Words by: Zayan Ismail
In the stanza of Erykah Badu’s 1997 soul-filled song ‘On & On’ she writes, “you rush into destruction ’cause you don’t have nothing left’,” signalling the human desire for constant exploitation of resources.
The greed to destroy wetlands to build resorts and fancy hotels. The cutting down of the jungles and rainforests for palm oil, mining, roads, bridges and urban dwellings. Her words (and absolute masterpiece of a song) resonates with the world that we have inherited today. In the year of the song’s release, the global tree cover stood at 44 billion hectares according to the Food and Agriculture organisation of the United Nations under the Environment Programme.
Two decades later, that figure is estimated to be lower than 42 billion hectares. Correlated with the rise in deforestation rates is the habitat loss of biodiversity and increased human exposure to deadly pathogens. The rapid development of disease outbreaks from smaller epidemics of Swine Flu, Malaria, Dengue has catalysed to large scale pandemics, such as HIV and now COVID-19. So, what is the link between the destruction of our world’s tree covers and the rise in such diseases?
Scientists conclude the coronavirus to be a pathogen transmitted via animal-to-human contact – a zoonotic disease put simply. Both animals and humans have viruses inside them to protect and immunise the body from different conditions in the environment. However, it becomes dangerous when a virus from an animal enters into the human body, as our bodies are not equipped to deal with these foreign invaders. Viruses can only jump from animals to humans with significant contact.
When we destroy forests and other tree covered lands, we intrude on animal habitats for primarily agricultural activities as well as industrialisation. Logging, the hunting of bushmeat as well as the development of wet markets, have exposed humans and animals to mutable viruses that can jump from one body to the other. Two different species that do not live naturally close to each other now are able to live side by side in close proximity.
This creates niche habitats for wildlife to thrive in urban settings. For instance, HIV emerged in the Cameroon-Congo basin region in Africa where the deforestation rates are at a loss of 800–1,000 km squared forest cover per year. Studies conducted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health find that in Cameroon, the increase in population densities and urban centres close to forest areas in conjunction with the bushmeat hunting lead HIV to jump from chimpanzees to humans. This would eventuate to the global pandemic of HIV/AIDS that still slowly encroaches on much of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Much like HIV, the Ebola virus jumped from fruit bats in human fruit fields, and the Zika virus was spread widely by mosquitoes that thrived in urban households.
COVID-19 and its grip on the world with severe socio-economic repercussions have been linked to the consumption of exotic meat in unhygienic wet markets. SARS-CoV-2, a new or novel coronavirus is known to be found in bats and eventually transmitted to pangolins. It is observed that consumption and mass trade of both bat and pangolin meat in China have led to the outbreak of COVID-19 of a pandemic proportion. This current global crisis is a once in a generation event that has transformed our societies. It not only has effectively exposed the inequalities and structural barriers to health care and economic freedom, but also highlights the harm we have caused to our ecosystems.
The degradation and exploitation of our environment must stop. We should utilise this time during the pandemic to mitigate such disasters in the future. It is vital for us to adopt sustainable systems in energy consumption via renewable methods. If we continue business as usual, more pandemics are to come. For billions around the world it is simply a matter of life and death. Further, if Badu’s prophecy were to come true we will not have anything left to destroy but ourselves.