COVID-19 And the Role of Planetary Health: Environmental and Social Considerations in A Health Crisis

COVID-19 And the Role of Planetary Health:
Environmental and Social Considerations in A Health Crisis

by Atty. Alexandra Gamboa, J.D., L.L.M.

The environmental aspect of the pandemic has been largely under discussed, and understandably so considering the more immediate pressing needs of health and social services, but it is important to remember that the environment plays a huge role in public health. If bacteria and viruses are studied in a lab on a petri dish, the Earth is essentially the actual real-life petri dish and diseases are borne through the environmental conditions inside this big petri dish. It is important that we examine the various environmental aspects of the current health crisis, as well as the relationship between nature and emerging diseases.

In particular, I will be discussing the social and environmental conditions that increase our exposure to a disease, with the need to re-examine how our economy utilizes natural resources, and policy recommendations for the long-term response and recovery plan to the pandemic.

It has been observed that 60-75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, or that which is transmitted by animals to people. SARS was transmitted probably through bats, avian flu through birds, MERS-COV through camels, and now COVID-19 is suspected to have originated from bats. These are only some among a long line of infectious diseases that have emerged in the recent years.

Through a number of social and environmental conditions, the consequence is that our exposure to animals have increased, and therefore our exposure to these diseases have increased as well.

A lot of these conditions have to do with the rapid increase of our global population, which then leads to rapid urbanization.

Because of an increase in global population, the demand for human settlement is expanding, and we have further encroached on forests and other natural habitats of wildlife, therefore knocking down the natural barriers that would protect us from exposure. We have also used these same areas for growing livestock because of the increase demand for food, exposing our source of food like cows to zoonotic diseases that could be carried on to us when we eat these livestock. Our increased need for extracting natural resources, such as those taken through mining or logging, requires humans to go deeper into the forest, exposing themselves to zoonotic disease and ultimately they act as carriers when they go back to their homes and their town.

This loss of natural habitat, and more importantly the loss of biodiversity, weakens our ability to respond to pandemics. Fifty percent of modern drugs have been developed through natural products, and these natural products are continually being destroyed and eradictaed by human encroachment or activity. With the destruction of biodiversity, we may have missed a valuable source for a vaccine or a cure to a disease.

Another consequence that we have seen from this, now with the COVID-19 crisis, is that isolated indigenous tribes have been infected despite their isolation, because miners or loggers that have been infected pass through indigenous lands and come in close contact to these indigenous tribes. This is exactly what happened in Brazil, where a 14-year-old indigenous boy died due to COVID-19. This could mean virtually wiping out a whole tribe because their isolation and remoteness makes it very difficult for them to receive medical attention, creating a significant loss in a nation’s cultural value by reason of the existence of these tribes.

By reason of the demands on food supply, people have also taken on to eating less common sources of protein such as bats and dogs. At times there is a cultural and culinary reason behind this, but most times it is due to the fact that these sources of protein are much cheaper. Because we know less about the effects of consuming these sources of protein, as well as a lack in food regulation, as opposed to beef, chicken, pork and fish which have been largely studied by agricultural science, there is a higher incidence or probability that these sources of protein could be carriers of lesser known diseases.

The illegal trading of wildlife, and the increasing profitability of this in the international market, also unduly exposes us to zoonotic diseases, not only because of the close contact between humans and animals but more so the dangers of these animals crossing borders, carrying diseases from one country to another.

Density is also a huge contributor to our exposure, and now because of the density of most urban areas due to the increase in population, infectious diseases spread at a much faster rate, making the challenge of containing the disease harder. This is true even for animals, where the rate of degradation of natural habitat is increasing so the density of biodiversity in an area is higher, and when one species is infectious, the spread to other species is faster, increasing as well the number of infected species that humans may potentially come in contact with and get infected by the disease.

Those are the implications of biodiversity and the destruction of natural habitat to the spread of emerging zoonotic disease, however air quality also plays a part, especially for COVID-19. COVID-19, which greatly affects respiratory function, is much more dangerous for people who are continually exposed to poor air quality, weakening their respiratory system particularly the lungs. A lot of our exposure to poor environmental conditions directly affect our personal health and therefore make us more susceptible to disease.

