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Scientists say we will face worse pandemics than COVID-19 unless we protect nature

Humans are the only species responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, according to leading scientists.

An article outlines how humanity's abuse of the natural world has caused a 'perfect storm', allowing deadly pathogens to spread around the world.

Published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), it warns that worse could be on the way.

We'll face more frequent pandemics unless we address the root causes of this one, which has already affected millions around the world.

Our relationship with nature is in trouble

IPBES is a global group that studies biodiversity, or the variety of life on Earth. Backed by the United Nations, it examines how humans and nature interact and makes recommendations to governments on how both can thrive.

Several Museum scientists work alongside IPBES experts, including on a landmark report in 2019 which warned then that humans face dire consequences if we continue to put pressure on natural resources. It found that the health of ecosystems on which we all depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever because of how humans exploit and pollute nature.

Now, colleagues have followed up on their earlier warning and have laid the blame for the COVID-19 crisis at the door of global capitalist systems which prioritise money over human well-being.

According to the 2020 report by four leading biodiversity researchers, 'Diseases like COVID-19 are caused by microorganisms that infect our bodies - with more than 70% of all emerging diseases affecting people having originated in wildlife and domesticated animals. Pandemics, however, are caused by activities that bring increasing numbers of people into direct contact and often conflict with the animals that carry these pathogens.

'Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a "perfect storm" for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people.'

One of the biggest problems we face is how much of Earth's surface is given over to food production. More than a third of the world's land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production, which reduces the Earth's wild places and squeezes out native species. It also forces wild animals even closer to humans, making it more and more likely that diseases will make the jump between the two.

Current thinking is that the unregulated trade in wild animals is likely to have been the catalyst for the COVID-19 pandemic, which started in a live animal market. Scientists are still unsure exactly which species passed the virus to humans, but it is certain that the way we treat animals plays a part how contagious diseases begin and spread.  

The threat remains

COVID-19 may be just the beginning, as the report warns that 'future pandemics are likely to happen more frequently, spread more rapidly, have greater economic impact and kill more people if we are not extremely careful about the possible impacts of the choices we make today.'

Governments around the world are already considering how to repair some of the damage that COVID-19 has caused.

However, the scientists warn that even as economies are revived, environmental regulations must be high on all governments' priority lists. They say that rather than rushing to deliver rescue packages to damaging industries, governments should find a way to balance economic growth and keeping their citizens safe from harm.

A 'one health' approach is suggested, in which governments recognise that the health of humanity relies on a healthy environment.

It concludes, 'We can build back better and emerge from the current crisis stronger and more resilient than ever - but to do so means choosing policies and actions that protect nature - so that nature can help to protect us.'