JD Farrugia & Simona Getova for The Climate Herald
The Coronavirus is a viral infection that causes fever, coughing, and shortness of breath in affected individuals and is mainly transmitted between humans through bacteria from coughing and sneezing. The virus can be particularly dangerous, and fatal, for elderly individuals with pre-existing conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure. Like 70% of all human infections, the Coronavirus is known as a zoonotic disease meaning that it was transmitted from animals to human beings. Other zoonotic diseases include SARS, MERS, rabies, Ebola, plague and Lyme Disease. Scientists have yet to locate the source of the Coronavirus but a lot of the evidence is pointing to bats or pangolins. We are told that, as the effects of climate change worsen, we can expect even higher percentages and occurrences of such zoonotic diseases and outbreaks around the world.
Can the Coronavirus pandemic be linked to the climate crisis?
There is currently no black-on-white link between the virus and climate change but the evidence and scientific research on the relationship between a warming planet and the spread of disease is hard to ignore. There was a noted increase in the frequency of outbreaks and disease from 1980-2013 where 44 million individual cases were recorded from 12,012 outbreaks in every country in the world. These include Hantavirus, Hepatitis C and SARS. The spike has been linked to higher levels of global trade, travel and connectivity as well as higher living densities and, perhaps most notably, rising global temperatures.
For years scientists have been studying how the consequences of climate change are increasing the prevalence of infectious diseases. In India, stronger monsoon seasons and higher levels of humidity are responsible for a noted increase and spreading of malaria. Previously too cold for malaria, the highlands in East Africa fell victim to the disease as temperatures began to rise and high illness rates and death ravaged the previously nonimmune populations. As deforestation has worsened over the last two decades it has been linked to 31% of outbreaks of animal-transmitted diseases and infections such as Ebola, Zika and Nipah as the loss of habitat created a situation where wild animals are forced to migrate in closer proximity to human beings.
The complexity of climate change is translated into a series of effects and consequences that, in turn, create a whole plethora of other effects and consequences. This is true of practically every aspect of our lives and the spread of diseases is no different. Increased heat and drought, forest fires and desertification force animals to migrate, bringing them in closer contact with human beings and increasing the chances of the spread of zoonotic diseases. The animals themselves are more vulnerable since they’re coming into contact with diseases that they haven’t previously encountered and, due to the stress of forced migration, their immune systems are weaker.
Extreme weather events like flooding create the right circumstances for mosquitoes and other insects to breed and results in water contamination leading to more diseases like cholera. What’s more, extreme weather events and imbalances in ecosystems due to mass extinction can upset the balance between predators and prey. The lack of competition can cause a boom in the populations of animals further down the food chain like mice and mosquitoes that are known to carry pathogens. Even the warming of the ocean has been responsible for illnesses from Red Tide which are the result of toxic algal blooms.
In essence, the causes and effects of the climate crisis create the optimal circumstance that encourages the spread of infectious diseases. Agricultural intensification, the building of dams and canals, urbanisation, deforestation, ocean warming, atmospheric warming, increased rainfall, and extreme weather events are all responsible for increasing the breeding and movement of pathogen-carrying animals as well as increasing their resistance to disease.
The world has responded to the Coronavirus crisis strongly and we have witnessed various levels of fear and panic across the globe. Many of the extreme measures taken and levels of concern are understandable and necessary for us to return back to a semblance of normality. However, to avoid more situations like the COVID-19 pandemic or worse, we should really start panicking about the climate crisis.
Over the next few months, The Climate Herald will be publishing regular articles about the climate crisis based on scientific research and conversations with specialists in the field. We aim to shed light on how the climate crisis affects every aspect of our lives, what solutions are being proposed, and what needs to change in order for us to tackle the most pressing issue of our time.