Pandemics could happen more often in future, kill more people and wreak even worse damage on the global economy.
The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a massive blow to our ways of life worldwide, and although the death toll has remained relatively low compared to some of the worst pandemics in the past we will have a long way to go before things can return to normal.
Then again, normalcy may remain an elusive dream, according to the United Nations, which has warned that pandemics could happen more often in future, kill more people and wreak even worse damage on the global economy. The reason: massive biodiversity loss through the destruction of wildlife habitats.
“There is no great mystery about the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic — or any modern pandemic,” Peter Daszak, president of the Ecohealth Alliance, said during a panel discussion of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). “The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk though their impacts on our agriculture.”
According to experts who have written a new report for IPBES, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has been the sixth such pandemic since the devastating influenza outbreak of 1918, popularly known as the “Spanish flu,” and all these pandemics have been “entirely driven by human activities.”
And we have hardly seen the worst of it yet. An estimated 850,000 viruses exist in a variety of animals and many of them could make the species jump to humans in coming years and decades — a prospect that poses an existential threat to us as we would lack any sort of immunity to these new viruses.
Yet our activities are bringing us into ever closer contact with these pathogens, which could then be spread globally in no time at all. Deforestation, the illegal wildlife trade and the consumption of wildlife are all potential sources of new viral infections in people, experts stress.
“Seventy percent of emerging diseases — such as Ebola, Zika and HIV/AIDS — are zoonotic in origin, meaning they circulate in animals before jumping to humans,” IPBES explains. “Around five new diseases break out among humans every single year, any one of which has the potential to become a pandemic.”
More than three-quarters of land on the planet has already been severely degraded by human activity, according to the agency’s experts. “One-third of land surface and three-quarters of fresh water on the planet is currently taken up by farming, and humanity’s resource use has rocketed up 80 percent in just three decades,” they explained.
By conserving what is left of biodiversity and managing wildlife-rich areas far more sustainably, we can forestall the outbreaks of devastating diseases before it is too late.
“Our health, wealth and wellbeing relies on the health, wealth and wellbeing of our environment,” stresses Nick Ostle, a researcher at the Lancaster Environment Centre of Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. “The challenges of this pandemic have highlighted the importance of protecting and restoring our globally important and shared environmental ‘life-support’ systems,” he says.