Trees and Pandemics: An Unlikely Relationship

Deforestation
The Lessons of 2020

It’s no secret that we live in a divided and polarised world. But if 7.8 billion can agree on one thing it is this - a global pandemic is an unpleasant experience.

Despite the struggles we have all faced, the pandemonium caused by this pandemic has highlighted some valuable lessons on how we can prevent another in the future.

The Origin

COVID-19 (SARS-Cov2) is believed to have originated from a wet-market in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Bats have suffered the brunt of the blame, perhaps rightly so. However, they were unlikely to be solely to blame. Zoonotic diseases (those passed from animals to humans) often involve multiple species. In particular, during close interaction between animals under stress, usually within the confines of captivity.

Deforestation and Emerging Diseases

The most common association between trees and climate change is their role in reducing CO2 emissions; but it is less common to hear or read about the relationship between deforestation and deadly diseases.

To understand this perhaps unobvious relationship, let’s focus on one area of our planet that is under huge stress from human activity, the Amazon Rainforest. The unique rainforest, which spans across eight countries in South America, is estimated to have 16,000 varying tree species; these trees are home to some of the planet’s rarest fauna. During my visit there in 2017, I was overwhelmed by the diversity of wildlife. In the five days we spent in the region, we were fortunate enough to find sloths, toucans, and howler monkeys; as well as boa constrictors, a tarantula the size of a grown man’s hand, and butterflies of equally staggering size.

But deforestation continues to threaten these complex and delicate ecosystems. Experts estimate that every year 50,000 species of animal, plant, or insect are wiped out due to logging projects in the Amazon; figures show cattle farming accounts for 80% of this deforestation.

Whilst deforestation causes many species to go extinct, those that tend to survive and thrive – such as rats and bats – are more likely to host a potentially dangerous pathogen. Potentially infectious wildlife living within a close proximity of each other, in a climate suited to the spread of pathogens would make the chances of another pandemic increasingly likely.

Our destructive relationship with nature is not only increasing the chance of a new pandemic, it is also exacerbating existing ones. An Amazon-wide study found 9,980 additional cases of Malaria were associated with a 1,567 km2 fall in tree coverage. This translates to a 3.3% increase in malaria incidence for every 10% increase in deforestation (MacDonald and Mordecai, 2019).

Our Role

If we want to make sure that global pandemics are the sort of disasters that occur once in a century if we’re lucky, then we should ensure that we take a holistic approach when tackling environmental issues. The UK must recognise that what we do domestically can set a precedent abroad. The UN Climate Change Conference has now been postponed for November 2021; it would be an embarrassment, and a wasted opportunity if the UK as hosts did not demonstrate leadership to other nation states to tackle an escalating problem. Of all the complex technological revolutions and rollouts that would help us achieve a greener future, planting trees is the one of the cheapest and one of the most effective.

 

William Headshot Picture William Price

 


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