Living with Nature in post COVID Lives
This Pandemic is also a stark reminder of our dysfunctional relationship with nature
Many people are wondering when life will get back to normal after the Covid-19 crisis. We should be asking: Can we use this opportunity to learn from our mistakes and build something better?
A focus on nature can help us understand where Pandemics come from and how the socio-economic fallout from the crisis could be mitigated. The unfolding Covid-19 pandemic is having undeniable human and economic impacts. To date, the virus has caused more than 119,000 confirmed deaths Worldwide, millions of jobs losses and stock markets to dive.
This pandemic is also a stark reminder of our dysfunctional relationship with nature.
The current economic system has put great pressure on the natural environment and the pandemic has shone a light on the domino effect that is triggered when one element in this interconnected system is destabilised. In fact, nature provides a buffer between humans and diseases are often the result of encroachment into natural ecosystems and changes in human activity.
Coronavirus has disrupted everyday life throughout the world through travel bans, flight restriction and cancellation of sporting and cultural events. But Coronavirus is not the only global crisis we face: climate crisis and bio-diversity loss, as others have noted is expected to be more devastating.
Some have observed that the response to the two crisis is starkly different. At first glance, the difference is surprising because the climate crisis and bio-diversity degradation is structurally very similar to the Coronavirus crisis for a number of reasons. But the response to the Coronavirus crisis has arguably been far greater than the response to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.
Coronavirus is a recent self-evident and rapidly escalating threat. It feels like a shock to the status-quo and the unease that shock engenders motivates action. Each day brings new evidence that has accumulated only gradually. Consequently, it does not evoke the same kind of unease. While there is no doubt that present and past activities by humans have caused that will have consequences for the degradation of bio-diversity; it is not wholly possible to ascribe any specific event to bio-diversity loss.
The impression it makes is of a vague problem that will be encountered in the future, not something immediate. There is also a sense in which future is going to be bad regardless what steps we take now to address bio-diversity loss. This can beget feelings of helplessness. With coronaviruses’, it feels as though today’s action will have real and demonstrable consequences.
People are more supportive of policies if they can explain the mechanism through which the policy operates. There is a simple and intuitive mental model of how Covid-19 spreads (through people) and how we can stop its spread (keep infected people isolated).
In the middle of Coronavirus crisis, many of us have turned to nature to reduce stress levels, improve mental health and stay physically active. Yet, human interaction with nature and eco-system contributed to the existence of the current pandemic in the first place. So what can we take away from this? Human action has altered our planet from land to Ocean and has led to a loss of eco-system.
There is strong evidence that the emergence of zoonotic diseases-those that jumps between animals is linked to alteration of eco-system and human encroachment into wildlife habitats and the United Nations has recently linked environmental degradation to the emergence of pandemic.
There are two main ways that our impact on the environment is increasing the threat of pandemic such as the current coronavirus outbreak. First with growing human settlement and land-clearing for agriculture, the transition zones between different eco-system have grown. This leads to species from different habitats mixing and interacting with each other in new ways. These new contacts provides new opportunities for diseases to jump between species as coronavirus did.
The second important driver for the emergence of zoonotic disease is bio-diversity loss. With decreasing bio-diversity, disease vector-those animals that carry and transmit an infectious pathogen-are more likely to feed on vertebrates than other species which are no longer as abundant. Those other species then become the primary reservoir of the pathogen.
In North America, it was shown that forest fragmentation led to reduce diversity of vertebrates and increase the abundance of some generalist species such as the white-footed mouse which has become the primary reservoir of the bacteria causing Lyme-disease. High bio-diversity on the other hand, can reduce the risk to human health.
The underlying mechanism is called “the dilution effect “and it works by reducing both the relative density of animals that serve as a natural reservoir for pathogens and the population density of the pathogen vector (such as ticks). This means fewer encounters between vectors and the animals that infect with the disease. But greater contact between human and their environment has been one of the most important responses to the pandemic, from a mental health perspective.
Many of us who have been fortunate enough to live in areas where lockdown restriction still permitted outdoor activities turned to walking and exercising outdoors and enjoying the beauty of the rivers, urban green spaces and forests, all the while adhering to the prescribed regulations on physical distance and group size.
As we respond to the pandemic, the draw of such spaces for improving well-being cannot be overlooked. Science has long established that access to urban green areas such as parks and lakes has positive impacts on health, typically due to improved air quality, increase physical activity, social cohesion and stress reduction. It has also been shown that interaction with nature helps us to better recover from stress.
Greening cities not only support human health but comes with a wide range of other benefits: it is economical, helps reduces the heat island effect in a time of increasingly extreme temperatures and improves air quality. Green areas can also contributes to flood risk reduction by allowing more water to infiltrate into the soil and thus reducing the amount of excess water during rainstorms. Finally, urban green can create new habitats for plant and animal species.
In light of this, the coronavirus pandemic will instigate action to address the underlying drivers of diseases emergence, including ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss. The challenge of protecting the environment in an era of rapidly escalating climate crisis is enormous and individuals often feel overwhelmed and unable to contribute to change. But our recent positive experiences with the environment also present a unique opportunity to emerge from the pandemic with a better relationship with nature.
Recognition of the value of green space should be encouraged long after the pandemic has passed and if managed properly could encourage action of the community level to protect eco-system from further human incursions. As we look to the future, growing cities need to prioritize existing green spaces and build new ones within existing city boundaries. Green areas within cities support health objectives without degrading biodiverse areas elsewhere.
Experiencing nature outside cities will remain important to maintain human health but will only be possible to access and experience in the long run if we can find a healthy balance between our resource use and nature protection. Enforcement and strengthening environmental regulations to protect or restore biodiverse areas will be vital. The cost of managing those areas for biodiversity conservation and recreation is easier to communicate if the full range of benefits are considered including the contribution they make to human health.
A green strategy that helps us “Build Back Better “after coronavirus can support sustainable development on many accounts, not only for mental and physical well-being but also to ensure that multiple global goals , such as combating climate change and reducing natural hazard risk ,can be achieved.