Climate change, COVID-19 and future pandemics

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BY TAN SU LIN

Like COVID-19, around 75% of new infectious diseases are zoonotic. Some experts believe climate change may be putting humans in closer contact with animals. While COVID-19 and climate change are real but different health emergencies, both are of environmental origin and they point to a common denominator – destructive environmental practices ultimately affect our health.

To better understand the pandemic in the context of climate change, the Science Media Centre (SMC) Malaysia organised a webinar on “Climate Change, COVID-19 and Future Pandemics” in collaboration with Universiti Malaysia Kelantan and Klima Action Malaysia (KAMY). The webinar was moderated by Tan Su Lin, co-founder of SMC Malaysia.

The panel of experts including climate change and wildlife medicine provided insights on the connection between climate change and pandemics; lessons learned from SARS, MERS and Nipah virus; and implications of animal wild trade and wet markets.

They were Dr Sandie Choong, Deputy Dean (Academic & Student Development), Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Universiti Malaysia Kelantan (UMK); Dr Renard Siew, Sustainability and Climate Change Advisor for Centre for Governance and Political Studies (Cent-GPS); and Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar, Chairperson of Klima Action Malaysia (KAMY).

According to Dr Sandie who is an expert in wildlife medicine, history has shown us that human impact on the environment has made pandemics like COVID-19 more likely.

“For example, in the case of the Nipah virus outbreak, through extensive epidemiological studies, we found that the reason the fruit bats were attracted to the orchard in the pig farm was because there was an extensive period of dry and hot season and there was serious forest fire which led to the loss of their habitat and food source.”

“Similarly, for AIDS, the virus came from non-human primates, especially in some countries that practice bushmeat consumption. These animals (chimpanzees) were captured and butchered, exposing humans to raw meat and organs of the animals. When humans have unnatural contact with animals, it increases the risk of disease infection,” she said during the webinar.

Thus, she was not surprised to see history repeating itself through the COVID-19 outbreak.

“After SARS (in 2003), I felt that there could be some other infectious diseases that may emerge because the contact between humans and animals did not decrease, and neither did human activities.”

“The animals were continuously being sold at the wet markets, this is not so much in Malaysia but in China, they still sell all sorts of species which is quite worrying because it is the same scenario how SARS happened. In fact, I was quite surprised that COVID-19 did not happen earlier,” she said.

Meanwhile, Dr Renard offered some examples of ways climate change can impact future pandemics, including prolonging the life cycles of mosquitoes due to warmer climate and the melting of permafrost.

“There is a theory that has been put forth by academicians that there are long dormant bacterias and viruses that has been trapped for centuries in the ice and permafrost, and because of warmer conditions and the melting glaciers, there is a possibility that such viruses would resurface and this is a very terrifying scenario because we don’t know much about these viruses that have been dormant for such a long time,’ he said.

While describing COVID-19 as a ‘dress rehearsal’ for what is to come, he opined that the novel coronavirus pandemic should be framed as a planetary health emergency to address the root of the problem, environmental degradation.

“I think currently the framing of COVID-19 is primarily as a health emergency, however, the narrative needs to be framed as a planetary health emergency. This narrative is important because if we don’t get it right,  what you would see is that people will only look at it from a healthcare perspective.”

“So they are just firefighting, trying to put out fires, trying to get like PPEs, ensure food security and very short term solutions to tackling the pandemic. They don’t go down a step further to look at what has actually caused COVID-19 in terms of deforestation and the illegal wildlife trade, which I think is important to move actions into that space.”

He also added that as it stands, there is not enough urgency to treat the current climate crisis with the same urgency as COVID-19, as major climate efforts were on hold due to the pandemic. This includes the postponement of COP26 UN climate change conference which was set to take place in Glasgow in November.

“If anything we should look at COVID-19 as a golden opportunity for us to rethink our way of doing things and to adopt succinctly such as moving investments into the green renewable economy. We shouldn’t go back to our normal way of doing things because normal was precisely the problem as to why all of this started,” he said while adding that there will be an escalation of environmental pollution post-pandemic as industries intensify their activities to make up for lost time and productivity.

Ili Nadiah, who is also the co-founder of KAMY said the indigenous community who suffer the brunt of climate change is also hit hard by COVID-19.

“Not only have they faced severe environmental violations for years, with this virus, it affects them in a way that we have never seen before because some of the indigenous people already have contacts with the outside world. They have lost their lands and rely on the modern human economy.”

“In a way, they are very much affected by this situation and worse because they lack education and quality health care services. This could exacerbate the situation because something like a measles outbreak could decimate the whole community,” she said.

While adding that climate literacy and the level of environmental awareness in Malaysia is low, Nadiah agreed that the impact of climate change needs to be communicated as urgently as the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The climate discourse in Malaysia has very much taken an urban narrative and mostly in English, we want to do more in BM to reach out to the community especially rural folks. There is urgent action to be taken to humanise this crisis in order to understand climate change.”

“This can be done by using videos for people to understand better. Some complex information might be oversimplified but at least we start somewhere,” she said while adding that KAMY hopes to amplify the climate issues in a very visual way for younger generations.