The COVID-19 pandemic has stopped much of human activity in its tracks over the past eleven months, most notably due to many countries closing their borders, restricting public transport usage, and putting nation-wide lockdowns into place in an effort to enforce social distancing and control coronavirus case counts. As such, the world is experiencing an unprecedented time of slowed human activity, or more concisely, an ‘anthropause’ .
Never before has there been a time when air travel, ocean cargo transport, and general land activity was as abruptly disrupted as it has been now. As such, the novelty of this anthropause presents a unique opportunity to understand the intersection of environment and human industry. This moment in time necessitates the adoption of an as-yet underutilised, but critically important planetary health framework in the public health community. By doing so, academic and policy-making groups can more deeply understand human-ecology relationships and champion an interdisciplinary approach to human health.
Planetary health has its roots in the holistic health movement of the 1980s, which advocated for viewing human health from a multidisciplinary perspective that integrates physical, mental, social, and ecological domains . This framework is deeply entwined with holistic medicine and ancient traditional Indigenous knowledge systems which assert that human health is intimately dependent on planetary health .
Presently, this framework has started entering mainstream academic discussions of public health. As per a report by the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health, it is defined as “the achievement of the highest attainable standard of health… through judicious attention to the human systems…and the Earth’s natural systems” . Simply put, planetary health advocates for understanding the intersection between environmental and anthropological networks upon which all of us rely on. Moreover, this framework also explores how human effects, such as land-clearing, urbanization, and industrial pollution, shape the earth’s natural systems.
Implementing this framework requires that academics and medical professionals demonstrate increased inclusivity of wildlife and environmental ecosystems in their public health discussions and decision-making. By embracing this framework, they can analyze public health events not only on the basis of human effects, but also on the biome at large. As a result, human society can come to terms with the age-old supposition put forward by many Indigenous cultures; the health of the planet is inextricable from global human health.
And what better time to adopt such a framework than during the time of COVID-19, when planetary health has attained an even more urgent stature? As Rutz et al. assert, “knowledge gained during this devastating crisis will allow us to develop innovative strategies for sharing space on this increasingly crowded planet, with benefits for both wildlife and humans” . The effects of the pandemic on wildlife and natural environments have been varied, and range from encouraging to devastating. The interconnections between economic, environmental, social, and public health effects form a complex web in which there are many important lessons to be learned.
Prior to the pandemic, the state of the environment was alarming, to say the least. Atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions were reported to have increased by 46% since the industrial revolution, average wildlife populations were reported to have dropped by 60% over the last 40 years, and two-thirds of extreme weather events in the last twenty years were predicted to have been influenced by humans . After worldwide suspension of human activity, the ecological outcomes of the pandemic seemed to assert the reality that reduced human involvement is ultimately beneficial to wildlife.
During the early-pandemic months, there was the promise of wildlife resurgence, as the absence of human occupancy in towns and city streets prompted the return of many species. Hundreds of photos and videos showing the re-emergence of deer, goats, sheep, and fish were posted on social media. Animals seemed to be reclaiming their habitats, many of which were co-opted in the process of urbanization. Mountain lions were spotted in the streets of Santiago, Chile . Dolphins returned to the coasts of Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia . Jackals ventured out into Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv, Israel . Amidst this frenzy, the resilience of wildlife seemed to be the pandemic’s silver lining.
However, with passing months, it became apparent that not all wildlife was responding well. In metropolitan cities in particular, there were reports of how animal species were suffering from starvation because of prolonged human absence. For example, rats in many American cities have been forced into cannibalism, infanticide, and death due to a lack of food sources because of closed restaurants and businesses . Another striking example is of monkeys in Lopburi, Thailand. Most of their food comes from tourists, but with travel being shut down, many faced the prospect of starvation. In a last ditch attempt to get food, thousands of monkeys from two different tribes brawled for offerings at a local temple . While popular opinion may consider the restriction of human movement to be a definite positive for the environment, when adopting this view we forget that we coexist with many species, and that human existence isn’t absolutely antagonistic for wildlife. However, it is also important to note that our role in creating new ecological dynamics creates unhealthy dependencies that do not respect the necessity of autonomous ecosystems. As a whole, both of these examples illustrate the closeness and complexity of the human-environment relationship and how lockdown conditions are straining this synergistic bond.
Understanding the diverse socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 is also important to the planetary health framework as more extreme environmental impacts are apparent in low-income countries (LICs). Countless individuals residing in LICs that are unable to provide social security are combating the bleak reality of homelessness and starvation due to rampant unemployment . The lack of work in cities due to lockdown is forcing many low-wage laborers to return back to their villages. In India, for example, millions of people took buses or even walked thousands of miles back to their rural hometowns, only to find that they have been prohibited entry because of health checks .
Although this situation already indicates a heavy public health burden, from the perspective of planetary health, this situation becomes doubly dangerous since much of the world’s biodiversity is found in LICs. As Dr. Charlie Gardener, a Lecturer at the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology in the University of Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation writes, this means that “many more people will be finding themselves poorer, hungrier, and much closer to exploitable wildlife” . And in the end, exploiting these natural resources becomes the only option . For example, when fishermen of rural Madagascar were faced with low fish populations due to overfishing, these people had to turn to charcoal production via slash-and-burn agriculture as a means for sustenance . In other words, vulnerable individuals will be forced to exploit an already-fragile environment for sustenance, which spells disaster in the long-run.
Another important fact to consider is that in LICs, environmental conservation is already a backburner topic, as issues such as food and water security, employment, and safety take precedence. The governments of LICs have been scrambling to prevent and treat COVID-19 cases by leveraging as much use as they can from under-funded and poorly developed health care systems . Also, steep drops in commodity prices, reduction of international investment, and accumulation of foreign debt have been further hurting these countries . As a result, environmental conservation has, in many ways, ceased to be a topic of importance and poorly-protected areas are witnessing a steady uptick in land-grabbing, deforestation, illegal mining, and wildlife poaching . Environmentalists and Indigenous peoples who normally fight against these actions are self-isolating and social distancing . Disturbingly, all of these effects amount to one outcome: an increased risk of future disease. Irresponsible land-clearing, encroachment, and loss of habitats increases the risk of zoonotic disease transmission and makes pandemics like COVID-19 so much more likely .
Taken together, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the environment has been ambivalent and heavily confounded by varying socioeconomic conditions. Unravelling the planetary health implications of these past eleven months and learning from them will be a global endeavour that will surely extend into the next few years. However, if there is one thing that is clear, it is this: humans are intimately tangled with the natural and man-made environments that they live in and, as such, the consideration of planetary health is more important now more than ever.
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