This Earth Day, Covid-19 reminds us that the environment’s health and our own are one

April 21, 2020
Lake Chilwa — and local livelihoods — are drying up in Malawi because of climate change. Photo by David Bonnardeaux.

The year 2019 saw human-induced natural disasters decimate the planet’s ecosystems—and the wildlife that depend on them—at an alarming rate. Expansive and destructive wildfires ravaged rainforests from the Amazon to Indonesia, and from the Russian taiga to the Australian bush. Air pollution, which accounts for over 4 million premature deaths per year globally, reached hazardous levels in cities across eastern Europe, China, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. And cyclones and hurricanes, fueled by greenhouse gas emissions, tore through communities from Puerto Rico to Japan to India to Mozambique, killing thousands and costing billions in damage and economic losses.

We are only four months into 2020, but human-induced natural disasters have already exacted a massive toll on the planet, with this year set to live in infamy for generations to come. Not because of the two devastating waves of desert locusts that have plagued large swathes of Africa and Eurasia, rendering tens of millions of people food- and livelihood-insecure. Not because of the intensified coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, which in 2020 is expected to witness the most extensive bleaching event to date. Nor because of the fact that Antarctica experienced its hottest temperature on record—18.3°C, or 64.9°F.

No. The year 2020 will be seared in people’s memories due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has infected millions and is wreaking economic havoc due to the Great Lockdown. Covid-19 has truly shaken our resolve.

Covid-19, SARS, MERS, Bird Flu, H1N1 and Ebola all are zoonotic diseases, meaning they were transmitted to humans by animals, including bats, birds, palm civets, pangolins and pigs. In fact, such zoonotic diseases (including extra-pulmonary tuberculosis, zoonotic gastrointestinal diseases and Hepatitis E) account for 2.7 million human deaths per year, mostly in low- and middle-income countries. The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us of the precarious balance between humanity and the planet’s ecosystems, wildlife populations and their habitats. The focus has been squarely on the role the illegal wildlife trade has had in the emergence of Covid-19, which is thought to have originated from contact with illegally traded wildlife in a so-called wet market in Wuhan, China. But the problem is larger. Rampant global population growth and conversion of land for farming, large-scale mining and housing are driving encroachment on wild habitats, increasing the chances that any one of the world’s estimated 1.6 million zoonotic viruses could jump to humans, resulting in more pandemics.

Orangutans in Indonesia, and a wet market in Madagascar. Photos by David Bonnardeaux.

All of this shows us that public health is intrinsically linked to environmental health. This is unequivocal. As Dr. Aaron Bernstein, interim director of Harvard University’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has stated, “We still view the environment, and life on Earth, as separate. The separation of health and environmental policy is a dangerous delusion.”

Our policies must reflect this reality. At Pact, where I work as the organization’s technical manager on natural resources management issues, we updated our environmental policy in 2019 to do just this—deliberately integrating environmental and social sustainability considerations into one policy. This reflects Pact’s integrated approach in our programming, which focuses on systemic changes necessary to improve people’s lives; and our drive to encourage other practitioners to follow suit.

In Madagascar, Pact works to improve the management effectiveness of protected areas, reduce illegal wildlife and timber trading, and scale up integrated population, health and environment interventions. We are working to reduce the environmental and human health impacts from mercury use in artisanal gold mining in Indonesia. Across Southeast Asia, we are strengthening financial institutions’ environmental, social and governance safeguards and supporting agribusinesses and forestry companies to green their value chains and thereby reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In Malawi and Cambodia, we have worked to address barriers, create demand and provide access to HIV prevention and treatment services for fishing communities while strengthening their capacity to co-manage vital fisheries.

Pangolins, this one in Zimbabwe, are the world's most trafficked animal. Photo by David Bonnardeaux.

The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us that human and environmental health are two sides of the same coin—and that individuals as well as organizations can work across the globe to overcome such intractable challenges. This collective resolve can and should be harnessed to address global environmental issues that will have even more profound impacts on humanity in the medium- to long-term, such as deforestation, climate change and depletion of water resources. Our challenge is to motivate people to take action even when they don’t perceive threats as urgent or personal, as highlighted by the differences in our responses to Covid-19 versus climate change, for example. Harvard’s Dr. Bernstein reminds us, “The actions we need to combat climate change are the same actions we need to make people healthier right now, especially for diseases causing huge burdens on our health, like obesity, heart disease and cancer.”

I hope this pandemic will be a turning point, when we stop seeing protecting the environment and protecting ourselves as separate narratives. Indonesian orangutans clambering through scorched landscapes, the flying foxes that perished during the Australian bush fires, the million-plus poached pangolins sold in Asian markets – these species’ future and ours are one in the same.

Pact was working to strengthen health systems and economic and environmental resilience of communities around the world before the Covid-19 pandemic, and will continue to do so with a greater determination than ever. On this Earth Day, I encourage you to join us in embracing this shared fate between humans and wildlife, and tackling these challenges with the same dogged perseverance and entrepreneurship that so many have shown during the Great Lockdown.