Trade and consumption of high-risk wildlife, land-use change leading to deforestation and conversion, expansion of agriculture, and unsustainable intensification and animal production are some of the key drivers behind the spread of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, and if urgent actions are not taken, more such outbreaks cannot be ruled out.
“High-risk trade and consumption of wildlife, deforestation and land conversion as well as unsustainable food production are some of the factors behind outbreaks of zoonotic diseases like SARS, MERS and now COVID-19. Curbing these practices will help prevent the spillover of pathogens to humans, and also address other global risks to our society like biodiversity loss and climate change,” WWF-Pakistan Director General Hammad Naqi Khan said through an online news conference on Wednesday.
He said that at a time when the world continues to grapple with the devastating consequences of COVID-19, they urge the world for immediate global action to address the key drivers it has identified, which will cause future zoonotic disease outbreaks.
He said that in a new report “COVID-19: urgent call to protect people and nature”, the WWF had identified “illegal trade and consumption of high-risk wildlife, land-use change leading to deforestation and conversion, expansion of agriculture, and unsustainable intensification and animal production” as the leading the environmental factors driving the emergence of zoonotic diseases in the world.
Numerous warnings from scientists and thought leaders, such as the World Economic Forum (WEF), have been made about the risk of a global pandemic. The WEF ranked pandemics and infectious diseases as one of the top global risks over a decade ago, posing “an acute threat to human life”, he added.
Khan maintained that the COVID-19 pandemic was causing huge loss of life and increasing untold suffering of families due the global economic shock that was destroying jobs and livelihoods.
“The longer the crisis continues, the greater the threat will be to global peace, security and stability. The COVID-19 health crisis reconfirms how people and nature are interlinked, and how our negative impact on the natural world increases the risk of future pandemics.”
“We must urgently recognise the links between the destruction of nature and human health, or we will soon see the next pandemic. We must curb the high-risk trade and consumption of wildlife, halt deforestation and land conversion as well as manage food production sustainably. All these actions will help prevent the spillover of pathogens to humans, and also address other global risks to our society like biodiversity loss and climate change.”
The WWF-Pakistan director general maintained that questions remained about the exact origins of COVID-19, but all available evidence suggested that it was a zoonotic disease, meaning it jumped from wildlife to humans.
The government of China announced a comprehensive ban on the consumption of wild animals on 24 February, which the WWF supported, and now the National People’s Congress was supporting the revision of the existing law on the protection of wildlife, which, if implemented in full, could position China’s Wildlife Protection Law as one of the world’s most robust and stringent. Other governments must also follow suit and close their high-risk wildlife markets and end this trade once and for all.
Speaking on the occasion, Dr Babar Khan, director wildlife, WWF-Pakistan, said that the risk of a new zoonotic disease emerging in the future was higher than ever, with the potential to wreak havoc on health, economies and global security.
He was of the view that the COVID-19 crisis demonstrates that systemic changes must be made to address the environmental drivers of pandemics. “Now is the time for transformative action to protect natural ecosystems in order to reduce the risk of future pandemics and build towards nature positive, carbon neutral, sustainable and just societies,” he added.
However, addressing high-risk wildlife trade and consumption in isolation will not be enough to prevent the next pandemic – the unsustainable global food system is driving large-scale conversion of natural spaces for agriculture, fragmenting natural ecosystems and increasing interactions between wildlife, livestock and humans. Since 1990, 178 million hectares of forest have been cleared, which is equivalent to the size of Libya, the 18th largest country in the world, and around 10 million hectares of forest are still being lost each year through conversion to agriculture and other land uses.
A current tragedy is unfolding too in Brazil with a surge in deforestation accelerating due to cuts in enforcement by the federal government, and this was after a 64 per cent increase in deforestation had already been seen in April compared to last year.
The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates that systemic changes must be made to address the environmental drivers of pandemics. The WWF is advocating a ‘One Health’ approach linking the health of people, animals and our shared environment and wants this to be included in decision making on wildlife and land use change. This should also be incorporated within all business and financing decisions, particularly related to global health.
“In the midst of this tragedy there is an opportunity to heal our relationship with nature and mitigate risks of future pandemics, but a better future starts with the decisions governments, companies and people around the world take today,” said Marco Lambertini, director general, WWF International. “World leaders must take urgent action to transform our relationship with the natural world. We need a need a new deal for nature and people that sets nature on the path to recovery by 2030 and safeguards human health and livelihoods in the long-term.”
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