We all knew, didn't we?
We knew well before COVID-19 hit that there are hundreds of thousands of viruses in existence that have the potential to infect human beings, many of them living in our rainforests and other natural systems – including novel pathogens to which we have no immunity.
We knew that increasing rates of deforestation and land-use change due to population growth and urbanization – coupled with growing globalization and excess production driven by consumerism – would make us more vulnerable to these viruses.
We knew that large-scale commercial trade in live wild animals, often traveling long distances to crowded food markets, increases the risk of transmission of pathogens to people from those animals. We knew that unsafe livestock production practices also increases the risk of pathogen spillover.
In truth, we knew that a pandemic was coming, but we as a global community still failed to take actions to prevent it or adequately prepare for it. As a result, we are facing a worldwide health emergency of epic proportions along with a global economic crisis and massive human suffering.
Same mistakes, again?
And yet – there is a high risk that we will make the same mistake again. Even now, most of us – from members of the general public to officials at the highest levels of government – are still viewing COVID-19 as a once-in-a-hundred-years event. We see it as a fluke – a shock to the system that we will eventually get through and then can forget about, just as we did with the 1918 flu, Ebola, and SARS.
The problem with this approach is that spillover events are plainly not happening once in a hundred years. Because of our broken relationship with nature, these events are already happening more frequently: more than 335 emerging infectious disease outbreaks were reported worldwide from 1940 to 2004 – over 50 per decade.
The rate of outbreaks is increasing, and these outbreaks are more likely to become epidemics and pandemics in the years ahead due to our highly interconnected world. What’s even more concerning is that while our current situation is dire, it could have been much worse. COVID-19 is highly transmissible but has a much lower mortality rate compared to other viruses (for example, Nipah virus has a mortality rate between 40 & 75 %).
The next novel virus that we encounter could be both highly transmissible and highly virulent – leading to an immediate existential threat for much of humanity (Jones et al, 2008).
Transform this moment
into an opportunity
It is imperative that we realize that this pandemic is not something that is happening to us; rather, it is something we helped create by not properly considering the relationship between nature and our own health.
Knowing this, in the wake of COVID-19, we can make another choice: we can choose to transform this moment into an opportunity to learn from our recent tragic mistakes, and recognize humanity’s dependence on the natural systems that support us.