Coronavirus is a warning to us to mend our broken relationship with nature

The world must embrace a recovery that involves sustainable farming and clean energy. Anything else is a false economy

By Marco Lambertini, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema and Maria Neira
17 Jun 2020

In 1997, a large area of rainforest in south-east Asia was burned to the ground to make way for palm oil plantations. A combination of deforestation, forest fires and drought are believed to have forced hundreds of fruit bats away from their natural habitats towards fruit orchards planted in close proximity to intensive pig farms. These conditions led to the emergence of the Nipah virus, which spilled over from infected bats to pigs, and from pigs to pig farmers. Over the next two years, the disease would kill more than 100 people. This should have served as a warning.

Now, 20 years later, we are facing a health crisis of an altogether different scale, with Covid-19 causing the most tragic health, social and economic crisis in living memory.

We have seen many diseases emerge over the years – such as Zika, Aids, Sars and Ebola – and although they are quite different at first glance, they all originated from animal populations under conditions of severe environmental pressures. And they all illustrate that our destructive behaviour towards nature is endangering our own health – a stark reality we’ve been collectively ignoring for decades. Research indicates that most emerging infectious diseases are driven by human activities.

The unsafe handling, consumption and trade in high-risk wildlife species is just one example of the ways in which our broken relationship with nature is affecting human health. In many countries, wild animals are captured and brought live to markets to be sold. However, unless well-managed and regulated, these markets can pose a significant risk to humans, wildlife and livestock, by bringing high-risk species – many of which are endangered – into close contact with other animals, wild and domesticated, and people, thereby creating the conditions for disease spillover.

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