All life is interconnected and humans are inseparably linked to this web of life. Our existence is dependent on natural ecosystems which comprise the community of interacting living organisms and their physical environment. Natural ecosystems provide us with food, shelter, clothing, medicine and a myriad of ecological services from water and air purification, to pollination, to decomposition of organic waste. Unfortunately, abusing our natural capital is creating devastating crises such as climate change, ozone depletion, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and emergent disease epidemics.
According to Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, the world is facing its greatest crisis since World War II. This pandemic is taking a devastating toll on the health of millions, the world economy, and societies worldwide. Developing countries with meager resources to deal with this crisis are especially vulnerable. Although the origin of COVID-19 is not yet clear, many scientists have linked the emergence of other coronaviruses – which originate in animals before jumping to humans – to the destruction of biodiversity which has created the conditions for these new viruses to emerge. Undisturbed ecosystems provide a safeguard against emergent diseases; however, in many countries, human intervention is having a profound negative impact. By destroying and invading new territories especially in tropical forests, humans are disturbing ecosystems, which allows many unknown viruses escape their natural hosts and cross species boundaries.
Scientists suggest that viruses such as bird flu, SARS, MERS, Ebola, and, most recently, COVID-19 emerge by spreading from animals to humans. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 75% of all emergent diseases that infect humans are estimated to originate from animals. Rabies and plague are excellent examples of diseases that have crossed from animals to humans with devastating effects. In the 14th century, it is estimated that the plague (also known as the black death) resulted in the death of millions of people, wiping out 30 to 50% of Europe’s population.
According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, in order to reduce the chance of a pandemic like COVID-19 we should work to preserve the remaining undisturbed ecosystems, stop wildlife consumption, and, in short, stop destroying nature. The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of our inseparable connection to nature, and the devastating effect that mismanaging that relationship can have. Let us learn from the current crisis and recognize that in protecting nature we are also protecting ourselves.
Dr. Tanos G. Hage
Associate Professor, Department of Sciences, Faculty of Natural and Applied Sciences