The ongoing coronavirus outbreak could be nature’s way of sending us a message warns Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Andersen stated that humanity was placing too many pressures on the natural world and that the coronavirus was one of the consequences of doing so.
Andersen, along with other leading scientists, also called the current pandemic a “clear warning shot” in regards to the destruction of natural habitats. They warn that many even deadlier diseases exist in the wild and that it was human behavior that almost always causes them to cross over into humans.
To prevent future outbreaks, the scientists called for the end of habitat destruction through mining, excessive farming and even housing as these often drive wildlife into contact with people. They specifically singled out the wild animal trade, something that was prevalent in Wuhan’s wet markets where the first cases of COVID-19 first broke out.
“Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people,” said Andersen in an interview with the Guardian.
“Our continued erosion of wild spaces has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbor diseases that can jump to humans.”
Early this year, scientists claimed that the coronavirus responsible for the current pandemic made contact with humans in a wet market selling wildlife in Wuhan, China. World Health Organization (WHO) officials concluded that it most likely came from a bat, though it may have jumped to another host, before infecting humans.
In February, after temporarily closing wildlife markets, China finally enacted a permanent ban on the trading of wildlife. It’s relation to the coronavirus was just too much of a risk to keep the $20 billion industry alive.
Before the ban, the industry was seen by many local government officials in rural areas as a way to boost local economies. Indeed, the industry had the support of the state, which even backed television programs showing people farming various wild animals both for commercial sale and private consumption.
“The state forestry bureau has long been the main force supporting wildlife use,” said Peter Li, a China Policy Specialist for the Humane Society International. “It insists on China’s right to use wildlife resources for development purposes.”
With this in mind, some doubts have been raised about whether the ban will end the industry. Before the ban, people needed special licenses to participate in the captive breeding of wildlife. However, some activists have pointed out that licenses to operate legal wildlife farms were often just covers for illegal activities.
“They just use this premise to do illegal trading,” said Zhou Jinfeng, head of China’s Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF). “There are no real pangolin farms in China, they just use the permits to do illegal things.”
Indeed, the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), stated in a report this week that the coronavirus outbreak may have actually boosted the wildlife trade as online seller’s market rhinoceros horn medicines as a treatment to reduce fever.
That the coronavirus crossed over to humans from wildlife shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Professor Andrew Cunningham of the Zoological Society of London pointed out that previous outbreaks such as the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak predicted that this would happen.
“The emergence and spread of Covid-19 was not only predictable, it was predicted [in the sense that] there would be another viral emergence from wildlife that would be a public health threat,” said Cunningham.
Aaron Bernstein of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health agrees with Cunningham and Andersen’s sentiments. As with the latter, he points to COVID-19 as well as other diseases such as SARS, MERS and AIDS as nature trying to say that “we’re playing with fire.” He further advocates for joining environmental policy with health, calling their separate “a dangerous delusion.”