The current COVID-19 pandemic is the kind of event that the world did not see for over a hundred years. The last time a pandemic of this magnitude occurred was in 1918, when the Spanish flu raged across the world, infecting around 500 million people and claiming an estimated 50 million people in three years (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2019). There have been many other pandemics between 2018 and 2020, but none of these equals the scale and swiftness by which COVID-19 swept around the globe and changed the way people lived. In just the span of a few weeks, international borders were closed, massive lockdowns were imposed to restrict social contact, and economic activities came to a standstill. Even after a year, the world is still reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic to the worldwide economy. More recent effects have also emerged, such as the worsening COVID situation in India and the rise in anti-Asian hate crime.
A year since COVID-19 was officially declared as a pandemic by the WHO, several countries are still struggling to keep infections down and respond to a burgeoning number of patients. Meanwhile, other countries are gradually emerging from crisis as new vaccines developed to combat the disease are being rolled out at record speed (Haseltine, 2021). Daily discussion about the pandemic often centers on its origins, its effects, and how it can be ended, but not as much attention has been paid to the long-term view. The central question this term paper attempts to answer is: what can the world do to avert a similar event from happening again? While the current pandemic will most certainly come to an end too, it has brought to the forefront long-term implications for society including ending activities that increase the likelihood of future pandemics.
The Origins of the COVID-19 Pandemic
To understand the long-term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is necessary to understand the context in which it emerged. The COVID-19 pandemic was first detected in the city of Wuhan in China’s Hubei province in late 2019. The first cases were diagnosed among workers of a local wet market where live exotic animals were sold and served as food. People infected by the virus show a variety of symptoms, some of which are similar to flu. These include fever, shortness of breath, cough, loss of appetite, fatigue, and loss of sense of smell and or taste among others. Studies eventually revealed that the disease is caused by a virus from the coronaviridae, a family of viruses that include those that cause the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). This coronavirus is currently called the SARS-CoV-2. By the time more information on the new disease was gathered, the virus had already escaped from Wuhan and found its way into other countries.
The World Health Organization [WHO] declared COVID as a pandemic on March 11, 2020 (WHO, 2020). The surge in cases in many countries also triggered the adoption of widespread measures intended to curb infection rates. But this did not stop the spread of the virus. As of April 2021, the virus has infected almost 130 million people and claimed the lives of 2.8 million around the world (Bing, 2021). The acquisition of more information about the virus and ways to combat it along with the development of vaccines has nevertheless helped curb the rise in cases in many countries. The prospect of ending the pandemic gets more certain with each passing day, thanks to research on the effectiveness and safety of COVID-19 vaccines.
The Connection Between Pandemics and Human Encroachment
That the world now has a greater chance of getting back to normal should not be taken as license to change nothing. The massive loss of life and the profound impact the pandemic has had on the economy and society serve as a resounding call for change. Experts warn that pandemics are becoming more frequent due to various factors. In the past two decades alone, humans have faced six major threats including SARS, which was first detected in 2003, and MERS, which was detected in 2012. Both viruses are recent additions to the coronavirus family and are now major events in the history of coronavirus and variants. A major contributing factor to the increase in the frequency of outbreaks is human encroachment on nature, which takes place in various forms.
So what does human encroachment have to do with pandemics? To understand this process, it is important to understand where pathogens reside. Pathogens are microorganisms capable of causing disease. These include bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa among others. Nature and the wildlife it hosts are natural reservoirs of countless pathogens. These microbes, while contained in wildlife, may mutate and eventually jump to humans and cause illness. Hence, the more humans encroach on nature, the more humans come into contact with wildlife that host such pathogens. Not all pathogens will jump, but with the increase in contact comes the increase in chances that somewhere along the way one will jump and cause disease (Gill, 2020; Tollefson, 2020). While it is uncertain if encroachment directly played a part in the emergence of COVID-19 given the lack of information on its origins, it is entirely possible that it did, and that this mechanism will happen again in the future as more wildlife loses their habitats to human encroachment.
Encroachment by Deforestation
Already, there are many avenues through which pathogens can jump to humans, one of which is in the widespread loss of habitats due to the conversion of forests into agricultural land. Deforestation is one of the leading causes of encroachment. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO], the rate of deforestation in the last six years stood at around 10 million hectares per year. In the last 30 years alone, the world has lost around 420 million hectares of forests (FAO, 2020). For example, the Amazon Forest is under constant threat due to the expansion of the meat industry. It is estimated that around 70% of deforestation in the Amazon is due to cattle ranching, where ranches operate on such a massive scale as to involve millions of cattle.
The rampant deforestation to make way for these ranches has been identified as the result of increased demand for meat consumption worldwide (Phillips et al., 2019). People are eating more meat today than in the previous centuries. Meat has also become more affordable. As demand for meat rises, meat companies are compelled to clear forests for agricultural land, thus resulting in encroachment and consequent contact between people and wildlife. Additionally, deforestation also forces many species to migrate to other regions. Species that naturally do not share the same ecosystem eventually come into contact with each other, thus creating opportunities for the transfer of pathogens between species. Once these species come into contact with humans, any pathogens they have come to harbor may eventually infect humans as well.
