Credit: Dan Meyers
Bill and Melinda Gates’ latest annual letter unsurprisingly focusses on the most important story of 2020: the global COVID-19 pandemic. In line with their organisation’s long-term involvement in global health, the letter outlines the work they have done to support the immediate pandemic response, while also laying the groundwork for the world to react more quickly and effectively when the next pandemic inevitably hits.
This look towards the future focusses mostly on medical solutions (new vaccines, better treatments) and operational improvements (global alert systems, germ games) to improve our response capacity.
However, there is another, equally important avenue for preventing the next pandemic that the Gates Letter left out: minimising the number of new diseases infecting people in the first place.
Though the exact path of transmission remains uncertain, the virus that causes COVID-19 most likely originated in a species of horseshoe bat found in China. This makes it a zoonotic disease, meaning it was transmitted from animals to humans in a “spillover” event. COVID-19 is now part of a growing roster of zoonotic diseases that infect an estimated 2.5 billion people a year, and which also includes Ebola, SARS, rabies, Zika, and avian flu.
It will certainly not be the last – over the past 40 years, infectious disease outbreaks have more than tripled, with zoonotic spillovers making up over half of these occurrences. Already, zoonotic diseases make up 60 per cent of the world’s emerging infectious diseases. With an estimated 1.7 million viruses still left to be discovered, these trends will continue if we do not seriously increase efforts to minimise opportunities for the next jump from animals to humans.
One contributor to this increased zoonotic spillover has been human disturbance and destruction of wildlife habitats, including forests. As humans cut down trees to build houses and roads, plant crops, and graze livestock, they encroach on wild animal species and their habitats. This is effectively putting animals, including those that harbour zoonotic diseases, into closer and more frequent contact with humans. This increased exposure causes the chances of transmission to skyrocket. Although there is still much to learn about the complex links between human disturbance and spillover, the overall message is clear: reducing deforestation may help to prevent the next pandemic.
We must reduce global levels of deforestation that are exposing humans to wild animal hosts.
Increasing the Economic Value of Forests
The drivers of deforestation differ by region and country but boil down to the fact that it is easier to monetise cleared logs and land than existing forest. Forest-dependent communities often have little say over such decisions or are pushed by poverty to prioritise the short-term monetary gains of deforestation over the long-term costs. The result has been the loss of 80 million hectares of forest since 1990, with all the biodiversity loss, climate change impacts, and increased chances of zoonotic spillover that entails.
However, the estimated USD 10 trillion price tag of COVID-19 should draw renewed attention to the massive economic benefits of intact forests – by some estimates, up to USD 150 trillion. The question then becomes how to tap into this “green gold” by helping governments and businesses design the right incentives, business models, and investable opportunities so that both investors and local communities benefit.
"We must reduce global levels of deforestation exposing humans to wild animal hosts."
Donors can help accelerate these developments by applying their funding, expertise, and convening power to foster local partnerships, improve forest governance, and de-risk private investment into the sector. The inclusive growth that results from these collaborations will help address the longstanding inequities that the pandemic has laid bare, empowering communities to affect and benefit from decisions in the forestry sector and forest-dependent value chains.
A Race Against Time
While efforts to unlock the economic value of intact forests are gaining steam, longer-term trends in habitat loss remain. Economic and population growth leads to increased demand for commodities such as beef that can contribute to deforestation, says Scott Moreland, Senior Director of Economics at Palladium and co-author of a recent study on the links between livestock production and zoonotic outbreaks in four African countries.
“It’s not unreasonable to expect that as livestock populations increase in response to this higher demand, clearing of forests for grazing land will accelerate as well, further raising the risk of spillover.”
Preventing deforestation will therefore require collaboration with existing industries to reduce their environmental footprint, complementing the emergence of more forest-friendly industries such as carbon markets and non-timber forest products.
Reducing deforestation is already a key component of the world’s response to high-profile global issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss. COVID-19 has reminded us that forests are not just an environmental concern but are essential to human health and well-being as well. Investing in forests, and the communities that live in and around them must be a central part of any toolkit to prevent and prepare for the next pandemic.
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