By Hannah Comiskey
The chapter of 2020 was written off by many before it had even ended. Branded as the year where ‘time stood still’, the locked-down world watched disaster after disaster roll in like each was another twist in the latest binge-worthy Netflix show. However, amongst the wild-fires, police brutality, racial oppression and the US Presidential drama, the Coronavirus Pandemic was the one 2020 channel that you couldn’t switch off no matter where or who you were in the world.
Lockdowns, distancing and masks are the ‘new norm’. Yet even with the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine, we risk losing sight of the fact that these measures are a mere band-aid on the underlying issues driving 21st century pandemics. While all eyes are fixated on the immediate issue of suppressing the current virus, in the shadows remains the deforestation and callous agricultural practises which are at the heart of the current pandemic. These exploitative practises have been sowing the seeds for our own destruction for decades. Yet even with the fruition of a pandemic as socially and economically debilitating as Covid-19, we seem reluctant to confront its root cause as one partly of our own making.
Although Covid-19 and its devastating impact on our cushy St Andrews student way of life may be new, the impact of humanities destructive practises in fuelling pandemics are not. The growth in zoonotic diseases, which are transmissible from animals to humans, has been the price to pay for our greed. Like all recent serious pandemics; Ebola, HIV, SARS and Swine Flu, Covid-19 has been linked back to our incredible draining of nature’s resources. Cramped livestock conditions and displaced wild animals are providing the perfect conditions for zoonotic germs to spill into the human population, making Covid-19 the latest and deadliest outcome of our complacency towards change.
Organisations such as UNEP are already urging the world to address our exploitation of nature as the root cause of the current pandemic. With other experts in the field pointing to the fact that Covid-19 will likely not be the last time we face a debilitating pandemic in our lifetime. These cries add to a long list of distress signals, dating back decades, about the inevitability of a deadly pandemic sparked by human interference in the natural world. From the warning calls of the director general of WHO in 2010, Barack Obama in 2014 and Bill Gates in 2015, there has been a consistent preaching of the fact that a deadly pandemic was looming over humanity. And more disturbingly, a uniform alert to our lack of preparation for it.
Larry Brilliant’s 2006 TED talk stands as just one of countless others walking us step by step through a pandemic timeline terrifyingly accurate to what we all experienced with shock horror in 2020. The rapid worldwide spread, grounded airplanes and global depressions all for a virus with no vaccine were all predicted for the near future by 90% of the epidemiologists in Brilliant’s associated study. David Quammen’s 2012 book ‘Spillover’ further touches on everything from our growing livestock populations to habitat destruction in his outline of humanity’s role in promoting pandemics.
With the avalanche of warnings, the time to sit up, take heed and fundamentally change our practises was years ago. Instead of evolving our methods, humanity, with a finger in each ear, has continued to strip forests, butcher animals and expand rather than retract our harmful, pandemic promoting practises. We have just made it easier for the next virus to jump into our lives.
And operating under the cover of ignorance to its connection with pandemics, deforestation is further accelerating at an alarming rate to make room for our meat production. With 2020 worldwide rates reaching over 150% of the 2017-19 averages of the same months, we have to ask ourselves why the global outrage has not matched the damage caused.
In ignoring the distress signals of man made climate change for decades, Mother Nature has hit us with a pandemic protest that is even more deafening. From shrinking the biodiversity in our forests to melting the ice in our arctic, our relentless resource extraction has driven up production of greenhouse gases with no regard for any species but ourselves. Covid-19 now stands as the latest bite back from nature, in revenge for decades of human abuse. With close to a third of newly emerging diseases now being linked to large-scale deforestation, urbanisation and agriculture expansions, we cannot continue down our current path and expect to keep dodging pandemic bullets. Until we wake up from the sleep-walk that led us directly into it, deadly pandemics risk becoming a sustained ‘new normal’ for generations to come.
