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Covid's Lessons for Humanity

Five environmental lessons coronavirus needs to teach humanity.

“We must become more proactive to avoid another pandemic and address endemic zoonotic diseases,” said Inger Andersen of the UN Environment Program. “This means recognizing that human health, animal health and planetary health cannot be separated, and planning our responses accordingly.”

Since the new coronavirus began its remorseless journey around the globe, scientists have documented the ways that the virus emerged from - and worsened because of - human interaction with the air we breathe, the food we eat, the wild spaces that surround us. The 5 key lessons they’ve learned are:

Clean The Air

Most people on the planet have enjoyed the impact of cleaner air, from simply breathing in fresher air to being able to see distant mountains that were once invisible because of smog. We all know that air pollution causes many of the underlying conditions, like lung and heart disease, that makes coronavirus lethal for some patients. But that’s not the only way COVID-19 interacts with air pollution.

Early in Italy’s outbreak, a team of scientists led by the University of Bologna’s Leonardo Setti found COVID-19 attached to particles of air pollution in Bergamo. Setti’s discovery raises the possibility that COVID-19 travels on particulate air pollution, so clean air would reduce the risk of spreading infections too. This underscores that clean air is good for both planetary health and human health.

Preserve Wild Spaces

In the wake of HIV, Ebola and SARS, scientists documented a potential path for viruses from bats, who have an enviable immunity to them, through other mammals to humans. Some scientists and doctors have further argued that path is paved by deforestation.

“Deforestation and the sale of live wild animals or bushmeat, such as bats and monkeys, make the emergence of new viruses inevitable, while population growth, dense urbanization and human migration make their spread easier,” said Dr. Seth Berkley, head of the GAVI Alliance, a non-profit international vaccine initiative, writing in Scientific American.

Bats are not the problem, scientists agree. In fact, their immune systems may hold the answer to viral epidemics, they are not the primary carrier of these viruses to humans, and when these zoonotic diseases do reach humans, it is typically through human activity.

In recent weeks, there has been considerable coverage about European governments, and others around the world, looking to preserve 30 per cent of the planet's oceans and land as wild space. If acted upon, this would be very good news in the fight to help avert the climate crisis and reduce the risk of further pandemics. Indeed, there's a strong case that we need to broaden our notion of 'health'.

Broaden our Notion of Health

“COVID-19 is one of the worst zoonotic diseases, but it is not the first,” said Anderson. “Ebola, SARS, MERS, HIV, Lyme disease, Rift Valley fever and Lassa fever preceded it. In the last century we have seen at least six major outbreaks of novel coronaviruses. Sixty per cent of known infectious diseases and 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic."

There are many solutions, Anderson said, which also serve as solutions for climate change and biodiversity loss: stop exploiting wildlife and natural resources, farm sustainably, reverse land degradation and protect ecosystem health.

But Anderson believes we also must stop thinking of human health separately from animal health and environmental health. “Part of this process is the urgent adoption of integrated human, animal and environmental health expertise and policy – a One Health approach. One Health is not new, but uneven uptake and institutional support means it hasn’t hit its potential. The weakest link in the chain is environmental health. We have to fix this.”

Just Eat Plants

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called in April for the closure of live-animal markets like the one in Wuhan where COVID-19 is believed to have leapt from animals to humans: “I think they should shut down those things right away,” he said on Fox News. “It boggles my mind when you have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface that we don’t just shut it down.”

But some doctors see little distinction between Wuhan’s live-animal market and the live-animal slaughterhouses and meat processing centers in the West. “Multiple outbreaks of COVID-19 among meat and poultry processing facility workers have occurred in the United States recently,” the CDC reported.

Whilst 'just eating plants' may be too big a jump for many people, it's very clear that humanity needs to reassess its food sources. Otherwise a recent article in the Journal of Disease Reversal and Prevention written by a group of Chicago doctors may be a prediction of our future lives as vegetarians.

“Given that the two largest pandemics in the past 100 years revolve around our food choices - specifically, the consumption of animals - we would propose a global moratorium on this, and re-evaluation of our food sources and nutritional choices.”

Listen To Science

On the positive side, the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated a human ability to respond to environmental threats at the individual level on a global scale.

“The words widely spoken these five months have been identical” to the messaging around climate change, said Princeton theoretical physicist Robert Socolow, who has focused in his career on human interactions with their natural environment. “You must listen to the scientists. But in this case the scientists have been listened to.”

Unfortunately, thus far, we only seem willing to listen when faced with imminent threats, letting long-term threats like climate change, biodiversity loss and plastic pollution worsen.

“It's very hard for the human brain to get very excited about things that aren't happening now,” Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert told NPR.

The big question is, can humanity unite (on an individual level and at a government level) to seriously and urgently address pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss? There's been a lot of promises. The time has come to deliver on those promises. The good news is that there seems to have been a seismic opinion shift in the right direction...

Original article: Forbes


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