This global crisis has taught us that respecting and acting through the mutual-dependence of organisations like the WHO, the WTO, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is more important than ever.
As we continue to shelter-in-place in Dubai, my three-year-old daughter and I sat by an open window and listened to something other than the usual hum of human life that rises from the United Arab Emirates’ most populous city.
We heard the loud chirps, songs, and calls of birds. It was a subtle but powerful shock to our senses, a nudge to see our world through fresh eyes, a reminder that we are just one species in a complex and interconnected natural ecosystem.
This same realization is unfolding around the world with this fast-moving pandemic providing an unprecedented pause that has prompted the return of Jaguars to the beaches of Mexican resorts and visits of wild boars to the streets of Barcelona, as well as remarkable improvements to air and water quality around the world.
In cities, where more than half the world’s population now lives and wildlife is rarely observed, we are being reminded that we are neither custodians nor masters of nature: we are but a humble part of it.
We don't need to be scientists to appreciate that an event in one part of the world can have a profound effect on the other side of the planet in just a matter of days.
I’ve worked in conservation for the past two decades and have often been asked what motivates the conservation community to do what we do. Some may say it is a desire to seek connections with other forms of life, and in doing so connect with who we truly are. Or perhaps it is an innate calling to preserve our world’s natural beauty, combined with a belief that animals and plants are as much a part of the fabric of this planet as we are.
Whatever inspires us individually, what is clear to me now is that we have yet to succeed in highlighting the critical link between nature and our own health, perhaps because it is only now that we are experiencing the magnitude of this connection.
We now know that we can no longer afford to beat around the bush: the origin of this pandemic and the ensuing socio-economic crisis is ultimately an ecological one. As we encroach upon and destroy wild spaces and the species that inhabit them, we are essentially destroying our first line of defense.
By breaking ecological protective barriers against pathogens we lose the natural dilution and filtering services that healthy ecosystems provide humanity.
The scientific consensus is that there will be more such emerging pathogens. A paper published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B in April 2020 has highlighted the risk of infectious “spillover” of zoonotic diseases through loss of habitat and the exploitation of wildlife through hunting and trade.
Therefore in addition to halting the spread of Covid-19, we must also work to address the root cause of the crisis, and not only the symptoms. If we are to stand any chance in preventing the spread of other deadly pathogens we must curb the breakdown of our natural ecosystems.
The nature of the global response to Covid-19 also underscores the erosion of trust we have been witnessing for years in the multilateral governance structures that are required to protect the planet we share. With every country adopting their own measures, our global health, environment and trade organizations still work too much in isolation rather than working in ways that are demanded by the crisis.
But I am hopeful that this will change. In April 2020 over 300 animal welfare and conservation organisations sent an open letter to the World Health Organization (WHO), asking it to adopt a “highly precautionary approach to wildlife trade that poses a risk to human health”. This is an opportunity for more collaboration.
It is critical that organisations like the WHO, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and others begin to work more deliberately with global conservation and veterinary organisations that have expertise in zoonotic diseases in order to develop solutions for reducing the likelihood of this happening again.
A first step would be to collaborate in ensuring governments around the globe permanently ban live wildlife markets, where diseases can be easily transmitted to humans.
I believe that this global crisis has taught us that respecting and acting through the mutual-dependence of organisations like the WHO, the WTO, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is more important than ever. As we prepare to reopen our nations and implement ambitious recovery plans, we have to collectively commit to a better, more encompassing and coordinated global governance, in order to prevent or address future pandemics, economic crises, climate catastrophe, biodiversity loss and other existential threats.
I continue to hear the songs of the birds that are surely now preparing to continue on their migratory journey from Africa and into Central Asia and Europe, and I am fuelled by the recognition of not only the resilience and interconnectedness of nature but that of its human inhabitants as well.
As eloquently captured by my favourite verse from “The Will to Life” by the early twentieth-century Tunisian poet, Aboul-Qacem Echebbi: “If one day the people will to live / then destiny must respond / and the night must disappear / and the chains must break”
During this devastating global pandemic, it has never been clearer that as we come together in solidarity, we must collectively “will to live” in a world that recognizes our inextricable relationship with nature, and commit to working in a truly concerted way that breaks the chains of apathy and isolation.
Razan Al Mubarak is the founding managing director of the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and the managing director of Emirates Nature-WWF. Currently a candidate for President of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), she also serves as managing director of the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD). In 2018, the World Economic Forum selected her as one of the top 100 Young Global Leaders.
Image: Guinea - Rural Women's Cooperative. UN Women, Flickr.