Updated: Oct 13, 2021
COVID-19 is humanity's wake-up call that all is not well with our planet, our home. It is the awakening that we need to change before it's too late.
There is a tune from Sesame Street that I particularly loved as a kid. It’s called Big Blue Marble and its lyrics go:
“The Earth’s a big blue marble
When you see it from out there
The sun and moon declare
Our beauty’s very rare”
Yes, the Earth is indeed beautiful with its swathes of blue and green visible amidst swirling clouds of white. It is the only known planet for water to naturally exist in liquid form, providing an invaluable force for sustaining life. It is home to a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna, with an estimated 8.7 million species of plants and animals in existence.
Rise of Human Dominance
Of all the species that inhabited the Earth, none have had a more successful proliferation throughout time as humans. It took 200,000 years of history to reach a global human population of one billion in 1800. And a mere 200 years to explode to almost 8 billion.
Agricultural and industrial revolutions in the last two centuries have largely played a role in this. The former gave rise to increased crop and livestock yields, feeding population growth. And the latter brought about advancements in transportation, food distribution, sanitation and medicine.
Humankind has prospered so successfully on the sheer might of our ingenuity that we are now the most dominant species on Earth, poised to reach an estimated 10 billion in 2050.
We are the king of the food chain, the proverbial “Winner in life” …... Or are we?
Unfortunately, the Earth is a zero-sum game
Enter the Pandemic
Unfortunately, the Earth is a zero-sum game. Resources are finite and where there are massive wins on one side, there will be equally massive losses on the other. About a third of the world’s forests have been lost due to human activity throughout the millennia, half of which occurring in the last century.
The impacts of deforestation on the environment and the loss of biodiversity has been well documented. Increasingly coming to attention is its role in zoonosis - the transmission of infectious diseases from animals to humans.
Urbanisation and the destruction of natural habitats have forced wildlife to come into closer contact with humans, increasing the risk and exposure to zoonotic diseases. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), deforestation is linked to 31% of outbreaks such as Ebola, and the Zika and Nipah viruses.
31% of outbreaks such as Ebola, and the Zika and Nipah viruses are linked to deforestation
Agricultural expansion continues to be the main driver of deforestation and forest degradation, with almost half of the world’s habitable land now used for agriculture. Of this, only 23% is used to grow crops for human consumption, and a whopping 77% is used for livestock.
This disproportionately large use of land for animal farming heightens the risk of domestic livestock acting as a conduit for zoonosis through contact with infected wildlife. The phenomenon is not new. While the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2002 SARS outbreak were started by human handling of infected wildlife, the 1998-1999 Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia was the result of zoonosis from fruit bats (its natural host) to pigs in farms to humans. Similarly, the H5N1 avian influenza virus is widely believed to have been transmitted from waterfowls to poultry farms, and then onto humans.
The widespread use of antibiotics in animal farming compounds the threat by increasing the potential for strains of zoonotic pathogens to develop antimicrobial resistance (AMR) i.e. the ability for pathogens to resist the drugs designed to kill them. A joint report in 2019 by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) revealed that antimicrobials are used to treat zoonotic diseases, such as campylobacteriosis and salmonellosis, are becoming less effective.
And what of the fate of the animals involved in a pandemic? Close to a million pigs were culled in Malaysia to contain the Nipah virus. In the late 2000s, hundreds of millions of birds had to be slaughtered globally to limit the spread of H5N1. Just at the end of last year, the entire population of 17 million minks in Denmark were culled after hundreds of farms suffered outbreaks of coronavirus and authorities found mutated strains of the virus among people.
That is the price we pay for our progress.
Our Choices, Our Responsibility
Humans are not only defined by our incredible powers of intellect but also by our inherent moral compass that guides our ability to judge right from wrong.
To quote a favourite comic book superhero of mine, “With great power comes great responsibility”. As the dominant species on Earth, it is our responsibility to use our intelligence and morality to right the wrongs that we have inflicted on the Earth and its inhabitants. To rectify the calamities that we have brought upon ourselves before it is too late.
COVID-19 is our wake-up call
COVID-19 is our wake-up call. It is the devastating reminder that has thrown humanity into global fear, uncertainty and two years of chaos. But it is just the beginning of more virulent and infectious zoonotic diseases to come if we don’t take action now.
(Image Credit: VisualCapitalist)
What difference can one person make, you ask?
Well, more than you might think. It was the collective actions of humankind that got us to the situation we are in today. And it will take the collective willpower of humankind to correct it.
It’s as simple as being aware of the food and product choices we make every day. It’s as easy as keeping ourselves informed about the impacts these choices have on our wellbeing and on the wider ecosystem.
So let’s start a new revolution today. One of conservation, informed consumerism and the protection of all species.
We owe it to ourselves, our children and their children.
We owe it to all the nameless and voiceless creatures suffering the consequences of our dominance.
And we certainly owe it to this home of ours. The only home that we will ever have for generations to come. This big blue marble whose beauty the sun and moon had once declared as very rare.
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 Ritchie, H 2021, The world has lost one-third of its forest, but an end of deforestation is possible, Our World in Data, viewed 1 September 2021, <https://ourworldindata.org/world-lost-one-third-forests>
 Scott, J 2020, Biodiversity loss is hurting our ability to combat pandemics, World Economic Forum, viewed 1 September 2021, <https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/biodiversity-loss-is-hurting-our-ability-to-prepare-for-pandemics>
 UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) 2020, SOFO 2020 - The State of the World’s Forests 2020, www.fao.org, viewed 3 September 2021, <http://www.fao.org/state-of-forests/en/>
 European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) 2019, Zoonoses: antimicrobial resistance shows no signs of slowing down, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, viewed 3 September 2021, <https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/news-events/zoonoses-antimicrobial-resistance-shows-no-signs-slowing-down>