The consequences of rampant deforestation go deeper than the loss of a few unknown plants or brightly coloured animals. In fuelling greenhouse gases, soil erosion, flooding and climate change, the destruction of tropical rainforests threatens the sustainability of mankind as much as it does the 80% of world biodiversity which call these forests home.
This is because fundamentally, deforestation is breaking down the barriers that keep different species apart. And in doing so, it has opened the floodgates for diseases once confined to wildlife to silently leap into human populations. Bats, humans and livestock are becoming increasingly interactive because of our destruction of natural habitats and simultaneous expansions in urban and agricultural areas. Pushed out of their homes and into human environments, wild animals like bats take with them a plethora of deadly disease. Ready to spring from bat hosts to humans, Ebola, Nipah and Covid-19 are just a few which have so far made that leap.
But with each case, it was our deforestation that triggered and accelerated the spread of zoonotic disease. Combined with cramped factory farms and multi-species meat markets, we have provided the ideal breeding ground for virus mutation. Welcoming the spillover of bat pathogens into our population in a way which ultimately facilitated, rather than prevented, the jump in of Covid-19. A pandemic which, despite its 1% global death rate, has threatened near global collapse and caused immeasurable human and economic loss.
It is hard to imagine what life would have looked like if the current virus was much deadlier. How global economies would have coped if Covid-19 had been an ultimate killer. We have arguably yet again dodged a pandemic bullet, with the current pandemic standing as a warning rather than a wipe-out.
Despite this, humanity’s God-like complex seems to have no bounds. In the March 2020 depths of Covid-19, worldwide deforestation rates were reaching over 150% of the 2017-19 averages of the same months. It points to a continued ignorance towards the role deforestation, and indeed humanity, played in fuelling the current pandemic. In losing sight of our role in Covid-19, we risk losing an opportunity to change our ways while we still can. And the more we tempt fate with the virus that gets to us next.
Yet with a terrifying third of Earth’s land now being used for agriculture, it is clear that we have pursued an insatiable demand for meat with no regard for these consequences. Despite the fact that every human epidemic has stemmed from animals, we continue to add fuel to this fire with our ever expanding consumption of meat. Evermore ignoring the associated warning signs of climate change, antibiotics resistance or past near misses from viruses passed from livestock into humans.
From the factory farms in the States, to the wild meat markets in rural China and the deforestation neighbouring them both, there is a global complacency for how these human practises have once again led us into a pandemic. In 2003, it was the SARS outbreak tied to Chinese meat markets and the spill-over of bat pathogens from wild cats to humans. In 2009, it was Swine Flu originating in pig confinement in Mexico. And while bats have yet again been brandished as the public scapegoat for Covid-19 in 2020, it is time we re-shifted the public eye towards the real culprit.
We need to accept Covid-19 for what it really is: the latest and most severe symptom of an exploitation epidemic, much wider and deeply entrenched into human society than one isolated pandemic. In the case of Covid-19, it has highlighted the desperate need for greater regulation of rural Chinese meat markets. But on a wider scale, it brings into question our resource extraction and deep denial when it comes to changing our methods, and attitudes, towards the natural world.
Treating COVID-19 as ‘the problem’ is as alarming as it is short-sighted. It equates to continually crashing your car and taking the car to the repair shop rather than learning how to improve your dangerous driving, the real issue which needs to be addressed. You are the one in the driving seat, and until you adjust how you press the pedals and steer the wheel, you will continue to hit brick walls and bankrupt yourself on fixing the car. There are only so many times you can crash yet live to tell the tale. And when it comes to our planet, we are playing Russian roulette one forest at a time. ‘Beating’ Covid-19 may patch the paintwork, but a failure to address our role in what triggered the current pandemic makes it more a ‘when’ not an ‘if’ for the next one.
2021 offers the opportunity to reflect and rebalance our relationship with the natural world. To come together to fight off our unsustainable practises with as much force as we have towards the current virus. While it may have changed the world forever, now is the time to upgrade from reactive to proactive responses when it comes to pandemics. And finally confront the fact that we cannot thrive when the world around us is being ripped up by our own hands.
“The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.”