By Fernando Valladares (IPS)
HAVANA TIMES – Submerged in confinement and a health crisis without precedent, we attempt to seek medicine and vaccine for Covid 19. We study how the virus functions, its life cycle, evaluating different hypotheses about its origin. But without a doubt, it is our habits and behavior that put us at risk because behind this pandemic is the destruction of nature.
There is not health care system with enough security forces to offer us the protection that nature can—a nature that is rich in species and that functions well.
Biodiversity: the shield against the virus
Fifteen years ago, the first scientific indications of how biodiversity protects us were contributed. Thanks to the effects of dilution of the viral potency and the eventual reduction in contagion rates, biodiversity represents the most effective barrier to zoonosis—the passage of a pathogen from an animal to a human.
We have seen numerous practical cases from the Bird Flu to Lyme disease that have corroborated the initial theoretical studies and epidemiological trials.
Every day we understand a little more about the origin of the pandemic. Molecular studies allow us to unravel some of the key steps in zoonosis, probably originating in bats, passing to pangolins and then to humans.
The SARS-CoV-2 has co-evolved over a long period in bats in such a way that when the bat is healthy, the viral potency is low. However, when stressors, such as when its being chased, hunted and manipulated, the immune system of the animal is depressed, and the viral potency strengthens.
Something similar occurs with hosts like the pangolin, a target of hunting and illegal trafficking in Asia and Africa. It is in this situation, when the host is stressed and has a depressed immune response, that the virus potency increases and becomes dangerous for humans.
This is how nature protects us
A healthy environment with functioning ecosystems and species diversity protects us broadly from infections to pathogens, not only through biodiversity.
For example, nature can slow desert sands and reduce atmospheric contamination, two vehicles that propagate virul growth that aggravates the respiratory symptoms in patients infected with Covid 19.
When we add climate change into the equation, nature has less room to contend with disease impacts and protect our health. The global phenomenon not only decreases the ability of forests to absorb carbon but makes them more susceptible to extreme forest fires like those that recently occurred in Australia.
Smoke affected 80% of the country’s population, but the problem didn’t only affect Australians. Like this pandemic, the smoke quickly traveled around the world.
There is no national or international body that can prevent the spread of smoke that showed up in major cities around the world within 10 days, heightening their pollution problems. At the same time, there is not one industry or business capable of reducing greenhouse gases at the same rate as a tropical rain forest can.
The health-giving functions of nature, such as protecting us from zoonosis, are priceless.
Globalization and climate migration
A large part of the problem with zoonosis today is globalization which brings with it rapid and massive shifts in human populations. For this reason, the most urgent and effective measures have to do with limiting the movement of people.
Perhaps what we are forgetting is the grand scale of human migration that has been increasing for decades all around the planet. The phenomenon not only triggers regional migration from Africa into Europe or into the United States, but also causes disruption within certain zones. And this is now happening in Europe.
Migration inspired by environmental causes also generate health and social problems.
The climate crisis continues
This confinement may serve to help us reflect and learn what to do the day after. Lately, we hear the mantra that our efforts are working to regain normalcy soon.
But, what normalcy? The one that got us to this point? The normalcy that favors pandemics, that destroys ecosystems, that contributes to climate change and engenders social inequity and bases itself on an unsustainable economic model?
In China, they have returned to burning coal to generate energy, even more than before, as if economic recovery is a higher goal than facing the environmental costs.
The pandemic shows us just how sensitive we are to an environment that doesn’t function well. The current situation should serve as a trial to re-think what next great crisis awaits us, one that doesn’t end, one that is harder to handle than the coronovirus pandemic—the crisis of climate change.
The politicians at the climate summits cannot seem to agree, but each one back home in their country, in their own way, ends up converging on the need to relaunch their economies in traditional ways.
If we are going to strive to not return to this unfeasible normalcy, but instead to a new normalcy based on equilibrium with nature, sustainable over time, it will be necessary to profoundly question the current social and economic framework in which we find ourselves.
No one wants to go through another pandemic in a couple months, a pandemic that, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), could be even more lethal than coronovirus.
In the biosphere equation, Homo sapiens cannot continue to hoard such a large portion of her resources and continue to cause such profound environmental changes at a rate higher than nature’s capacity to recover and regenerate ecosystems.
Only through a common vision of us all, expert or not, economists, biologists, doctors, mathematicians, sociologists, will we begin a new day, truly different, with hope of not ending up in another shut-down like this one in only a couple more months.
*Fernando Valladares, Research Professor in the Department of Biogeography and Global Change at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Spain