Pandemics and the ecological crisis: what's the link?
by Fran Haddock
What's Going On Here?
The global coronavirus pandemic highlights the link between ecological destruction and the increased risk of new diseases.
What Does This Mean?
Approximately 70% of emerging (new) diseases are thought to be ‘zoonotic’ in origin, meaning they were originally from animals, also known as ‘spillover’. It is suspected that the new coronavirus passed from wild animals at a live animal or ‘wet’ market in Wuhan, China, similar to the suspected origin of the 2003 SARS epidemic. Here, the link between harming often endangered wildlife is clear, but the ecological link isn’t always as obvious…
The most recent Ebola outbreak was thought to have arisen from communities hunting and consuming bushmeat, but it also mostly occurred in deforested hotspots. Similarly, higher incidences of both malaria and Lyme disease have been found in deforested areas. This is thought to be due to increased chances of human-animal interaction amongst more complex processes. Although there is no known link between coronavirus and climate change, global heating will certainly increase the risk of many vector-borne diseases like malaria and Zika as they are spreading further over a longer season.
Why Should We Care?
Although the link between environmental destruction and the risk of pandemics has been known by the experts for a long time – it is clearly extreme circumstances like the situation we are all in now that has brought it to light to both environmentalists and the wider public. There is a huge socioeconomic side to this and it isn’t a case of pointing the blame at certain communities or countries - what people eat is a huge part of their culture and society. More importantly, some populations simply have no option but to hunt and eat wildlife due to food insecurity and economic pressures, and at the same time it is often marginalised communities who are at highest risk of suffering the most from these diseases. Deforestation is often driven by the need to produce commodities for richer countries. Wildlife trade is also a big problem in Western countries, risking disease spread - with more tigers in captivity in the USA than left in the wild (yes I’m looking at you Tiger King!).
Scarily, research suggests that outbreaks of new infectious diseases have quadrupled in the last century, whilst wildlife populations have decreased by 60% in the last 50 years. The time to act has never been more pressing.
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