Zoonosis: a disease which can be transmitted to humans from animals. But why should we even be be familiar with this word? I say we really should, because from what scientists know so for, the now infamous COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease. Same as SARS, MERS, Zika and Ebola.
Recently, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Inger Andersen, declared that “the health of our planet plays a super important role in spreading or containing” zoonotic diseases. “When we encroach on nature, when we destroy forest, when we degrade the environment, then we are disturbing what is supposed to be left undisturbed,” she added.
Global warming and climate instability play an increasingly important role in the global emergence, resurgence and transmission of infectious diseases. Studies show that the increase in average temperature can also affect the incidence of animal infectious diseases, spreading to humans.
Indeed, studies carried out by the World Health Organisation conclude that changes in infectious disease transmission patterns are a likely major consequence of climate change.
COVID-19 has dominated the news cycle ever since it appeared in Wuhan, China some four months ago. Its impact on the world economy will be felt hard. That’s why the excuse that an ecological transition should go on the backburner is no longer feasible. It is not only an environmental failure but it does not make economical or social sense either.
A recent report issued by the International Monetary Fund predicts the global economic situation to be dire, even worse than the 2008 financial crisis. The damage is such that, even if economies rebound as projected in 2021, the world economy will still be significantly smaller next year than it was in 2019. Economies in the euro area are expected to contract by 7.5%. In Malta’s case, the projection is that it would shrink by 2.8% this year, before bouncing back in 2021, with a 7% growth.
These projections are based on a best-case scenario, assuming that the pandemic will dwindle in the second half of 2020, allowing governments to kickstart their economies.
Kickstarting the economy however should not be a copy and paste plan of the economic models we are used to. This is the time to implement what we have been talking about in the recent years: sustainable economies that integrate the ecological, economic and social aspects.
While the global response to climate change has been dismal thus far, the response to COVID-19 provides hope. It shows that if a threat is taken seriously enough, governments can mobilize quickly and put its citizens’ lives, whilst finding ways to address economic needs. Just take teleworking as an example. A lot has been said over the years about the importance of teleworking yet very few governments and businesses actually invested in teleworking in the past years. Many even tried to downplay teleworking shunning it because they thought that people who telework actually do nothing. Not only were they proved wrong, but COVID-19 made people change their life patterns fast and they did it successfully.
COVID-19 shouldn’t be the only health threat to be taken seriously. Air pollution is the fifth leading risk factor for mortality worldwide and in 2017 alone, in just one year, it caused the death of nearly five million people around the globe.
There are so many lessons that we can learn from this pandemic but perhaps the most important one is that we need to have a contingency plan. Confronting a crisis such as COVID-19 and climate change when it is already on your doorstep is difficult and expensive. We can already see the consequences of this virus today and now, however, the most severe consequences of climate change are still slowly creeping in, meaning that we need to start preparing now.
The world is already seeing a trend of greater emergence of infectious diseases in recent decades. According to WHO, at least 61% of all human pathogens have moved from animals to people, and represented 75% of all emerging pathogens during the past decade. As the planet continues to heat up and loss of habitat accelerates, animals of all sizes will move closer to the poles to avoid the extreme heat. This will lead to animals migrating and potentially coming into contact with humans, leading to an increased sharing of germs and pathogens.
We can start taking concrete climate action today by drastically decreasing greenhouse gas emissions that come from fossil fuels. We can replace these sources by investing in low-carbon energy options and make them commonplace in industries, households, and mobility. After COVID-19 a recovery plan is required, such recovery plan needs investments but we need to make sure that investments are channeled in the right direction by providing more funding for climate change research and lending more support to public health institutions. We also need to take action to prevent future pandemics. Rethinking agricultural practices, especially the ones that rely on raising animals in restricted spaces to prevent the spread of dangerous pathogens and diseases.
Countries were not prepared to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and a big part of the reason for that is a lack of contingency plans for a crisis. Every country needs to prepare a climate change contingency plan which should include funds to tackle harsh weather phenomena such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and droughts. This fund should also cover public health problems caused by climate change, agricultural shortages, and economic hardships for affected citizens.
The biggest eye-opener of all is that people are capable of adapting quickly to change. Drastic actions in short periods of time is both possible and feasible. Taking immediate climate change action is much less drastic than the total shutdown that we are currently living through right now. If climate change is ever allowed to hit us at full force, the consequences will be massive for everyone. That’s why we need the political will to implement a strong, swift, and bold response to tackle the biggest challenge of our lifetime and this should happen in all the countries, including Malta.
The Malta Independent on Sunday