Temperature also plays a part, and that is why climate change is a cause for concern.

Mosquito-borne diseases like malaria are climate dependent as they thrive in humid conditions with excessive rainfall, and it has been studied that there is a five-fold increase in malaria epidemics after an El Nino event. And because of climate change which will increase global temperature, it has been forecasted that there will be a significant increase in El Nino events, thereby also creating conditions where mosquito-borne diseases will thrive better.

It has also been studied that viruses can be trapped in ice for millions of years, and because of the large-scale melting of the glaciers due to climate change, there is a high chance that these dormant viruses that have been trapped in ice could re-emerge. Scientists have also observed in laboratory conditions that dormant viruses have a potential to be revived, so this scenario could be a great possibility.

Also due to climate change, increases in sea surface temperature have led to increases in shellfish poisoning, or red tide, which are harmful to humans when consumed.

Because of the increase in global temperature, pathogenic microbes have also been observed to adapt to higher temperatures, leading them to form new infectious diseases. Pathogenic microbes normally cling on to a fungi host, which has a lower temperature than a human host. However, because of this adaptation, pathogenic microbes could potentially tolerate the higher temperature of a human host, thereby being able to now infect people.

Looking forward to our recovery from this pandemic, governments will need to redefine their parameters for development by considering their valuation of natural resources and ecosystem services.

Governments have continually been measuring the value of natural resources against their productivity, which shows that the lens being used to view this value is one that is extractive and anthropocentric or human-centered. When we think about trees as a resource, and correlate it to its contribution to our economy, we value its ability as a raw material for construction or burning, but we fail to see the value of its ecosystem services – that it is a natural barrier against zoonotic disease and as a potential source of a vaccine or a cure. We need to truly start thinking about looking at natural resources with the lens of conservation and not just production, because these natural resources have ecosystem services that will better prepare us for the next pandemic, among other things. When we look at it through this lens, we will be able to consider both its productivity in supplying us with raw material and food but also the important need to conserve these resources for its other vital services.

With this shift in perspective on valuation, governments then need to invest in research. First, they must focus on data reflecting the state and stock of their available natural resources, then they must research on how they may accurately capture the values of their ecosystem services. Through this accurate valuation of ecosystem services, they may have a better analysis of the costs and benefits of the conservation and extraction of natural resources. Ultimately, government should be able to conduct a thorough trade-off analysis in the balancing of the population’s needs with the environmental considerations and create a plan for sustainable development.

We also should re-examine the sourcing of our basic commodities, especially food. The shutting of borders, whether it is shutting national borders to other countries or, for archipelagos like the Philippines, shutting borders of island to other islands, highlights the value in self-sustenance. Although supply of food services is exempted in these restrictions, we must consider local production as much as possible and re-examine our policies and consumption habits to support local sources. Policies that encourage local food production must be put in place, such as requiring a percentage of food supply to come from local sources and instituting tariffs on imported produce. These exact same solutions to food security in a pandemic are the same solutions that will mitigate climate change by reducing carbon emissions through the transportation of food.

It is also worthy to note that the restrictions on travel and physical contact because of this global pandemic has required businesses to re-imagine the way they operate. Majority of us are now working from home, doing conferences and meetings remotely. This reduction of movement has previously been a measure that was identified as a solution to climate change, among other measures. This has largely been dismissed by businesses, but I think this period shows how it can be done, give or take a few nuances, especially when it is framed as a solution to a pressing problem. The challenge now is to translate the problem of climate change as a pressing problem, because climate change largely has slow onset effects, as opposed to a pandemic where the effect is more immediate and personal. However, given the science on climate change, the need to address the problem immediately is comparable to the need to address a pandemic, and therefore the adoption of measures that are seen as drastic, such as businesses operating remotely to some extent, will be understood as necessary.

The lessons we are getting through this pandemic response and recovery truly show that there is a need to invest in nature, and that this investment can lead to huge economic gains. By decreasing our exposure to emerging infectious diseases by redesigning our economic model, increasing our ability to develop modern drugs through the conservation of biodiversity, and ensuring our food security, we ideally would be able to prevent the losses we are experiencing now when another pandemic happens, leading to increased economic and human security.