The immense COVID-19 tragedy unfolding in India is yet another wake-up for the need to address the underlying causes of zoonotic diseases and enhance their prevention, through conservation, not merely focus on public health and economic mitigation measures. Yet, international conservation efforts since COVID-19 started devastating the world have been unjustifiable inadequate.
World Health Organization report on the origins of the COVID-19 is disappointing and surrounded by questions of China’s fidelity to transparency and truth. It also risks being a drag on global efforts to prevent future pandemics. The report’s conclusion that the first cases of Covid-19 probably occurred in China’s wildlife farms focuses world attention on an isolated public health challenge Beijing has already acted to address. World leaders must not lose sight of the need for China, and other countries, to limit the chance of future disease outbreaks by broadly and substantively improving their environmental stewardship.
COVID-19 is not an isolated, one-in-100-years event. Zoonotic diseases that spill from animals to humans are emerging with an ever-increasing speed every few years. Between SARS in 2002 and COVID-19, there were epidemics of MERS, ebola, Zika and the avian and swine flus. Another global crisis stemming from zoonotic disease can easily break out in the years to come.
Our destruction of nature is at the root of such crises. When animal species are pushed into smaller and smaller spaces, such as through deforestation, they pass pathogens to each other, and then to humans, livestock and pets. This potentially catastrophic cycle accounts for 30 percent of emerging zoonoses.
Wildlife trafficking adds to the risk. The illegal trade in species like pangolins can create a superhighway of infections from Africa to East Asia and beyond.
With wildlife an early suspected vector of Covid-19, China shut down 12,000 of its wildlife farms in the immediate wake of the Wuhan outbreak. It also prohibited the consumption of wild animal meats.
These actions are very important. And Beijing has committed itself to improved practices and their enforcement. But implementation needs to be closely monitored in a country where civil society is repressed, accountability and oversight is minimal and vested interests often undermine regulation, China must say less and show more at home and abroad.
Moreover, China must address its other roles in environmental destruction and zoonotic disease spread.
China continues to be a primary driver of deforestation in Africa and other parts of the world, including tropical areas rife with zoonosis risks. China also remains the world’s top destination for trafficked wildlife, according to the United Nations. To add to the challenge, the use of wildlife in traditional Chinese medicine, which has received support from China’s top leadership, is now being encouraged to go global and being marketed under the so-called Silk Health Road.
One way forward for China is by forgiving the sovereign debts in exchange for commitments to conserve large areas of intact forests. These debt burdens can drive countries toward unsustainable and environmentally destructive extraction of primary commodities, including increased rates of deforestation. China’s voracious appetite for timber drove such deforestation even before its debt diplomacy became a key feature of its foreign policy.
But preventing future pandemics is not just China’s responsibility. The United States is also a creditor to countries from where zoonotic diseases are likely to emerge. Both countries should explore debt-for-nature swaps as a possible area of cooperation. Doing so would position both countries as enablers of a green global recovery.
The United States should also examine how it’s economic relationship with China has helped to drive environmental destruction. For example, while Chinese companies log tropical forests, American consumers are the largest market for Chinese furniture and other products made from tropical hardwoods.
Decreasing U.S. demand for products made from tropical hardwoods is essential to keeping tropical ecosystems intact and reducing pandemic risk. Tariffs imposed by the Trump administration has reduced U.S. demand for these products by 40 percent. As the Biden administration considers whether or not to retain Trump’s tariffs it should weigh the positive, if unintended, consequences for the environment and public health of doing so.
The U.S. should also address its own status as a top destination for trafficked wildlife and the fact that many of the species legally imported into the U.S. are unmonitored for pathogens. Prohibitions on the import, sale and consumption of high-risk wildlife, like those called for in the Preventing Future Pandemics Act of 2020, are a step in the right direction.
Globally, significant improvements to legal trade in wildlife and wildlife farming are necessary, following China’s lead and going beyond, moving from close-to-no-pathogen monitoring to robust monitoring and better veterinary practices. Dangerous wildlife markets that persist around the world, such as in Indonesia, must adopt strict hygienic veterinary and public health regulations or be shut down. Their closures as well as sustainable suppression of poaching and wildlife trafficking require helping hunters, farmers, and consumers adopt healthy practices or provide them with financial and multifaceted support to transition to other sources of protein and livelihoods.
Preventing future pandemics will require the United States, China and the world to make these profound commitments to the conservation of nature. With the next pandemic possibly right around the corner, including in 2021, these changes cannot come too soon.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of “The Extinction Market: Wildlife Trafficking and How to Counter It.”
Catherine Semcer, a conservation researcher, is member of the Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).