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Nithin Coca headshot

Ecological Balance Means Less Risk of Diseases Like COVID-19

Here's why the COVID-19 pandemic has made absolutely clear the direct connection between a healthy natural environment and human health.
By Nithin Coca

There are many hot takes about the impacts the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will have on the environment. It is temporarily reducing emissions — good — but also resulting in a wave of single-use plastics — bad, while also letting governments, including the United States, neglect environmental protections — very bad.

There’s one thing we should be able to all agree on, though. The pandemic is making clear the direct connection between a healthy natural environment and human health.

This pandemic shows why well-being matters for everyone

“All of our well-being is dependent on the well-being of everyone else...and the natural environment,” Kinari Webb, a doctor and founder of the nonprofit Health in Harmony, told TriplePundit. “We just forget that so often, but it is a fundamental truth and this horrible pandemic is teaching us that.”

Webb’s organization, Health in Harmony, based in Portland, Oregon, takes a holistic view of public health. The organization sees it as being directly connected to natural health and biodiversity. One project demonstrating its ethos is within the Indonesian side of the tropical island of Borneo, where the NGO works with villagers to provide healthcare access in exchange for local involvement in ecosystems restoration.

“Our thing is always that human and environmental health are intimately intertwined and that we don't have to think of them as competitive, that both can thrive,” Webb said.

While Health in Harmony has had a positive impact in Borneo, such success, unfortunately, is not the norm. Over the past several decades, humans have devoured an ever-increasing amount of the natural world for our use. Agribusiness has expanded plantations into ecological zones in Southeast Asia and the Amazon. We’ve built mega-dams, ports and power plants in sensitive regions. Air and water pollution, from industrial sources, is choking cities and turning waterways toxic around the world.

How an imbalance with nature led to outbreaks like COVID-19

Alongside this is a burgeoning animal trafficking trade. Elephants, rhinos, pangolins and sharks are just some of the species that have been caught and sent, alive or dead, across borders to markets around the world. There’s evidence that wildlife trafficking played a role in the emergence of COVID-19 in a wet market in Wuhan, China, late last year, but this is not just a problem in China. It’s a global issue.

Other recent diseases such as MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and SARS also had connections to wildlife trafficking or the sales of wild animals. But the causes of other illnesses such as the 2009 H1N1 influenza, which emerged in U.S. and Mexican factory farms, should also be on our radar. This U.S. hosts many massive factory farms, and there are concerns that these could play a role in reducing the efficacy of antibacterial drugs, or lead to the formation of dangerous superbugs.

“Industrial farming has risks,” said Maarten Hoek, a senior public health manager with Madaktari Africa, who has extensive experience in sub-Saharan Africa, during a recent press conference. “When we put thousands of animals in a very small space, it has a lot of opportunity to spread, and each time it spreads, there are small changes in the pathogen which may result in a virus being more easily spread, and being able to connect to human tissue.”

In the end, we need a renewed focus on climate

It is hard to make a direct connection between all of these human impacts and the increased risk of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19 or MERS, mostly due to the lack of data from the past. But it is likely that known risks — environmental degradation, factory, farming and the wildlife trade — all make the emergence of infectious diseases more likely.

And then there’s climate change, which is also likely to raise more global risks due its myriad impacts on humans and the environment.

“Climate change leads to a lot of changes in vegetation, in animal behavior, in human behavior, and these may cause diseases to spread geographically, and diseases being able to infect new animal species,” Hoek said. “It’s a very unpredictable effect.”

The solution? Once the pandemic is under control, invest in the environment. Restore ecosystems. Eliminate the global trade in illegal wildlife. Shut down dangerous factory farms. We now know how badly a disease can impact our lives, our most vulnerable people and the economy. Brands, many of which are also suffering from the coming recession, now understand all too well the risks of business as usual.

It’s time to transform our relationship with nature into a more positive one that is less exploitative and creates more understanding of the value to human health — and the economy — of a resilient natural world.

Image credit: Marjolein van Zonneveld/Pixabay

Nithin Coca headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

Read more stories by Nithin Coca