Blog by Matthew Gosztony
I remember, back in March when we were all suddenly thrown into lockdown, I was shocked at how easy it seemed for a pandemic to materialise out of nowhere. For me, it was a reminder that despite how highly humanity thinks of itself, we will always be at the mercy of Nature. Reading stories of the Spanish Flu, where young, healthy people accounted for nearly half the dead, got me worried about the next deadly virus, and I found myself asking the question: what causes pandemics like COVID-19 in the first place?
If I owned a MAGA hat and watched Fox News, I’d probably tell you the virus was created in a Chinese lab, but, as entertaining as conspiracy theories are, COVID-19 most likely originated in wild animals. It is still unclear where the virus was transmitted to humans, but one candidate would be the wet market in Wuhan, now shut down by Chinese authorities. When an infectious disease jumps from an animal to a human it’s called a, 'zoonosis', and, it was only until now, that I realised the majority of historic pandemics, and epidemics, have been zoonotic diseases: the Bubonic plague, Spanish flu, HIV, SARS, Swine flu, and Ebola are all such examples.
From a western viewpoint, the wet markets in China, and other parts of Asia and Africa, seem alien and exotic: vendors will keep a huge diversity of live, wild animals stacked in cages, often in close proximity to the freshly butchered carcasses that are sold to customers. These unsanitary conditions create a breeding ground for pathogens to intermingle between species and aid the spread of zoonotic diseases. Unfortunately, despite the threat to global health that they pose, shutting down wet markets is not as clear cut as it seems: banning them would deny millions of people an essential source of fresh food, or, it would simply force traders underground, where it would be impossible to control sanitation and hygiene. One viable solution would be to replace this food source with sustainable farming in the area, or, educate communities, such as hunters and traders, on the risk of the wild meat trade.
I was stunned to find out the risk of zoonoses is actually increasing, and, aside from the trade in bush meat, the majority of the blame for this points towards the livestock industry. Vast areas of land are required to create pasture and cropland for raising livestock, making the production of meat the single biggest cause of tropical deforestation in the world. This is driving wildlife out of their natural habitat and into close contact with humans where the risk of zoonotic infection rises dramatically.
Personally, seeing ancient rainforests being ripped down, or set ablaze, is incredibly upsetting, let alone without the maddening knowledge that it is actively increasing the chances of the next pandemic. I think there is a growing, global consensus that eating less meat is the way forward: not only is it healthier for you, but it can reduce your carbon footprint and help lessen the demand for livestock, saving the environment from even more destruction. If you need yet another reason to cut down on meat, just think of all the deadly viruses that are crawling towards us as we blindly erode the natural buffer that once held them at bay.
Ultimately, this pandemic has shown me how fragile the balance between us and the natural world really is: as we damage and exploit the environment around us, we are only endangering ourselves further. Climate change is of course the best example of this, but so too is the growing threat of zoonotic diseases. If we don’t make a change, the next pandemic will be even closer around the corner.
Walzer C, "The Covid-19 Pandemic has Introduced Us to a New Word: Zoonosis (Op-Ed)" (Live Science, April 2020)
Vidal J, "'Tip of the Iceberg': Is Our Destruction of Nature Responsible for Covid-19?" (The Guardian, March 2020)
The Editors, "Stopping Deforestation Can prevent Pandemics" (Scientific American, 2020)
Damian Carrington, "Coronavirus: world treating symptoms, not cause of pandemic, says UN" (The Guardian, July 2020)
RP Team, "The Beef Industry and Deforestation" (Rainforest Partnership, August 2016)
Photo by Z S on Unsplash