For too long, we have treated the natural world as an infinite commodity. In the wake of uncontrolled population growth and human consumption, we have destroyed natural habitats to create homes in cities and suburbs, and for large commercial farms that produce agriculture and livestock. This habitat erosion is decimating wildlife populations and rendering the surviving animals homeless, which also puts humans at risk.
With fewer barriers between us and animals, viruses can more easily cross the species barrier to become zoonoses.
In the most recent example, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Wednesday to remove 23 other animals and plants from the endangered species list because they are extinct. Included on this list is the ivory-beaked woodpecker, which stretched from the coast of North Carolina to east Texas before slaughter and slaughter for private collectors and hat makers did. decrease the population. Hawaii had a total of eight birds listed as extinct, including the Kaua’i ‘o’o, which is known to have a beautiful flute-like call, as invasive species and warming temperatures have allowed mosquitoes to carry diseases to access heights they were once unable to reach.
Habitat loss and climate change are burning the candle at both ends, leading to the tragedy of extinction while increasing the amount of contact between humans, livestock and animals that remain. These complex dynamics then fuel infections of animal origin – in the form of viruses like Covid-19. With fewer barriers between us and animals, viruses can more easily cross the species barrier to become zoonoses, a term for infectious diseases from animals to humans that will inevitably become more familiar to everyone in the world. years to come.
As our nation reckons with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, we must also recognize the bigger picture: The proliferation of animal diseases that trigger horrific pandemics will intensify as human activity continues to increase. alter and destroy the delicate ecosystems of the natural world. . We cannot afford to talk about Covid without also talking about climate change.
Admittedly, there is still a lot of debate about the precise origins of this pandemic. The “lab leak” theory regarding the Wuhan Institute of Technology is under investigation, and last May a group of 18 international scientists wrote a letter to Science saying, “We need to take the assumptions seriously. on natural and laboratory impacts ”. At the same time, a group of researchers concluded that climate-induced changes in the global distribution of bats suggest that “climate change may have played a key role in the evolution or transmission of SARS-CoV- 1 and SARS-CoV-2 “. the latter being the specific viral strain at the origin of the current pandemic.
Whatever the ultimate origins of the coronavirus, it is clear that we need to prepare for more pandemics. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has determined that 70 percent of new diseases that have appeared in humans are of animal origin. According to many studies, our dependence on animal meat has a causal relationship with pandemics, for example. Although this causation is complex, it is linked both to the destruction of habitat necessitated by factory farming and to the scale of production and overcrowding on factory farms, which creates an environment in which which viruses can more easily grow and spread to humans.
One such example is swine flu, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated to have infected 60.8 million people in the United States alone. With more than 9 billion animals raised and slaughtered in the United States for human consumption each year, and 41 percent of all American soil used for cattle grazing or for the production of animal feed, agriculture Modern animal life is essentially a breeding ground for more global epidemics.
In 2019, more than 30 scientists wrote a passionate (and terrifying) consensus statement in Nature outlining a wide range of additional reasons for concern about the myriad ways people are altering the ecosystem – and how that could lead to more. great spread of disease among humans.
Greenhouse gas emissions and warming temperatures are increasing the regions in which viruses thrive. Warmer days in historically colder regions facilitate the spread of disease vectors (an organism that transmits disease), such as migrating animals and birds, which then accelerate and expand transmission. This month, a study published in the journal Ambio raised concerns that changing winter weather patterns in northern ecosystems alone would result in high human zoonotic risk.
Before Covid, the world was already battling many viral epidemics, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Zika and Ebola. According to the World Health Organization, around 1 billion cases of disease and millions of deaths already occur each year from zoonoses. In the modern age, these diseases have had a relatively minimal impact in the United States, and therefore most public discourse has overlooked the larger pattern they have revealed.
Now, with the rampant effects of climate change and Covid, none of us are or will be unscathed.
If all this doesn’t get you thinking, a guest report released last year by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services said that up to 1.7 million unidentified viruses that can infect humans still exist in mammals and waterfowl, and that “Any of these could be the next ‘Disease X’ – potentially even more disruptive and deadly than COVID-19.” Future pandemics are expected to occur more frequently, spread faster, have a greater economic impact, and kill more people. “
As we continue to fight the devastation of the pandemic and severe weather events, it is imperative that we integrate climate action into Covid recovery plans. These problems cannot be solved in isolation.
Resources abound: The EPA will help you calculate your carbon footprint, and the New York Times can suggest ways to reduce it. The Harvard School of Public Health suggests ways to cut down on red meat. The BBC can help you calculate your food footprint. You can reach out to your elected officials to insist that they support President Joe Biden’s efforts to reduce emissions and create new clean energy jobs. Ultimately, all of our lives are in danger and we need to think about our consumption and choices, from food and travel, to voting and investing.
Without a doubt, Covid will not be the last pandemic we will face. As a palliative care physician who has cared for deceased Covid patients for a year and a half, I am grieved to face more devastating losses from future pandemics and the worsening impact of climate change. There is some groundwork ahead and the time to act is now. Because from what I saw in the hospital, the disaster is already here.