ASSIGNING responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic is a tricky business. With over 200,000 global deaths by the end of April 2020, we are collectively despairing. Much finger-pointing (and conspiracy theorising) has taken place, with all of us searching for someone or something to blame for this devastating outbreak.
The truth is that no one is quite sure what caused this virus. We know that it shares genetic properties with other coronaviruses connected to bat populations. We know that it is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it came from an animal population, and we know the jump from animals to humans most likely took place in Wuhan province, China.
In his now viral 2015 TED talk, Bill Gates said, “if anything kills over 10 million people in the next decade, it is going to be a highly infectious virus, not a war”. We now know this prediction is not far-fetched – and epidemiologists have been warning of a major event like this for years.
But a paper published this week says that, although we don’t know what caused the virus, we certainly do know who caused the virus – and that’s us. The paper concludes that we will face more pandemics if we refuse to protect nature.
“Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people,” said professors Josef Settele, Sandra Díaz, Eduardo Brondizio and zoologist Peter Daszak.
Experts point to deforestation as one of the key risk factors for emerging infectious diseases, along with the wildlife trade and factory farming. There seems to be agreement that these diseases stem from humankind’s appalling handling of the natural world, treating flora and fauna as a convenient way to fill our wallets or fill our bellies, at whatever environmental cost. Human encroachment and environmental degradation, in their many forms, are the root cause of zoonoses and are the number one cause of emerging infectious diseases. This is especially true in the tropics, which are considered disease hot spots.
As world leaders in tropical rainforest destruction, this places Malaysia and Indonesia in the hot seat for our collective planetary health. Along with the Amazon and the Congo basin, the tropical rainforests of Borneo must be safeguarded in order to prevent another pandemic from bringing our shared world to a physical and economic standstill, and from killing hundreds of thousands of people. Here are some reasons why Borneo could cause the next pandemic:
We’re losing too much forest
Catastrophic rates of land clearing in recent decades have resulted in more than a third of the Earth’s forests converted for agricultural use. Climate change has compounded these losses, with rising sea levels threatening mangrove forests and massive seasonal fires wiping out large parts of the world.
Tropical forests are leading the way in losses, with record breaking levels of clearing happening nearly every year in recent history. Since the year 2000, Borneo has lost at least 6 million hectares of forest, much of it converted to oil palm plantations. Timber extraction has crippled much of the primary forests of Sarawak, Sabah and Kalimantan, and indigenous communities are fighting hard to protect what’s left.
New diseases are emerging because of this forest loss
Zoonotic viruses come from the interaction of humans with wild animals, who are the natural hosts of thousands of viruses. Only 1% of wildlife viruses are currently known to science, but if they remain locked away in balanced ecosystems, then this is not a problem for us humans. It is when landscapes are distrubed by human encroachment that zoonotic diseases emerge.
As epidemiologist Rajan Patil told Mongabay, “Usually in undisturbed habitats, viruses keep circulating in mild forms in animals. It is when this equilibrium is disturbed and they come in contact with humans, some cross the species barrier due to a mutation, and human infections start taking place.”
Industrial agriculture, megadams, mining and logging are all industries alive and well in Borneo. These are also industries that force animals (and the viruses they carry) out of their habitats and push them into areas with animals that have no immunity – including humans. This is where we see the crossover that Patil mentions above, and Borneo has all the elements needed for that crossover to take place. Animal trafficking is rampant, farming takes places close to intact forest, and disturbance of ecosystems is a daily occurence thanks to logging and industrial plantations. In Borneo, we have inadvertently rolled out the red carpet for the next infectious disease to emerge.
Outbreaks are getting more frequent
Instances of emerging zoonotic diseases have quadrupled in the last half century, and we all know the famous ones — SARS, MERS, Ebola, HIV, avian flu and swine flu. Experts say that the acceleration of zoonotic diseases is caused by our accelerated disturbance of the habitats where these diseases live. It is only a matter of time before animal human disturbance shakes loose a new deadly disease.
If we are serious about planetary health then more pressure needs to be put on Malaysia and Indonesia to protect their tropical rainforests. We already knew this from a climate survival perspective, as Borneo’s forests are vital in regulating global temperatures. But the coronavirus crisis has thrown into sharp relief forests’ role in disease prevention, and this has created a new urgency for their safeguarding and restoration.
We might not know much about this virus, but we know that habitat destruction is a recipe for the next one. More Americans have now died from the coronavirus than from the Vietnam War. Anything we can do to prevent a tragedy of this magnitude should be taken seriously, and protecting our natural world is one of the best chances we have. Zero-deforestation pledges with Borneo-sized loopholes will not cut it, we need to see firm commitments from the governments and companies operating in our tropical rainforest hotspots to protect our shared planetary health. – May 1, 2020.
* Fiona McAlpine is communications and media manager of The Borneo Project.
* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.