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While it may not be obvious, what this global pandemic has confirmed is that human health and well-being are tightly linked to how we treat our environment. Yesterday (April 22) was recognised as Environment Day, and it is appropriate that we should be mindful of the link between environmental conservation and reducing the risk of disease outbreaks. Given the current dilemma, one could argue that the fate of humankind has been put at risk because of how we have mistreated our natural systems. This may not be obvious at the moment, given that what currently dominates the news, and every facet of our daily lives, is the ongoing human health concerns related to the impact of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its resultant disease, COVID-19.
As it relates to this new coronavirus, there are several theories circulating about the possible source of transmission of the virus from animal to humans (zoonosis). Zoonosis (plural zoonoses, or zoonotic diseases) is an infectious disease caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites that spread from non-human animals to humans. In this case, the most popular theory suggests that the virus may have been present in a wet market in Wuhan, China. A wet market is typically a public, live-animal market in which vendors slaughter animals upon a customer’s purchase. Scientists believe the deadly illness jumped to humans from wild animals, most likely via an intermediary species, like bats. Close contact with wild animals at the market, which has been closed since January, has been widely blamed for the outbreak. Scientists have suggested that the scaly anteater (otherwise called a pangolin) may have been the intermediate host between bats and humans. Wet markets have also been suggested as the source of the first SARS outbreak in 2002. While plausible, it should be noted that these are still just theories, and what is known is that the virus emerged in the wet market in Wuhan, where an infected individual triggered the spread of this disease.
How is the spread of COVID-19 linked to environmental conservation? It has long been shown that hunting, farming and the movement of people to cities all over the planet, have led to massive declines in biodiversity and increased the risk of dangerous viruses like COVID-19 spilling over from animals to humans. This has been confirmed by a recent study, where the authors show, based on previous examples, that the impact of habitat destruction and unsustainable trade of wildlife increase the likelihood of these events occurring. The study suggested that the underlying cause of the present pandemic is likely to be repeated due to this increased human contact with wildlife ( https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.2736). Ebola is another example of zoonotic diseases that was linked to habitat destruction and improper preparation and consumption of wild animals.
International organisations, also, are weighing in on this link between protecting the environment and preventing pandemics. The World Bank recently released an article that emphasised the fact that increased exposure to wildlife poses health, biosafety and global security risks. The United Nations Environment Programme also published a statement (via Twitter) suggesting that in order to prevent zoonoses like COVID-19 from emerging, it is important to address the multiple and often interacting threats to ecosystems and wildlife, including habitat loss and fragmentation, illegal trade, pollution, invasive species and climate change. In addition, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services was asked by Germany to begin gathering the relevant scientific information that can be used for developing policy options to prevent pandemics, and protect people and nature.
Closer to home, one might be tempted to say, ‘Yes, we know this started from over there in foreign, but what do environmental protection and sustainable ways of operating have to do with Jamaica at this time?’. The obvious answer is that a strong, healthy environment, including biodiverse forests and marine life, would make Jamaica much more resilient in the face of this pandemic. For example, if we had paid better attention to how we manage our waste, including reducing the incidents of fires at Riverton Dump, there would be less stress on air quality. Similarly, if we properly enforced the rules governing mining operations (bauxite, limestone, sand) to reduce the dust nuisance, thus preventing impacts to the respiratory health of citizens, perhaps they might be able to withstand the negative impacts of the disease, if exposed.
If Jamaica had truly taken a sustainable and scientific approach to agriculture, including applying post-harvest techniques for products, or modern, logistical approaches for storage and distribution from farm to consumers, then perhaps there would be better domestic food security, and the ability to feed the local population. If we had not overfished our coastal waters and also collapsed our conch fishery, then perhaps there would be reliable sources of seafood that could support subsistence needs for protein, as well as for sale to Jamaicans. If we had diversified our economy away from a heavy reliance on tourism, that is mainly based on all-inclusive hotels and cruise shipping, both now closed, then perhaps the negative social and economic impacts to Jamaica may have been less severe. Ignoring urban planning that takes into consideration a balance between dense construction and the provision of green spaces has led to crowding and possibly higher transmission rates, while limiting the ability for people to get outdoors while still socially distancing. If we had taken care of our protected forests, such as Cockpit Country or Long Mountain, that contribute to the provision of fresh water, then perhaps there would be less uncertainty with regard to water security and the ability of citizens to properly wash and sanitise as part of reducing transmission of the disease.
This global pandemic is the stressor that has shone a light on the collective weaknesses in our systems in Jamaica, as well as other parts of the world, including so-called developed countries. Of course, this includes better treatment of our natural environment, because mistreating Mother Nature can have deadly consequences. While we work to manage the ravages of this pandemic, Jamaica should adopt the global mantra of #BuildBackBetter.
We have to raise our individual environmental awareness so that we each reduce our negative impacts to nature. It also means each Jamaican should apply public pressure to the private-sector and government agencies, with an aim of encouraging systemic changes to one put in place to improve national resilience. Collective action can lead to improvements to health and education, better options for public transportation, better control of pollution that impacts human health (including respiratory issues), and better control of the importation of exotic diseases via plants and animals. These are but a few examples of how a strong and resilient environment can assist in buffering the negative impacts of a pandemic that affect broad areas of everyday life.
Dr Peter E. T. Edwards