Conditions are rife for next pandemic unless urgent action is taken, WWF warns
In a new report ‘COVID 19: urgent call to protect people and nature’, WWF says that the environmental factors driving the emergence of zoonotic diseases are: the trade and consumption of high-risk wildlife, land-use change leading to deforestation and conversion, expansion of agriculture and unsustainable intensification and animal production. Numerous warnings from scientists and thought leaders, such as the World Economic Forum (WEF), have been made about the risk of a global pandemic. WEF ranked pandemics and infectious diseases as one of the top global risks over a decade ago, posing ‘an acute threat to human life’.
Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International said: “We must urgently recognize the links between the destruction of nature and human health, or we will soon see the next pandemic. We must curb the high risk trade and consumption of wildlife, halt deforestation and land conversion as well as manage food production sustainably. All these actions will help prevent the spillover of pathogens to humans, and also address other global risks to our society like biodiversity loss and climate change. There is no debate, and the science is clear; we must work with nature, not against it. Unsustainable exploitation of nature has become an enormous risk to us all.”
Questions remain about the exact origins of COVID-19, but all available evidence suggests that it is a zoonotic disease, meaning it jumped from wildlife to humans. The government of China announced a comprehensive ban on the consumption of wild animals on 24 February, which WWF supports and now, the National People’s Congress (NPC) is supporting the revision of the existing law on the protection of wildlife, which, if implemented in full, could position China’s Wildlife Protection Law as one of the world's most robust and stringent. Other governments must also follow suit and close their high-risk wildlife markets and end this trade once and for all.
However, addressing high-risk wildlife trade and consumption in isolation will not be enough to prevent the next pandemic - our unsustainable global food system is driving large-scale conversion of natural spaces for agriculture, fragmenting natural ecosystems and increasing interactions between wildlife, livestock and humans. Since 1990, 178 million hectares of forest have been cleared, which is equivalent to the size of Libya, the 18th largest country in the world, and around 10 million hectares of forest are still being lost each year through conversion to agriculture and other land uses.
A current tragedy is unfolding too in Brazil with a surge in deforestation accelerating due to cuts in enforcement by the federal government, and this was after a 64 per cent increase in deforestation had already been seen in April compared to last year.
The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates that systemic changes must be made to address the environmental drivers of pandemics. WWF is advocating a ‘One Health’ approach linking the health of people, animals and our shared environment and wants this to be included in decision making on wildlife and land use change. This should also be incorporated within all business and financing decisions, particularly related to global health.
“In the midst of this tragedy there is an opportunity to heal our relationship with nature and mitigate risks of future pandemics but a better future starts with the decisions governments, companies and people around the world take today.” said Lambertini. “World leaders must take urgent action to transform our relationship with the natural world. We need a New Deal for Nature and People that sets nature on the path to recovery by 2030 and safeguards human health and livelihoods in the long-term.”
WWF highlights the upcoming UN Biodiversity Summit, scheduled to take place in September 2020, as a key moment for world leaders to accelerate action on nature ahead of critical decisions on the environment, climate and development, now due to be taken in 2021. Together, these decisions represent an unmissable opportunity to transform our relationship with nature and secure a sustainable future for people and the planet.