The Covid-19 pandemic has plunged us into a world where we can no longer ignore the havoc that humankind has wreaked on the planet. While theories abound about the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, from lab leakages to markets selling live wild animals, we don’t have incontrovertible evidence for any particular theory.
What we do know, however, is that there are similarities between previous deadly viruses, such as Ebola, SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, H1N1 and Avian Flu, and SARS-CoV-2. Were these viral epidemics precursors to the pandemic that has become a global health catastrophe? At the time of publication, we are looking at 180 million confirmed cases, with close to four million lives lost (Source: WHO Covid-19 dashboard). India has seen 30 million cases and 3,96,730 deaths (Source: WHO). The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that economic losses from the pandemic could reach $9 trillion, in the next two years.
Our everyday vocabulary now includes words such as oxygen saturation levels, fomites, and zoonosis, terms previously used only by scientists. What is zoonosis? The WHO defines a zoonosis as an infectious disease that has jumped from a non-human animal to humans. In other words, when pathogens such as bacteria, viruses and parasites jump directly or indirectly from an animal host to humans, they result in zoonotic diseases. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP), in its 2020 paper on “Preventing the Next Pandemic – Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission,” estimates that of all new and emerging human infectious diseases, 75 per cent ‘jump species,’ from other animals to people.
What is at the heart of this alarming escalation in zoonotic diseases? Studies have shown a clear link between the way people source and grow food, trade, and consume animals, the unsustainable exploitation of the environment, and the rise in zoonoses. A 2004 Lancet paper linked the outbreak of SARS and the H5N1 bird flu to wet markets. But wet markets are just the tip of the iceberg. Any system that where people come into contact with an extremely high density of animals – such as intensive farming systems – allows viruses to jump without meeting any significant resistance.
Despite several studies that demonstrate this link, the global demand for meat continues to grow, and is estimated to reach 453 million tonnes by 2030. Rainforests are rapidly being cleared to grow feed to sustain the livestock industry. Animal agriculture is responsible for 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. A World Health Organisation (WHO) paper makes the connection between changing weather patterns, land use, food production practices, habitat, and other human disturbances to natural ecosystems, and the spread of zoonotic diseases. Climate change acts as a “threat multiplier” for the rise and spread of zoonotic diseases.
The interconnectedness of larger environmental issues, biodiversity, and emerging infectious diseases can no longer be denied. The scientific and medical community is right now, understandably, focused on containing the current Covid-19 pandemic through early detection, limiting its spread, and rapid deployment of vaccines. But there’s a need for policy makers to focus on the big picture.
We cannot find a lasting solution without fundamental changes to the way in which human beings relate to animals and the environment. This calls for national and international laws to strengthen the protection of wildlife and habitats. The exponential growth in the consumption of meat needs to stop, and alternatives made affordable and accessible, especially to the most vulnerable populations. Alternative sustainable livelihoods need to be found for people who are engaged in occupations that harm animals and biodiversity. Human, animal, and environmental health needs to be addressed as a whole – and not in silos.
But beyond policy changes, beyond legal frameworks, we need to look at our own attitudes towards those with whom we share this planet. If we can view the current pandemic as a result of our own callousness towards the animal world and the environment, then we might start introspecting on the changes we need to make in our everyday behaviour. Our own desire to be healthy – and to stop the progress of zoonotic diseases – might inspire personal changes in our consumption patterns, the food we eat, and the natural resources we use.
And that could be the start of an exciting journey to living in harmony with the natural world.
(The author is the Director – Outreach of the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO). Views are personal)