Encroachment by Trade in Exotic Animals
Another way by which human encroachment on wildlife increases the risks of pandemics is through the trade in exotic animals. As mentioned earlier, the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in people working in the wet market in Wuhan. This information has led many researchers to believe that the virus came from animals sold in the market. Bats, in particular, are being considered by researchers as the origin of the virus, since bats are natural hosts of coronaviruses, and pathogens from past pandemics such as MERS and SARS have also been ultimately traced to bats. Researchers believe that the virus jumped from the bat to another animal such as a pangolin before jumping to humans (Aguirre et al., 2020).
Wet markets such as the one in Wuhan are not uncommon in China and other countries. Many of these markets sell endangered and or banned species. While there are laws prohibiting the trade in such animals, these laws are not always enforced. The demand for such animals also enables such markets to persist. Trading wild animals is also not limited to such markets where animals are sold or served as food. Other markets also sell animals as medicine or as pets (World Wildlife Fund, 2020). However, scientists warn that these markets create perfect conditions for the transmission of pathogens between animals and between animals and humans. These markets for food, pets, and medicine often keep animals in crowded and unsanitary conditions. Animals mix with each other, and so do their byproducts. These conditions create pathways through which pathogens can transfer between species and finally make their way to humans (Aguirre et al., 2020).
The Contribution of Climate Change
Climate change has also been one of the factors that contribute to the increase in the risk of future pandemics. Climate change is rapidly changing ecosystems around the globe. Like deforestation and urbanization, climate change is driving animals from their natural habitats. These animals, in turn, are forced to adapt to other environments where they are exposed to other animals, thus facilitating the exchange of pathogens. Again, this process may ultimately result in pathogens jumping from one animal to another until it reaches humans (Harvard School of Public Health, 2020).
What Society Must Do
With encroachment regarded as one of the factors that increase the likelihood of pandemics in the future, society must once and for all start taking serious steps towards minimizing contact with wildlife and preserving nature. Ending encroachment, however, cannot be accomplished by leaving nature alone; this also requires changing some of humanity’s fundamental patterns of lifestyle and consumption. One way to minimize the risk of pandemics is by curbing demand for meat. Many societies’ preference for consuming meat is one of the key drivers of encroachment (Phillips et al., 2019). As the supply and demand for meat increase, forests are cleared to make way for ranching. Shifting to a plant-based diet, or one that is dominated by plant-based food can help lower the demand for meat and thereby discourage further loss of forests to cattle ranching.
Ending the trade in exotic animals, either for food or for pets, is another way to minimize the risk of new pandemics emerging. The capture of exotic animals is a risky practice, with markets such as that in Wuhan found in many countries. Such markets have long been identified by researchers as sites of increased risk of transmitting pathogens between humans and animals (Tollefson, 2020). It also does not help that there are long-standing cultural factors that make eradication of this practice difficult. But while there is a strong cultural element for this practice, there is no question about the need to end it as soon as possible (Aguirre et al., 2020). Strengthening laws, improving implementation, and educating the public are just some of the key activities that can end this practice. Moreover, improving conditions such as sanitation in markets allowed to operate will also aid in eliminating conditions that make the transfer of pathogens possible.
Tackling climate change will involve a number of measures. For one, leading a more sustainable lifestyle can help. For example, the meat industry and the fast fashion industry have been identified as among the top producers of carbon emissions. Cutting down on meat consumption and the purchase of fast fashion, therefore, decrease personal ecological footprints. Furthermore, shifting to clean renewable energy sources such as wind power and solar power should be on the top agenda of governments and large corporations. It is important to note that personal initiatives can only do so much when it comes to climate change. That is why crucial to battling this problem is being an active participant in the political process. Supporting politicians with sound climate policies, boycotting polluting companies, and calling out unethical practices are just some of the ways by which political participation can be harnessed to battle climate change.
Finally, limiting urbanization is also another factor that can be done to address this problem. As humans take up more space by clearing nature, they increase contact with wildlife and thus also amplify risks of having pathogens jump from wildlife to humans. While it is true that these activities are often viewed as necessary for human life to continue, society must find solutions that will cut down human encroachment. Otherwise, pandemics that upend the world such as COVID-19 will continue to take place in the future.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly changed the world. Not only has it claimed millions of lives and brought the global economy to a standstill, but it has also revealed potentially catastrophic consequences of encroaching on nature. As contact between humans and wildlife increases, the chances of humans acquiring pathogens from nature are also amplified. The COVID-19 pandemic has all but brought many countries to their knees. The prospect of facing more pandemics in the future, some of which may be far more destructive than the one the world battles today, should be enough motivation for people to change their ways.
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