The Best Weapon Against a Future Pandemic


(Bloomberg) --

A deadly pandemic that brings about a sudden economic collapse is no way to sustainably restore threatened ecosystems. Yet it’s a clear reminder of how quickly the wild world responds when humans take a step back.

It’s also a good reminder that protecting wildlife is key to protecting humanity. 

It took just a few days of lockdown for baby rabbits to dare to cross once-bustling roads in Christchurch, New Zealand, and less than a week for a puma to descend from the Andes Mountains into Santiago, Chile. In Barcelona, wild boar have made their way into Diagonal Avenue, an eight-lane thoroughfare. 

As much of the world remains indoors, natural systems are doing what they do: finding a way to expand into any gap left by human civilization. Research suggests that even damaged ecosystems can rebound rapidly once our intervention subsides.

The Best Weapon Against a Future Pandemic

Managing our relationship with the natural world can also help protect us from it. There are four critical facets of pandemic prevention, according to Lee Hannah, senior scientist at Conservation International. Three of them make immediate sense: stockpile masks and respirators; have testing infrastructure ready; and ban the global wildlife trade, including the open animal markets where Covid-19 may have first infected people. (More on that in a minute.)

His fourth recommendation is both the most ambitious and least likely to be heard in the midst of the current crisis: “ Take care of nature.”

Biodiversity can keep pathogens from ever leaving the wild and entering human society. The “virus spillover risk” from wildlife to people rises as contact between them increases, according to new research published Tuesday.

Despite years of work by governments and nonprofits, along with corporate pledges to halt deforestation (the largest driver of biodiversity loss), habitats continue to vanish at astounding rates. “All have missed the mark,” according to a new report by the Rainforest Action Network. As habitats are lost, wildlife comes into closer contact with humans (like the puma in Santiago).

The Best Weapon Against a Future Pandemic

It’s also important to limit the unnecessary mingling of people and wildlife.

As the lockdown lifted this week in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus first emerged, people flocked to the city’s wet markets. These centers of commerce, which operate much like a farmers’ market in Western nations, often sell or slaughter wildlife and domesticated animals on-site. 

Scientists believe Covid-19 jumped to humans from wild animals, most likely via an intermediary species like bats. Close contact with wild animals at the city’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market has been widely blamed for the outbreak.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said last week the coronavirus was a “direct result” of unsanitary markets and that it was “mind-boggling” they remained open.

But it’s not the vegetables and fruits sold there that pose a risk to humans. A sign now hangs over the Baishazhou wet market, one of the biggest in Wuhan: “No slaughtering and selling live animals.”

Josh Petri writes the Week in Green newsletter recapping the best reads and key news in climate change and green solutions.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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