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Healthy planet, healthy people

07 April 2021
Health

Photo: WHO

The COVID-19 pandemic has had, and continues to have, devastating impacts on communities and economies across the world.  
 
This World Health Day, 7th April 2021, the importance of preventing future pandemics is clearer than ever - as are the costs of failing to do so.  
 
As the international community plans and begins the collective challenge of rebuilding from the pandemic, rebalancing the relationship between people and nature will be key to reducing the risks of future outbreaks. 

Whether for food, a stable climate, or directly for livelihoods, all people rely on the conditions for decent life that are provided by healthy ecosystems. 

COVID-19 is just one of a range of diseases to jump from wildlife to people in recent years. In fact, 75% of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic - that is, transmitted to people from other animals. 
 
Over the last year, there has been much research into environmental-health linkages, including what causes these diseases to spread to people. While there is more work to be done in this area, it is clear that the risk of diseases spilling over from animals to people is increased by the same unsustainable practices that drive climate change and biodiversity loss.  
 
Research from the UN Environment Programme found that “the rising trend in zoonotic diseases is driven by the degradation of our natural environment – through land degradation, wildlife exploitation, resource extraction, climate change, and other stresses.” For example, destroying and converting natural habitats can increase the transmission of zoonotic diseases by displacing species that then come into greater contact with people.  

Conversely, actions that protect and promote biodiversity can reduce the risk of future pandemics.

One example of this is safeguarding natural species diversity; where native species diversity is high, infection rates for zoonotic diseases may be lower. Likewise, while fragmented habitats may stimulate more rapid evolutionary processes and diversification of diseases, restoring damaged ecosystems and re-connecting isolated habitat patches can help bring back stability to natural environments. 
 
This holistic perspective is at the heart of the ‘One Health’ approach that is rising up the global agenda, which considers public health, agriculture and ecosystem health as clearly interconnected issues.  

It’s time to strike a new relationship with nature 

Later this year, the meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity is expected to agree on a set of new international goals and targets on biodiversity, as part of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework.  
 
The post-2020 global biodiversity framework is an opportunity to shape a better relationship between people and nature, one which restores a balance to nature and so helps to prevent future pandemics.  
 
The COVID-19 crisis underlines the urgent need for ambitious commitments to tackle biodiversity loss, and most importantly, the need for effective action to deliver on those commitments. This includes protecting habitats, improving the management of protected areas, and restoring degraded ecosystems. 
 
Success will require transformative change. Neville Ash, Director of the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre, says: “The causes of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation are well known, and there is widespread agreement on many of the actions required to address them. Alongside protecting and restoring nature, we will need to address climate change and tackle the underlying causes of biodiversity loss: our unsustainable financial and food systems, and our wider patterns of consumption and production.” 
 
Achieving this will require action from across all sectors of society, including the private sector. For example, more sustainable commodity trade can reduce the displacement of wildlife resulting from damaging interventions like deforestation, pollution, and unsustainable land-use practices.  
 
UNEP-WCMC will continue to play our part, including by working with the Convention on Biological Diversity to help create an impactful, future strategic plan for biodiversity, supporting countries in taking domestic action to deliver on their international commitments and working to establish more sustainable global trade flows.  
 
Ambition alone won’t help to reduce the risk of future pandemics, but ambition followed by coordinated, effective action for nature could help to shape a healthier future for people and the planet.