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Protecting the planet can prevent pandemics

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Hands holding a plant. Image credit: Noah Buscher/Unsplash

With COVID-19 vaccines becoming more available, we can breathe a small sigh of relief -- through our masks! But we can't get complacent. This pandemic isn't over. And if we're not careful, others could be on the horizon.

A coalition of health and conservation organizations is trying to prevent that. It points to evidence 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" are increasing our vulnerability to "zoonotic" diseases, which spread from other animals to people.

They also note 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."

This information isn't new. Most "novel pathogens" to which we haven't developed immunity are zoonotic, including Ebola, zika, West Nile virus, SARS, HIV and others. We've long known about the possibility of something like COVID-19. We should have been better prepared for it or able to prevent it.

We must learn from the current crisis to prevent worse emergencies and prepare for new diseases. The next virus could be deadlier than COVID-19 (as some variants already are). As the coalition points out, outbreaks are increasing and spreading faster in our interconnected world.

"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 coalition reports.

In identifying parts of the world where outbreaks are likely to start, the coalition is mapping out solutions, which "will require dialogue and coordinated action between sectors -- particularly health and environment, but also agriculture, trade, food and nutrition, and others."

Its proposed "three-pronged strategy" would include a scientific task force and high-level panel on prevention at the source, a global action fund for pandemic prevention, and global and local public awareness campaigns.

The task force -- to be convened by coalition members the Harvard Global Health Institute and the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment, with scientists worldwide -- will "examine what we know and what we must learn to prevent the next global pandemic." It will inform a panel that includes "high-level representatives from governments" to "develop and recommend policies to prevent spillover, and, critically, advocate for adoption of these policies globally and in high-risk countries."

The coalition also proposes a global action fund to help coordinate knowledge, dialogue and action and "support a pipeline of existing prevention solutions to scale up, while also financing the development of new solutions (cutting-edge behaviour change approaches, diagnostic platforms, incentives programs, technologies, and data solutions)."

Finally, it proposes global and local public awareness campaigns to prioritize prevention and health-system preparedness.

To prevent pandemics, we must recognize our interconnectedness with nature and protect natural systems that make the planet habitable for humans. Doing so will also help with the climate emergency.

As Amy Vittor from the University of Florida's division of infectious diseases and global medicine told The Guardian:

"Forests -- and tropical forests in particular -- harbour complex networks of microbes and their wildlife hosts. Degrading these landscapes carries the potential of unleashing these microbes upon our domesticated animals and ourselves. Therefore, maintaining the integrity of forests serves to not only protect biodiversity and mitigate climate change, but also to contain these complex and potentially dangerous pathogen networks."

Reducing wildlife trade and reforming livestock practices are also crucial. All require recognizing the rights of Indigenous peoples worldwide, and incorporating knowledge they've gained from living in place for millennia.

These measures are necessary regardless of cost, but a recent study found they're also sound investments. Global spending on COVID-19 has already exceeded US$20 trillion, but spending just $27 billion a year over 10 years could substantially reduce the risks of a similar pandemic.

As with the coalition's recommendations, the study outlines the benefits of early disease detection and control, monitoring wildlife trade and ending China's wild meat trade, reducing disease spillover from livestock and protecting tropical forests in critical regions.

Our major crises -- pandemics, climate disruption and biodiversity loss -- all have roots in our lack of recognition of our place in nature. We can and must do better.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Writer and Editor Ian Hanington.          

Learn more at davidsuzuki.org.

Image credit: Noah Buscher/Unsplash

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