The sanitary, economic and social crisis we are living in as a result of the Covid-19 emergence, reflects our interconnectedness with nature. Events such as this one have become, and will become, increasingly more frequent as the barriers between humans and wildlife diminish as we continue to harvest resources from the natural world in an unsustainable manner.
Our high demands for food have driven large-scale conversions of land for intensive agriculture and have consequently contributed to habitat fragmentation, known as being not only one of today’s top causes for the loss of biodiversity worldwide, but as a means of facilitating the transmission of diseases from wildlife to humans, a “spillover”. Interactions like these have been seen before between fruit bats and primates in West and Central Africa where their proximity to humans, as a result of deforestation, caused the Ebola virus to jump to local communities causing 11,325 deaths during the two-year outbreak that started in 2014. Land fragmentation is associated to an increased transmission of diseases as altering natural habitats reduces the space available for endemic species to occupy, meaning that more wildlife is confined to smaller spaces, often shared with humans unfortunately.
As for Covid-19, direct human contact with bats in wildlife markets is considered as one of the primary causes for the outbreak. The unhygienic and crowded conditions present in those environments provide viruses with ideal opportunities to infect new hosts. The consumption of bat meat as well as meat from other wild, non-farmed species is either linked to culinary traditions present in certain countries or to more vital necessities for communities living in rural areas of undeveloped countries. This taste for wild meat has grown is certain parts of the world due to both its economic value and the associated status symbol, without being aware of the negative health implications that come with it.
Bats have been responsible for the emergence of over 200 zoonotic diseases as they are known to be natural reservoir hosts. Their highly mobile nature allows them to easily spread viruses to a variety of different environments as well as more urban settings. The easiest and most obvious solution might seem to eliminate the issue is through culling, but this has often resulted in colonies migrating and shedding the viruses they carry to new areas. Viruses naturally occur within forests and the removal of species forces them to move to new hosts which may include livestock and consequently humans. Respecting boundaries and granting wild species access to natural, untouched areas is vital. This becomes more challenging as urbanisation and the global population continues to grow and the demand for natural resources increases.
To work towards global food security whilst allowing the natural world to flourish, adopting systematic change from governmental bodies and companies to individual members of the public is key. A first and easy step to implement is raising awareness about these mechanisms in nature, as I am doing myself. Facts about the natural world and in science in general are constantly evolving as we continue to see with today’s pandemic. As consumers, our buying behaviour influences the wellbeing of the planet every day. In most cases we have the opportunity make more sustainable choices in buying products that have caused less damage to the environment from the methods they were created with, to those used to dispose of them.
Larger organisations can also play a role in the protection of our planet by adopting a “One-health” approach which involves incorporating the health of the environment in making key decisions as we would with our own. Ensuring that the activities of all business prioritise minimising their impact on the environment should now be of first importance. The rate at which natural resources are harvested from the environment to create our everyday products must be drastically slowed down, for the long-term survival of both humans and the species living in those ecosystems. The interdependence between the urban and natural worlds is now clearer than ever.
Governments should also enforce laws and restrictions to protect natural environments and preserve biodiversity, so that companies and individuals can follow. Their role and efforts should specifically involve ending the wildlife trade to avoid spillover opportunities and finding financial alternatives and providing support to those communities that depend on it. Incentivising businesses to revolutionize their activities in order to eliminate deforestation and land conversion though economic recovery packages, have already been provided by the EU for example, with 750 billion euros to be handed to the European Green Deal. Alongside this, although the consequences of wild meat consumption now seem to be clear, governments should focus on enforcing this and reducing the demand through education and public campaigns.
Covid-19 should serve as a wake-up call and signal the start of a transition to more sustainable everyday choices and to stricter regulations and monitoring of human-wildlife interactions.