people live closely together, sharing spaces all the time. Especially in emerging countries, mega cities have grown at an unprecedented rate within the last decades. Infrastructure and food safety precautions can not keep up with this growth. So, markets without basic sanitary precautions formed, where vendors sell wildlife without control, often still alive. These markets are often linked to the outbreak of animal-borne diseases.

But not only the markets are hotspots for diseases. Around many fast-growing cities, environmental destruction is rampant to create space for housing, agriculture and infrastructure. Once their habitats are destroyed, they often flock into the cities, where they can easily find food in human trash. These animals of course bring all their diseases with them.

Environmental destruction releases diseases

It doesn´t stop there. Not only growing citites cause environmental destruction. We encroach on intact ecosystems ever more. We log forests for timber and to turn them into fields. Shrinking habitats force wildlife to live closer together and puts populations under stress, which means the disturbed populations are more vulnerable to viruses. While viruses are a normal part of an intact ecosystem, they normally don´t jump to new host species easily and stay contained within one population. But by spreading further and further into nature, we facilitate the spread of diseases. At the same time, we move closer to this wildlife, increasing the chance of a transmission to humans.

We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.

David Quammen

Connecting people = Connecting hosts

The last component is that viruses can become pandemic more easily than ever before. Because the world is more connected than ever. It might be the biggest achievement of the last decades, but it also paves the way for the spread of a pandemic. Through highways, public transport and air travel, the corona virus could spread to all continents within weeks. It´s the same infrastructure and CO2-emitting traffic, that causes environmental destruction around the globe.

And even though this is the first pandemic on this scale threatening humans, there have been several examples amongst crops and livestock. Diseases like swine fever, bird flu, FMD and BSE in livestock or powdery mildew and potato blight in crops have spread around the world. They could often only be contained by destroying whole fields or culling all livestock in concerned areas.

So, it is not bats or pangolins posing a threat to public health. It is our destruction of their habitats and the trade with them. In a world where people, food and goods constantly travel around the globe, a virus that jumps from an animal to a human in China can cause a complete lockdown in several European countries.

This demonstrates again that environmental protection is not a charity cause. Preserving Wilderness and intact ecosystems directly protects public health as well as our economy. When this crisis is over, we will hopefully be aware how nature conservation in every corner of the world keeps everyone safe – from diseases, extreme weather and war.

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