Globalized travel and trade make us susceptible to pathogens like coronaviruses. Tropical regions, rich in host biodiversity, already hold a large pool of pathogens. Our footprint of ecological destruction brings us closer to the wildlife we endanger in remote areas and the illegal pet and bushmeat trades in many parts of the world brings these animals into urban centers, increasing the chance that a novel pathogen will emerge. We are the cause of our own diseases and we can stop them if we want to.
Humans are inflicting massive damage to the natural environment and its inhabitants daily with deforestation, pollution and infrastructure development. Humans are responsible for the extinction of countless thousands of species, killing, poaching and hunting them on their increasingly smaller allotments of preserve with our sprawling urbanization. This unchecked loss of wildlife biodiversity disrupts natural ecological processes such as pollination and seed dispersion, leading to the further degradation of the overall ecosystem. Logging, road expansion and mining operations allow poachers easy access to remote forests.
Bushmeat hunting is illegal, unsustainable over-hunting of wildlife for meat and income. In Africa, Asia and other places forests and savannas or plains are referred to as bush, thus the name bushmeat.
In villages or logging camps, wild animals are hunted as a cheap and locally available source of protein. Some animals affected by this illegal activity include lions, tigers, zebras, gorillas, chimpanzees and other primates, as well as elephants, antelopes, crocodiles, fruit bats, porcupines, various rodents, and several species of pangolin. Poachers use unfair advantages such as using bait to lure endangered animals off protected land so they can be killed with wire snares, firearms, poisoning, and sometimes even the barbaric practice of hunting dogs.
Live animal markets, common throughout Asia and Africa, exacerbate the issue with crowded conditions and close proximity of multiple species, including humans, making it easy for a killer pathogen to emerge and spread between species. Pandemics usually begin as viruses in animals that jump to people when we make contact with them.
One thing we know for sure – bushmeat hunting is a clear and primary path for zoonotic disease transmission. Perhaps it is mother nature’s revenge for the inhumane practices of bushmeat hunting and butchering, which is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa. These activities threaten animal species and irrevocably change ecosystems, yet they also bring people and wild animals closer together.
Pandemics seem to get people’s attention. The Black Death was, the most notorious pestilence in human history, was not a virus but the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It reduced the world population by estimates of one third in the mid-14th century epidemic of the Bubonic plague.
The Black Death is perceived to have emerged from rats and fleas, though it was likely a mammal, such as the marmot or great gerbil, bitten by a flea that then carried the bacterium to humans. Another pandemic of the plague emerged in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan in 1894, reached Bombay by 1896, and by 1900 it had reached ports on every continent, carried by infected rats travelling the international trade routes on steamships.
Three-quarters of infectious diseases are the result of zoonotic spillovers, and the novel coronavirus is no exception. The term coronavirus refers to a family of viruses shaped like a crown, and it accounts for about 10 percent of common colds in humans. Novel coronaviruses have made the jump into the human population on three occasions in the 21st century, each time causing a deadly pandemic: SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in late 2002, MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) in 2012, and COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) at the start of this winter.
Of note, during the Black Death, fake news circulated widely attributing the disease to things that caused panic and terror amidst uneducated illiterate folk, such as bad air and witchcraft. Today, coronavirus has been falsely attributed to illogical causes such as biological weapons labs and the Gates Foundation. As an individual, it is up to everyone to fight this virus by spreading awareness as well as debunking the toxic viral myths that emerge.
The most important take-away is to realize how interconnected we are with nature and that our every day bargaining power in the choices of products to purchase, vetting businesses we patronize for sustainability, voting on governmental issues, and selecting candidates that honor sustainable growth and sound ecological conservation. These are all ways every one of us can do something to fight animal abuse, save the environment and help prevent the next pandemic.