The Pandemic and the Global Environment: Which Way Next?
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought home the fact that humans do not exist outside of the Earth’s ecological system. The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is zoonotic, meaning it has originated in animals and crossed over to humans. The causes of the increasing occurrence in zoonotic pandemics lie in the higher frequency of encounters between humans and animals (both wild and domesticated). This is exacerbated by how we exploit and abuse the natural environment, and how human influence has become ever more pervasive in the Anthropocene.
The pandemic has revealed significant vulnerabilities even in the North, with severe economic consequences likely leading to an extended recession. Much will depend on how we respond to the crisis and how we approach the recovery. The crisis will present an opportunity to rethink what kind of development we as a society want to pursue. We should take this opportunity to reconsider how to restructure the economy towards more sustainability, respect for nature, equality and participation.
The 2030 Agenda recognises the three pillars of sustainable development, but the environment is usually relegated to a subservient role. A certain shift in attitudes is detectable, but powerful interests will push to restore growth at any cost. The slowed economic activity has in a short period resulted in measurable environmental and associated health benefits to arise. Human health and wellbeing are closely related with a healthy natural environment, including ecosystem integrity, clean air and a stable climate. Should we return to business as usual after the crisis subsides, we will pay the price and the next pandemic will be waiting in the wings.
- Future policies and societal directions should be based on the principles of sustainable development considering the social, economic and environmental dimensions in a balanced way. Decision-making must be informed by science.
- More funding—and funding that is sustained and reliable—is needed for medical and other scientific research to help cope with future pandemic risks. This research should encompass both social and natural sciences. Strong public-private partnerships are needed.
- The sustainable development discourse must recognise the close interlinkages between human health, ecosystem health, climate change, disasters, equality and economic development. This also means that environmental concerns other than climate change, such as habitat destruction and biodiversity loss that are directly linked to pandemics must receive more attention.