Our need for powerful environmental regulatory intervention has never been greater.
We are both locked down. You are likely locked down. Indeed 3.9 billion people are now locked down. Economies have stalled. International travel has been shut down. Society, as we know it, has changed, perhaps irreversibly.
Why? Quite simply - because coronavirus, specifically SARS-CoV-2, is spreading and replicating within the human population. As I write this, over 3.4 million people have been confirmed as having been infected and tragically 243,000 people have lost their lives (as of 3 May 2020), with undoubtedly many more to follow.
Take a moment and step back. Let’s think about why this has happened.
Coronaviruses have very high zoonotic potential – that means there is a high risk that, under the right conditions, these viruses will transmit from an animal host into the human population. They aren’t the first virus to have such capability, and they certainly won’t be the last.
So why now? What events led to the current crisis? And can anything be done about it?
We are all aware that the trade of animals (often illegal) remains rife, particularly in Asia. Open-air markets may provide a well-stirred mixture of exotic animals and humans, the ideal condition for the transmission of disease. But these individual market ‘hot spots’ only go a small way towards answering our questions.
On a much bigger scale, human activity has resulted in major changes to our natural environment which have forced wildlife into ever closer contact with the human population - resulting in the creation, in many places, of a large scale, subconscious ‘animal market’ and indifference to the welfare and rights of wild populations.
Urbanisation and agriculture have permanently removed huge areas of natural habitat, with displaced wildlife often having to find alternative territory within, and around, densely populated city landscapes.
Deforestation and agriculture have additionally fragmented habitats, and broken possible migration routes. Climate change has damaged natural flora, accelerated the spread of plant diseases, stressed wild populations, and made previous geographical territories inhospitable to certain animals - forcing them to find new and hostile homes, often closer to our human habitats.
The degradation of habitats, and wildlife increasingly being regarded as a commodity, have eroded the natural distancing that has existed between humans and animals, resulting in increased opportunity for pathogens to spread from wild animals to humans.
In the case of Covid-19 all of these environmental factors are further confounded by air quality. People who have been unfortunate enough to contract the disease have significantly increased morbidity if they have been exposed to long term air pollution. Air pollution, in turn, also results from urbanisation, and poorly-regulated industry, transport and agriculture.
We must change our strategy to protect against future attacks. We need to rethink our approach to wildlife, spatial planning, land management and industrial regulation.
But we need to go even further: regulation must accelerate a feeling of responsibility and an ambition among business and society alike to regenerate our planetary life support systems. By protecting the environment, we can save future lives.
Looking back in time, the classic example of regulation preventing the spread of human disease is the incident, in 1854, when John Snow, facing opposition and ridicule, finally persuaded the authorities to disable the well pump in Soho and stopped the cholera outbreak which had already killed 500 people.
There are numerous other examples of “late lessons from early warnings”, as the European Environment Agency describes them, when regulation belatedly stopped human health and ecological disasters: lead in petrol which affected human brain development, asbestos in buildings creating a long legacy of lung disease and death, smoking tobacco, DDT sprays, TBT in anti-fouling paints.
The list is extensive and shows a history of inadequate forethought, screening and precaution. However, introduction of controls to preventatively stop the spread of commercial crop diseases provides a more successful model, showing what can be achieved.
Perhaps the difference is that there are profits to be lost with crop diseases, rather than with the loss of human lives or ecosystems.
With Covid we face not only a medical emergency but also an ecological emergency. At no point in our history has the need for powerful environmental regulatory intervention been greater.
Health practitioners around the globe have risen to the huge challenge our society faces and for that every one of us is indebted and incredibly thankful. Now we must ensure that the general population and health workers are never put in this position again.
To put it plainly, coordinated and effectively enforced environmental regulation must become the new front-line in the prevention of global pandemics.
Sam Curran has a doctorate in immunology and works in international affairs for an environmental organisation. James Curran has spent his professional life in environmental regulation.
Image: Cunningchrisw, Wikimedia.