The devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have left us all wondering: What have we done wrong to create a global catastrophe that has killed more than a million people? The general public has been focusing on explanations related to the immediate present — that we have not taken the right precautions in social distancing or have not been testing the population thoroughly. But humans have had a long history with disease. Although COVID-19 has hit us the worst, it is only one of the many pandemics that have struck the globe in the last 20 years. There is another long-term cause of not just this pandemic, but the increased number of pandemics. That cause lies in how urbanization, economic development, and a societal shift toward environmental apathy have destroyed our interactions with the natural world.
The human relationship with disease has been divided into three transitions. The first marks the shift from foraging to agriculture. Prior to the advent of agriculture, our Paleolithic ancestors encountered novel patterns of disease as they moved into new ecological niches. However, the mobility, small group size, and low density of the human population prevented large disease outbreaks. But the shift to a sedentary lifestyle after the agricultural revolution caused a burst in population density, and we began domesticating animals that served as disease reservoirs. This led to increased exposure to disease vectors and contributed to the spread of infectious disease. That was the first transition. The second transition, which occurred in the last 100 years, was characterized by a decrease in infectious diseases as a result of higher standards of living and improved medical treatments. But now we enter the third transition in this model. It is characterized by the prominence of chronic, non-infectious diseases (such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes) augmented by the re-emergence of infectious diseases, many of which are new. The question now becomes: If we have made so many advances in healthcare and disease treatments, why have we regressed to a state similar to, or perhaps worse than, the first transition?
One answer to this question is a mass trend toward globalization and urbanization unlike that which existed 500 years ago. Globalization, industrialization, and urbanization have led us to encroach on natural environments, resulting in increased contact with wildlife that we would not encounter otherwise. A study published in April by researchers at Stanford University found that Ugandans who ventured into forested habitats to obtain wood and hunt had increased contact with primates. Such interactions enable diseases to jump from primates into humans, and they become more likely when human industries destroy natural habitats and traverse deeper into forested regions to obtain natural resources to fuel expansion and trade. Widespread contact between human communities and wildlife has left us prone to new diseases such as SARS.
Beyond just increased contact with wildlife, habitat destruction disrupts the natural balance in ways that can fuel pandemics. Human pressure on biodiversity through land-use change — resulting from agricultural expansion, logging, infrastructure development and other human activities — is the most common driver of infectious disease emergence, accounting for approximately one third of all emerging disease events. Almost any technological change is bound to upset the ecological adjustment which developed in times of relative stability. These stressors disrupt the environment’s infectious disease dynamics by changing the species composition of ecosystems to favor species that more frequently spread diseases to humans, such as bats, rodents, and birds.
It is important also to consider the severe inequality regarding who is most vulnerable to contracting the diseases that result from human pressure on biodiversity. For instance, people who live or work in agricultural land in Southeast Asia are on average 1.74 times more likely than others to be infected with a pathogen such as hookworm, malaria, and scrub typhus. This increased exposure is a result of deforestation and habitat disruption resulting from palm oil, rubber, and livestock farming. It is extremely unfortunate that the individuals who have few resources to combat the diseases are most susceptible, particularly when large companies are the actors catalyzing this environmental destruction.
There is an incredible amount of evidence documenting the negative effects of humans on the environment. So why is it that people are not acting to stop it? Perhaps this can be attributed to how society today has become numb to the overwhelming destruction that we have generated over the years. Although it may seem counterintuitive, researchers at Stanford University found that people stop paying attention to a problem when they realize there are no easy solutions for it. This suggests that apathy towards the problem of environmental destruction and the ignorance of leaders towards environmental issues could stem from a lack of clear and quick solutions.
The factors such as increased contact with wildlife and destruction of the environment created ample conditions for the emergence and spread of diseases such as COVID-19. But while we cannot reverse the damage already done, we can take measures to prevent this catastrophe from recurring.
The first approach is to start creating communication strategies to ensure that the public understands the far-reaching impacts of ecological destruction. We can work to make this less overwhelming by communicating that there are still ways to halt the destruction. This could fit very well with the Centers for Disease Control’s policy of OneHealth, which works at local and global levels to “achieve optimal health outcomes with the interconnection of animals, plants, and humans in mind.” Currently they do not have active policy targeting communication, but this could be a step in the right direction.
In addition, it is critical that we begin changing policy to reflect a commitment to halting and reversing biodiversity loss. The OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) is working to reform the biodiversity aspect of its Responsible Business Conduct standards, which could be implemented as companies are now redesigning their operations to reflect COVID-19 changes. Government implementation of these standards could ensure that companies reconsider ecologically damaging actions. Another way that governments could curb further destruction is by setting requirements for COVID-19 stimulus packages to ensure that a part of the resources are used to support biodiversity and other environmental objectives. The European Union has done this by requiring 30 percent of its pandemic recovery package to be used to address climate change, a key driver of biodiversity loss.
Regardless of our personal views towards the exploitation of natural resources, we should keep in mind that these actions have consequences that immediately impact the present. We therefore can no longer push ecological disruption to the background of our minds. Governments must shape environmentally conscious policies, and companies must incorporate sustainability in their business models. As long as we continue to destroy nature, nature will fight back.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.