Sustainability. We mean it.
Thought leadership

The coronavirus and our relationship with nature

EOS Insight
4 May 2020 |
The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the importance of sustainability-focused risk management and effective stewardship activities. In this series of articles, we will explore the links between infectious diseases, environmental issues and social sustainability, alongside the role of investors and companies. In part one, Sonya Likhtman looks at how the destruction of ecosystems can increase the risk of pandemics.

Fast reading

  • New infectious diseases often emerge as a result of pathogens moving from animal hosts to human hosts  
  • Deforestation and land-use change have transformed landscapes and disrupted ecosystems
  • Climate change will further fuel the rise in infectious diseases

The current global pandemic has highlighted our problematic relationship with nature. While the immediate priority for governments and companies is to deal with the public health crisis, a critical task for the longer-term is to examine our approach to biodiversity and the natural environment. Doing so is likely to reduce the incidence of infectious diseases, such as Covid-19 and other novel coronaviruses, and secure a sustainable future.

What are zoonotic diseases?

New infectious diseases often emerge as a result of pathogens moving from animal hosts to human hosts. These diseases, which include Covid-19, SARS, and Ebola, are called zoonotic diseases. A recent study by the One Health Institute at UC Davis highlighted the link between human activity and zoonotic diseases. The study showed that the exploitation of wildlife through trade, hunting and land-use changes that result in habitat destruction increases the frequency of animal-human interaction. This creates more opportunities for the transmission of viruses from animals to humans. Rodents, bats and primates, which are all species that have adapted to human environments, are the original hosts for 75% of zoonotic diseases to date.

The value of ecosystem services 

The interdependence of human and natural health is well documented. Nature, and the biodiversity within it, is our life support system. We rely on critical ecosystem “services” for oxygen, clean water, climate regulation, productive soils, and pollination, amongst others. The value of natural capital and ecosystem services is estimated to be between US$125 trillion and US$145 trillion a year. In January 2020, the World Economic Forum calculated that over half of global GDP is moderately or highly dependent on nature. The most highly-dependent sectors include construction, agriculture, and food and beverage.

Yet the approach to nature has been largely driven by arrogance and exploitation. It is thought that 75% of terrestrial and 66% of marine environments have been “severely altered” by human activity. Deforestation and land-use change for agriculture, mining and construction have transformed landscapes and disrupted ecosystems. Climate change has led to further deterioration in habitats and a loss of biodiversity. An influential UN report last year raised the alarm that, as a consequence of human activity, one million species are at risk of extinction, and the rate of extinction is accelerating.

Direct consumption of animal species for food, fashion and traditional medicines is part of the problem. Wildlife markets, where animals such as bats, wolf pups and pangolins are caged in unsanitary conditions, increase the risk of viruses being passed from animals to humans. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, experts have called for a ban on the multi-billion dollar wildlife trade.

Our consumption of domesticated animals, such as cattle, pigs and chickens, is equally concerning because it drives antimicrobial resistance (AMR), land-use change and climate change. AMR will reduce our ability to prevent and treat a wide range of diseases. And as we will explore later in this series, climate change will further fuel the rise in infectious diseases: the warming of average global surface temperatures will lead to an increased incidence of vector-borne diseases, as mosquitoes and other vectors are able to survive in a greater range of habitats.

Assessing interconnected challenges

A holistic approach helps to analyse these complex and interconnected dynamics. The planetary boundaries concept, first introduced by the Stockholm Resilience Centre in 2009, identifies nine processes that regulate the Earth’s system. It highlights that a change in one process can have significant knock-on effects in another due to the delicate balance within ecosystems. Research shows that we are already in breach of at least four planetary boundaries: climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, and altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen).

The coronavirus pandemic, through its significant social and economic disruption, has called our relationship with other species and the environment into question. The burden of infectious disease is exacerbated by social factors, including inequality, lack of access to healthcare, population growth, and the highly mobile populations that characterise globalisation.

In this series, we will take a deeper dive into the interconnected environmental and social issues we have introduced here. We will address the role of investors and our expectations of companies, both in terms of mitigating the risk of future infectious diseases and improving operational resilience for when they do arise. As we will highlight, pharmaceutical companies have a specific role to play. They must develop treatments and vaccines, and make these accessible through their pricing strategies. In the long term, pharmaceutical companies will need to assess the impact of future environmental changes on their overall business strategies.

Related insights

Lightbulb icon

Get the latest insights straight to your inbox