INTERVIEW: How climate change affects COVID-19 pandemic response — Scientist

Arthur Wyns
Arthur Wyns

The International Mother Earth Day, April 22, recognises that the earth and its ecosystems are our home and that it is necessary to promote harmony with nature and the earth.

The term Mother Earth is used because it reflects the interdependence that exists among human beings, other living species and the planet we all inhabit.

According to the United Nations, this year’s Mother Earth Day, which coincides with the Super Year of Biodiversity, is focused on its role as an indicator of the earth’s health. There is a growing concern about the health consequences of biodiversity’s loss and change.

Also, the coronavirus outbreak poses a huge risk not only on public health and the global economy, but on biological diversity as well.

Biodiversity, which reflects the variety and variability of life on earth, can be a part of the solution since this diversity of species would make it difficult for pathogens to spread rapidly.

A scientist, who specialises on climate change, environment and human health with World Health Organization (WHO), Arthur Wyns, in this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, explains how biodiversity can be managed during this COVID-19 period. Mr Wyns answers these questions on a personal capacity, not on behalf of WHO.

PT: Is there a correlation between the current pandemic and climate change?

Wyns: There is no direct connection between climate change and either the emergence or the transmission of the COVID-19 disease. The virus causing COVID-19 was not caused by climate change and can be transmitted in all regions, whether hot and humid or cold and dry.

This means that the pandemic is not going to disappear on its own when the weather gets better, and that we will have to do everything we possibly can to stop it from spreading.

Even though climate change did not cause the emergence of COVID-19, it could indirectly make the effects of a current or future pandemic worse.

This is because it undermines the environmental conditions we need for good health—access to water, clean air, food and shelter—and places additional stress on the health system.

Nigeria is already being hit hard by climate change through rising temperatures and lowered rainfall, says the Nigeria Meteorological Agency (NiMet).

NiMet has also pointed out that these hotter and drier conditions which Nigerians are exposed to will exacerbate floods, droughts and heat waves and hamper agricultural production, which many rely on for their livelihoods. Worryingly, these changing climatic conditions are already causing a rise in malaria and other diseases.

PT: Can biodiversity help our health systems? How does biodiversity affect or influence outbreak of infectious diseases?

Wyns: We depend on biodiversity and healthy natural ecosystems for our personal health and survival. Biodiversity, and the complexity of our natural landscapes, is integral to agricultural productivity, access to clean water and many other benefits.

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When we put too much pressure on ecosystems and biodiversity is lost, our natural landscapes become more vulnerable to shocks, and this can create new opportunities for diseases to emergence.

Human disturbance of ecosystems – such as deforestation or urbanisation – are therefore, strongly linked to an increased occurrence and risk of diseases spread by animals.

We know that more than half of all infectious diseases originated in animals, including many of humanity’s most pervasive and deadly ones, such as influenza or schistosomiasis (also known as Bilharziasis).

PT: How do we take care of wildlife post COVID-19 pandemic, knowing that some of them are hosts of infectious diseases that affect humans?

Wyns: Nature is not our enemy; it is our relationship with nature that needs revising. Many people still rely on wildlife for their nutrition and livelihood, and vilifying nature or the people that depend on it is not going to solve anything.

We are placing too many pressures on the natural world, with damaging consequences such as amplifying the risk of disease. Examples include large-scale deforestation, agricultural and livestock intensification, intensive resource extraction, illegal hunting and trade of wildlife, the overuse and misuse of antibiotics, and anthropogenic climate change, among others.

These and other factors are all significant drivers of biodiversity loss but also drive the potential for new infectious diseases to emerge and spread.

The continued strain we place on wild spaces has dramatically increased the risk of pathogens passing from wild and domestic animals to people. We should find a way to live alongside nature, instead of the rather abusive relationship we have with our environment at the moment.

PT: Is there any silver lining for climate action from the current pandemic?

Wyns: It is hard to see a silver lining in a crisis that is still going to get worse for many months to come. The virus will likely kill at least 300,000 people in Sub-Saharan Africa and this number could rise to millions, as most of the continents’ health systems are underprepared to deal with the health crisis.

We can only hope the COVID-19 pandemic will be a wake-up call for global solidarity, and for increased support in strengthening primary health care systems across the continent.

Every African nation needs and deserves increased health financing, health information sharing and more human resources for healthcare, as well as improved early warning systems and health service delivery.

Health systems need to be adapted and strengthened to be shock-proof in the face of current and future health security threats, including rising shocks from climate change.

Nigeria’s COVID-19 response must be rapid and at scale, and in unison with the rest of the African Union. We are already seeing a strong collaboration and coordination among local, national and pan-African organisations to deal with this crisis, including through the incredible work by the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control, the Africa Task Force for Novel Coronavirus and the WHO Africa Programme.

Once African nations have sailed through this storm together, they can hopefully hold on to these strengthened partnerships, in order to emerge move forward as a stronger, more resilient and more prosperous continent.


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