ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS

Politics of pollution: Covid-19 demonstrates need for nature protection

CDC estimates that three-quarters of new or emerging diseases that infect humans originate from animals.

In Summary

• Influenza, cholera and Asian flu pandemics to the current cases of Ebola and Covid-19 demonstrate the strong linkage between infectious diseases and the destruction of nature.

• Any form of environmental disturbance increasingly contributes to the destabilisation of ecological and ecosystem balances

Volunteers from the Blue Sky Rescue team wearing protective suits in Wuhan, Hubei province, on April 2, 2020
Volunteers from the Blue Sky Rescue team wearing protective suits in Wuhan, Hubei province, on April 2, 2020
Image: REUTERS

Towards the end of December last year, Wuhan city reported the first case of a novel virus now known corronavirus, which causes Covid-19 disease.

Over the last four months, the virus has spread exponentially to all parts of the world with over 3.3 million people testing positive and more than 228,000 dead as of April 30.

In Kenya, 384 people have tested positive, while 15 have succumbed.

The above statistics are a testament to the impact of the virus, which is pushing the world into a possible recession as economies face a potential meltdown.

On the same breath, the environment has not been spared.

Negatively, the coronavirus has occasioned an increased pressure on forestry and wildlife resources by adjacent communities that rely on them for their livelihood in terms of food, fuelwood, economic benefits and recreation as it was recently noted in Karura and Ngong Hill forests.

On the positive front, it has contributed immensely to cleaner air through the reduction of air pollution due to lockdowns and other safety measures being deployed by governments towards its management.

In fact, there are reports that certain mountain peaks such as the Himalayas can now be seen from a town in India and Mt Kenya from Nairobi. This could not be the case under the business as usual scenario.

Even as we continue to stare at the devasting impacts of this global pandemic, environmentalist believes there is a paucity of evidence that link pandemics and environmental degradation.

For instance, influenza, cholera and Asian flu pandemics that were witnessed in the 20th Century to the current cases of Ebola and Covid-19 demonstrate the strong linkage between infectious diseases and the destruction of nature.

The above sentiments are further bolstered by David Quammen in his book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. He opines that there is a clear interlink between a pandemic virus and the diverse ecosystems. These ecosystems form unique habitats to many species of wild animals, plants, fungi and bacteria, all of which contain unique viruses within their biological diversities.

Therefore, any form of environmental disturbance increasingly contributes to the destabilisation of ecological and ecosystem balances leading to flip off and the deleterious effects of that are sporadic outbreaks and pandemics associated with possible cross over of pathogens from nature to human systems.

Over the years, numerous researches have documented how outbreaks of animal-borne and other infectious diseases such as Ebola, SARS, bird flu and now coronavirus are caused by pathogens crossing from animals to humans. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that three-quarters of new or emerging diseases that infect humans originate from animals.

Historically, several diseases have been transmitted from animals to human beings eg lassa fever, nipah, SARS, zika and West Nile virus, rabies and plague. Others such as, marburg, which is thought to be transmitted by bats and MERS, which is linked to camels are still rare though it can spread globally.

According to WHO, more than 17 per cent of all infectious diseases that cause more than 700,000 deaths each year could be linked to vector-borne diseases caused by infectious pathogens being transmitted between humans, or from animals to humans.

The above scenario pinpoints the need to have natural barriers to pathogen flight from their natural habitats, hosts, or even drastic species shifts from their ecological ranges. The need to have functional landscapes and ecosystems that provides for the need of every organism cannot be overemphasised, more so in the era of increasing human population coupled with climate change.

SUSTAINABLE RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

We fully understand population growth depends on the exploitation of a natural ecosystem for their livelihood and socio-economic development. We are cognizant of the fact that the Kenyan economy is dependent on natural resources and climate-sensitive sectors such as rainfed agriculture, tourism. Therefore, the need for sustainable natural resource management and restoration actions cannot be overemphasided as espoused in the number of strategies, policies and legislative frameworks.

There is every need and urgency to fast track the achievement of sustainable development globally and locally.

For instance, the planting of 1.8 billion seedlings as contained in the national tree planting strategy, which directly contributes to the achievement of the constitutional requirement of 10 per cent tree cover should be actualised.

Other notable initiatives and targets include the commitment to restore 5.1 million hectares of degraded and deforested landscape by 2030, the Bonn Challenge which is a global effort to restore 150 million hectares of deforested and degraded land by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030. There is also the Convention of Biological Diversity Aichi commitment of 2010, which focuses on ecosystem resilience and the contribution of biodiversity to human wellbeing.

Covid-19, like other pandemics in the past, demonstrate the need for sustainable actions that are sensitive to the natural environment we live in.

There is need to reexamine linkages between human health and conservation of the planet and apply precautionary principles in situations where connectivity cannot be established.

As we observe the government directives on staying and working from home and maintaining personal hygiene, let us also reflect and commit to having a cleaner environment around us going forward.

 

Dr John Chumo  is the Committee secretary, National Environmental Complaints Committee

 George Tarus is the chairman, Scientific Committee, Forestry Society of Kenya