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Blog: The pandemic, the planet, and where we go from here.

07 April 2020
Production Perig Adobe Stock

Photo: Production Perig / Adobe Stock

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by Neville Ash, Director of the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), and Jonny Hughes, Chief Executive Officer of WCMC. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed people’s behaviours across the globe. Tackling the immediate crisis is and must remain the first priority; we must all play our part to keep each of us safe and well. On this World Health Day, our thoughts and sympathies are with all those affected and to their families, and our deepest gratitude goes to health-care workers on the front-line, right across the world, who are working night and day to treat patients and limit the spread.  

It has been just over two weeks since the lockdown was announced here in the UK in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, joining countries around the world in responding to the pandemic. In a matter of days, our way of life has fundamentally altered. Like so many others, our staff of around 140 are now all working from home, and we are proud of the calmness and professionalism they have shown at every turn as we continue to deliver our work with partners to benefit people and the planet. 

The COVID-19 outbreak is causing devastating human, social, and economic distress, and recovery from this crisis will be a collective challenge. If we are to “build back better” from the COVID-19 pandemic, the global recovery process will need to recognise the intimate link between people and nature.  

This is abundantly clear when it comes to reducing the risks from emerging infectious diseases. COVID-19 is just one of a range of diseases to have transmitted from wildlife to people in recent years. It is estimated that one new infectious disease emerges in society every four months, and 75% of all emerging infectious diseases are transmitted to people from wildlife (‘zoonotic diseases’). Activities like deforestation, landscape fragmentation, habitat encroachment and destruction, and unsustainable or illegal wildlife trade disrupt the balance of nature and raise the risk of disease transmission. 

People’s health is intrinsically linked to the health of the planet and its ecosystems, and so the COVID-19 pandemic needs to also influence the biodiversity agenda at the core of UNEP-WCMC's work. It provides a renewed emphasis on our priorities. 

We urgently need to deepen our collective understanding and our stewardship of natural habitats and their relationship with people. The post-pandemic recovery process will need to take on board the connection between zoonotic diseases and ecosystem health. For example, habitat fragmentation can lead to more rapid evolutionary processes and diversification of diseases – a process that can be reduced by restoration and connectivity conservation. There is ambitious work to be done in this area. It is more important than ever that governments, businesses, and communities understand the ecosystems in which we all live and operate; only then can biodiversity and people thrive together. UNEP-WCMC will play our part, working with partners to develop and use crucial knowledge and tools, such as health-focused ecosystem assessments and tools to understand our dependencies on nature, to enhance our understanding of the ecosystems on which we all depend. 

We must also boost sustainable ecosystem use and management to contribute towards preventing the accelerated pathogen pathways we currently face. Building capacity for sound ecosystem conservation and restoration practices sits at the very heart of this, along with strengthening the regulation of wildlife trade to ensure safe and sustainable interactions between people and nature. This pandemic gives renewed gravity to the importance of ensuring that trades and their supply chains are conducive to both ecosystem and human health. 

COVID-19 poses obvious challenges to the international environmental agenda, for example through the need to postpone the UN Climate Change Conference and the IUCN World Conservation Congress, both originally scheduled to take place this year. The “Super Year” for nature is not turning out as expected. However, UNEP-WCMC is continuing to work with our partners to deliver on our mission - and 2020 remains a critically important year for nature as the start of the decade in which the world needs to change course. It is the decade in which the world needs to dramatically scale up action for people and planet, and it will be the year in which the world was reminded that people’s health depends on our relationship with nature.

When we can safely gather together again, the world will be different, and there will be even greater determination to rebalance our relationship with nature and build a better, healthier future.