OPINION | Disregard for nature, surge of pandemics

By Romulo F. Nieva Jr., RN, MHSS

AS the world continues to find various ways to address COVID-19 pandemic and slowly recover from its impact, this global tragedy is unleashing a sad reality- how wildlife trade and habitat destruction threaten human health. It undeniably reminds us how urgently we need to rethink and change our relationship with the environment. However, the role of biodiversity as a critical facet of pandemic prevention remains highly ignored in the current public discussion.

The COVID-19 pandemic is never an isolated case. We should have known a pandemic-like coronavirus was going to emerge because other viruses, such as SARS, H1N1, MERS-CoV, Ebola, and HIV, also “jumped” the species barrier from animals. The wildlife trade and loss of animal habitat are known huge drivers, facilitating the easier spread of viruses from one animal to another and then to humans or also known as “spillover events”. This transfer, also termed as zoonosis, happens when an infection carried by an animal, like a bat, becomes transmissible to a human.

The habitat destruction

There is a wealth of evidence that habitat destruction is increasingly displacing disease-carrying wild animals. According to the United Nations Environment Program, increasing contact between people and wild animals is a product of biodiversity loss due to deforestation, rapid urbanization, and extreme agricultural development. And one of the challenges is that vast forests have disappeared, so animals themselves have come in closer contact with each other. Deforestation also alters the environmental conditions, creating puddles of water, which is an ideal habitat for mosquitoes, contributing to spikes in vector-borne infections like Dengue and Malaria.

As much as 425 million acres of the forest may be destroyed by 2030, leading to greater risks of new disease outbreaks in the future, according to the World Wildlife Fund. This would make the Philippines a potential “thriving site” due to the country’s deforestation activities. Based on the estimates of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), about 47,000 hectares of forest cover is lost each year, attributed primarily to widespread illegal logging and weak safeguard in protected areas. The continuing deforestation in the country could make the Philippines more vulnerable to the emergence of new infectious diseases, as it loses one of its main protective barriers from possible outbreaks. The DENR-Biodiversity Management Bureau reported that the forest cover in the country declined from 21 million hectares, or 70 percent of its land area, in 1990 to about 6.5 million hectares by 2007.

Pandemic and wildlife trade

The proximity between people and wildlife carries huge disease risks. World Health Organization found that infectious diseases cause about a quarter of human deaths. About 60% of mortalities were zoonotic in origin. Of the zoonoses, more than 70% were from wildlife. Specifically, both SARS and COVID-19 are types of coronavirus that have been traced to wildlife trading activities in China. The virus may have spilled over to humans from an animal and “evolved” after infecting people. Putting stressed, injured, and sick animals into cages together is an "incubator" for new deadly pathogens.

A 2019 United Nations (UN) report indicated that illicit poaching and trafficking of wildlife worldwide continue to thwart conservation efforts, with nearly 7,000 species of animals and plants reported in illegal trade involving 120 countries. Over the past decade, the illegal wildlife trade, which is a multibillion-dollar industry, has become substantially worse and more organized. This traction has been partly due to a lack of collective and sufficient action from authorities worldwide. With this global illegal shipping of wildlife, from Africa or Asia, and to different parts of the world, the pandemic is going to be a chronic threat.

The Philippines has been identified as a consumer, source, and transshipment point of illegally traded wildlife products and by-products used for furniture displays, accessories, and jewelry, medicine, or “mystical cure”. In a paper published in 2019, the Asian Development Bank noted that the value of wildlife trade in the Philippines is estimated at ₱50 billion a year (roughly equivalent to $1 billion), which includes the damage to habitats incurred during poaching, the market value of wildlife and its resources, and loss in potential ecotourism revenues. The top three illegally traded species in the country by number of confiscated individuals from 2010 to 2019 were the Palawan pangolin, the common hill myna, and the tokay gecko, based on the DENR-Biodiversity Management Bureau data.

Time for real change

It’s totally understandable how the global community is desperate to discover a cure or treatment for COVID-19. But a disease- or germ- specific response is never going to be enough in the long run. A single vaccine or medicine is not a “blanket cure” to all pandemics. We need bold and clearer policy shifts to protect the people, wildlife, and the environment.

In a highly globalized world, a single country response is clearly insufficient. The international community through UN agency and its mechanisms must intensify a more solid and collective action with a sense of urgency. Pandemic risks as part of existing Global Health Security Agenda must be seriously revisited. The reduction and ultimate loss of natural capital can have extreme consequences on human health and security. Hence, developing sustainable and effective solutions needs recognition of the larger factors of underlying global biodiversity loss and its impact on global health.

Global unity is a crucial element here not political division. The political chaos between the US and China would be a barrier to attaining bolder steps to address biodiversity loss. We’ve observed US leaders pointing the fingers at the Chinese government without recognizing how the global economy drives the wildlife trade. The tepid policy response of the Chinese government to wildlife trade was very apparent. They should have learned from the past failure during the SARS pandemic, but they still had allowed wildlife trade in its territory. It’s time to stop our own insatiable demand and disregard for the world’s wildlife. That means halting illegal wildlife trade and the supply chain and providing alternative livelihood support for those who depend on these activities.

COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic. If we fail to solve the systemic causes, new ones will surely emerge, more fatal, and even more damaging to our economy. We are part of nature where our health is connected to the health of wildlife, and the entire well-being of the environment. Let’s remember that a healthy natural environment is our real first line of defense against the pandemic.

Romulo Nieva Jr. is a public health professional and currently a doctoral research scholar at the University of Otago in New Zealand.