A Healthy Biodiversity Keeps Disease Outbreaks at Bay
Nature-based solutions can prevent the next pandemic.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused dramatic shifts in our way of living. While governments across the globe work and exhaust their resources to contain this crisis, it is critical to take a long-term view and address its very root cause. With around 1.7 million unidentified viruses believed to still exist in mammals and water birds, this pandemic may not be the last.
This highlights the need for transformative actions for nature like conserving and sustaining the remaining biodiversity and ensuring that these actions are mainstreamed across various sectors and disciplines.
All available evidence for COVID-19 points to its zoonotic origins. Studies show that the genetic makeup of SARS-CoV2, which is causing COVID-19, resembles viruses found in bats and pangolins. The World Health Organization said it is likely that the transmission of the virus happened through an animal species that is often handled by humans.
Increasing human interactions with wildlife create the opportunity for direct transmission of viruses. These interactions are caused by several conditions, specifically the loss of biodiversity and the illicit wildlife trade and consumption of wildlife products.
Deforestation, habitat fragmentation, encroachment, and land-use change put pressure on ecosystems. Habitat quality is reduced. The risk of contact with wildlife and the pathogens they carry increases as humans continue to establish communities in natural wildlife areas.
To illustrate, between 2005 and 2015, the forest cover in the ASEAN region was reduced by 80 million hectares or about 8 million hectares annually. At this rate, over 40% of the region's biodiversity will disappear by 2100, while some of its primary rainforests will be lost by 2022. According to the ASEAN Biodiversity Outlook 2, the region stands to lose 13% to 42% of its species by 2100.
The decline of biodiversity can trigger the spillover of viruses that are dormant or inactive, leading to their transmission to domestic animals and humans.
The recent pandemic has made the connection between biodiversity and health more palpable. Public health is dependent on the richness and health of biodiversity or the variability among living organisms.
As biodiversity underpins all ecosystems and the fundamental services that they provide for humanity’s daily subsistence, its decline could mean the reduction of these services.
Governments at all levels, concerned organizations, and communities can prevent future outbreaks through nature-based solutions.
Conserve wildlife and their habitats
The call to stop illegal wildlife trade grew stronger once the initial evidence of COVID-19’s zoonotic origins was revealed. Some countries have closed wildlife markets and restricted wildlife trade and consumption. However, concerns that underground activities and demand for wildlife meat remain.
A strategic approach is required to address both the demand and supply of illicit wildlife trade.
National legal frameworks must be established. Stringent law enforcement and awareness campaigns on the value of wildlife conservation are paramount.
Moreover, the value of protected areas in wildlife conservation cannot be discounted. The ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, with its dialogue and development partners, supports the ASEAN Member States in ensuring that protected areas are effectively managed, and their staff and communities equipped and trained.
Adopt a ‘One Health’ approach
The “One Health” approach recognizes the interrelatedness of human, animal, and ecosystem health. Under this approach, experts of related disciplines collaborate and share necessary information to address issues like food safety and control of zoonotic diseases.
Cross-cutting initiatives to strengthen the biodiversity-health nexus must be done, including activities at the community level on environmental management, livelihood, and food security. Communities may also be engaged in monitoring disease hotspots.
Promote urban biodiversity
When food supply chains are disrupted, urban biodiversity can help sustain urban areas. Planning for urban development therefore should include green spaces with a variety of native plants and bodies of water to mitigate flood and drought, and to provide connectivity between ecosystems.
Recreation areas must incorporate native species into manmade landscapes, including species that provide habitat needs for local birds, small mammals, reptiles, and insects.
Many city dwellers are starting to turn to urban gardening for their food and medicine. These initiatives can be supported by designating more green spaces or plots and establishing community nurseries of local and easily grown plants. These spaces can help improve air quality in cities and become havens for various species.
Enhance regional and subregional synergies
A crisis of this scale requires enhanced cooperation among nations, and regional organizations. Countries in the same region and subregion must share successes, challenges, and opportunities in addressing biodiversity concerns and meeting biodiversity-related targets.
As it cuts across various disciplines, it is only fitting that actions, backed by science, take a multidisciplinary approach.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ASEAN Health Sector Cooperation deployed and operationalized established and existing health mechanisms for technical exchanges, information sharing, and updates on policy-related measures in responding to COVID-19.
A product of cooperation in the health sector is the ASEAN BioDiaspora Virtual Centre, which links multiple datasets, such as air travel data, demography data, human population density, animal populations, industrialization and utility distribution, and vector locations of ASEAN member states. The platform can complement national risk assessments, readiness, and response planning efforts, and can be further maximized to advance the “One Health” agenda.
ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity. 2017. ASEAN Biodiversity Outlook 2.
J. Settele et al. 2020. COVID-19 Stimulus Measures Must Save Lives, Protect Livelihoods, and Safeguard Nature to Reduce the Risk of Future Pandemics. IPBES.
World Health Organization. 2020. COVID-19 Situation Report 94
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