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For Love of Nature: Preventing pandemics protects wildlife, too

For Love of Nature: Preventing pandemics protects wildlife, too

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Shannon Brennan

Shannon Brennan is a Central Virginia Master Naturalist, a Lynchburg Tree Steward and a volunteer for the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club and the James River Association. She can be reached at shannonw481@gmail.com.

After COVID-19 hit, the first question my 30-year-old asked was, “Will there be one pandemic after another for the rest of my life?”

That chilling query was one I couldn’t answer, but it appears the future doesn’t have to be that bleak.

A study just published online in the journal Science shows how to avoid pandemics, at a fraction of the cost of pandemics themselves, and helps preserve the natural world at the same time.

The steps are doable: preserving forests, clamping down on the illegal (and sometimes legal) wildlife trade and starting a broad surveillance system to catch emerging diseases before they spread.

“For a century, two new viruses per year have spilled from their natural hosts into humans. The MERS, SARS, and 2009 H1N1 epidemics, and the HIV and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemics, testify to their damage,” the article states.

“Zoonotic viruses infect people directly most often when they handle live primates, bats, and other wildlife (or their meat) or indirectly from farm animals such as chickens and pigs. The risks are higher than ever as increasingly intimate associations between humans and wildlife disease reservoirs accelerate the potential for viruses to spread globally.”

One of the most important measures is halting the destruction of forests, particularly in tropical areas.

When trees are clear-cut for timber, agriculture or mining, wild animals wander into towns and cities, looking for new habitats and meals, increasing the chances of spreading dangerous diseases.

When wild animals are sold in close quarters with livestock, it creates opportunities to share viruses, which then can infect humans.

According to researchers, policymakers should pass legislation to keep high-risk species, such as bats and rodents, out of markets.

Governments also should start new programs of surveillance, monitoring particular hotspots, such as West Africa and Southeast Asia, where new diseases most likely are to emerge. People who spend a lot of time near wildlife or livestock should be tested regularly for new pathogens to look for emerging diseases.

All these actions combined, researchers estimate, would cost between $22 billion and $31 billion per year — a fraction of the pandemic’s estimated $27 trillion blow to the world economy this year as well as the 620,000 deaths so far.

The U.S. Congress already has passed a $2 trillion stimulus package in response to the economic fallout, and is considering a second round. Worldwide, government spending on COVID-19 recovery already has topped $9 trillion.

These proposed policies also sync with global environmental goals. Tropical forests suck carbon out of the air, slowing climate change, and provide habitat for many threatened and endangered species.

The measures also would protect biodiversity and support sustainable farming practices.

National Geographic’s August cover article focuses on stopping pandemics, with an emphasis on how we have found effective vaccines in the past. Wouldn’t it be better, however, if we could stop setting up the conditions that allow new viruses to flourish?

In the meantime, wear your mask, wash your hands and keep your distance from other humans. Stay safe.

Shannon Brennan is a Central Virginia Master Naturalist, a Lynchburg Tree Steward and a volunteer for the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club and the James River Association. She can be reached at shannonw481@gmail.com.

Shannon Brennan is a Central Virginia Master Naturalist, a Lynchburg Tree Steward and a volunteer for the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club and the James River Association. She can be reached at shannonw481@gmail.com.

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