GLOBAL HEALTH AS A FOUNDATION FOR WORLD PEACE: PREVENTING THE “NEXT” PANDEMIC

Marco Verch, licence Creative Commons 2.0, original photo

There can be no peace on the Earth until there is peace with the Earth. This holistic concept of peace embraces present and future generations of humans and all other living beings. The novel coronavirus that now is visiting devastation and death in human societies among all countries and all peoples, demonstrates this reality.

 On the centenary of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, we are learning once again the that pathogens can infect humans quickly, powerfully, and lethally.  Too many styli view a disease like COVID-19 as an “act of God” or an unpredictable event. Such misguided beliefs ignore the scientific evidence that humans have created the disruptions of nature, which unleashed the viruses upon caused  human communities. A century of scientific research has produced the ecological knowledge that has established how bacteria and viruses can live in wildlife safely without spilling over to infect humans. Ecology also teaches that if we disrupt natural habitats, we dislodge the pathogens which seek new homes in us. Since the 1980s, the science of Virology has taught us how novel coronaviruses function and spread. For example, when humans push development into forests, without knowing the consequences, they unleash diseases. See, for example,  Bloomfield, L.S.P., McIntosh, T.L. & Lambin, E.F., “Habitat fragmentation, livelihood behaviors, and contact between people and nonhuman primates in Africa.” Landscape Ecol 35, 985–1000 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10980-020-00995-w.

Sadly, nonetheless, governments largely ignore what we know today.

The  “COVID-19” Pandemic disease is a brutal reminder, for people everywhere, that human health persists only when the ambient environment also is healthy. When humans pollute their air and water, they fall ill. When humans allow their food to become contaminated, either by improperly using pesticides on crops or allowing dangerous chemicals to bioaccumulate in the food chain, humans become ill. So too, when a virus like SARS-CoV-2 infects every country across the Earth, we confront a public health emergency that is the result of human misbehavior that impairs the health of nature.

That the Covid-19 Pandemic erupted is a signal of “too little, too late.” What can be done to avert such a calamity in the first place? What must be done Post-COVID-19? The Normandie Chair for Peace, with its focus on justice for future generations and for species in addition to humans, explore the jurisprudence that can prevent another pandemic like the one ravishing humans across the Earth in 2020. Let us explore how this pandemic unfolded.

On New Year’s Eve, the World Health Organization was informed of a cluster of the pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China. The source was soon identified as a novel coronavirus, soon to be identified as “SARS-CoV-2.” Scientists assigned the name, “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome” or SARS, to the novel coronavirus that first emerged in 2002. The second iteration of this virus is more complex and harmful to humans. On  January 30th, the Director-General of the WHO declared a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.”  Then, on March 11, 2020, WHO declared this disease to be a Pandemic.

All nations were unprepared for the speed and power by which SARS-CoV-2 spread. Many political leaders professed to be surprised. However, such viruses are not uncommon. Humans and animals naturally host and travel with a multitude of pathogens, including viruses. Viruses can infect their carriers, leading to disease and possibly death. They can also be innocuous.. When human activity dislodges a virus from its natural animal host, it seeks a new “reservoir host.” The new host may appear unperturbed, and can then pass the virus on to humans or other animals that become then become ill, infected by the virus. When conditions permit, viruses in animals can spillover to humans, multiply and in rarer cases transmit from human to human. This is what is happening with SARS-CoV-2.

This phenomenon is known as zoonosis. Ecologists, and virologists,  and veterinary doctors know that zoonosis is an integral part of life on Earth. It is always present, and is not an isolated or single event, such as a pandemic. Governments tend to treat outbreaks of rare diseases as single public health emergencies, rather than the result of on-going interactions of natural systems which humans can manage or neglect. The science journalist David Quammen has brilliantly explained zoonosis in his book Spill Over – Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (2012).  We all neglect zoonosis to our peril, as COVID-19 teaches us.

About the same time as the 1918 Influenza Pandemic plagued people world-wide, the new science of ecology was being established. Since the Second World War, advances in ecological studies have shown the collateral harm that is done when humans disrupt intact natural systems, whether in forests or rivers or the seas. More recently, in the 1970s and 80s,  the science of virology has emerged. The Pandemic that originated with HIV-1 and HIV-2 in Africa became the HIV/AIDS crisis globally. We contained the epidemic of SARs in 2003 and of Ebola in 2013, but governments did not take the warning that these zoonotic diseases  presented.

In 2018 WHO feared the appearance of another novel coronavirus, and set up a global “Watch” for the as yet unknown pathogen labeled “X.”   In April of 2000, WHO  established  the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN). This is a network composed of technical and public health institutions, laboratories, non-governmental organizations (NGOs, and other institutions that cooperate to organizations to provide surveillance to discover and respond to new diseases.  

WHO was primed to respond to the appearance of a novel coronavirus as the feared pathogen “X,”  but most national governments were not. The systems of cooperation were too few and too new.  Few nations provided funding to WHO, and it was thinly resources. Some governments, like that of the Administration of President Trump in the USA, had been cutting back funding for the WHO and the UN system.  Virtually no governments fund the ecological studies needed to detect and cope with the reservoirs of virus which animals host in the wild. This blind spot is consequential. Most human diseases have zoonotic root.

Since January, 2020, numerous research groups have scrambled to determine the reservoir and possible intermediary hosts for the SARS-CoV-2. Because Wuhan’s live meat markets were swiftly cleaned following acknowledgement of the outbreak, identifying the hosts became a potentially impossible task.  A coronavirus closely related SARS-CoV-2 had previously been identified from a horseshoe bat in Yunnan, and later analyses revealed that multiple lineages of pangolin host a coronavirus similar to SARS-CoV-2. The rush to find the possible animal hosts for SARS-CoV-2, however, diverts attention to preparing actions to avert further such crises for the next virus “X.” In the 20o3-4 SARS epidemic, fearful governments killed large number of masked palm civets (Peguma larvata), a small mammal wrongly thought to be the source of the infection. Later ecological research traced the virus to fruit bats, but no efforts were launched to safeguard the health and habitats of the bats. 

Urgent searches for a “culprit” for SARS-CoV-2, or the massive global efforts to find a vaccine for COVID-19, deflect attention away from establishing effective governmental systems to manage zoonosis. The virus was found to reside safely in an endangered species, Pangolin (Philidota order), which is captured and unlawfully traded across Asia. IUCN classifies Pangolin as endangered with extinction. Many sought to blame SARS-CoV-2 on the Pangolin and scape goat it as happened to the Civets. But this response does a disservice to animals and people alike. In place of responses driven by crises, we need to sustain constant surveillance of wild animals to understand their habits, protect the natural areas where they live, and ensure the health of wildlife…for the sake of protecting human health.

In the midst of COVID-19, it becomes patently clear that new governmental systems are needed to handle managing the super-interface between multiple wildlife species, domestic animals and humans. See N.A. Robinson and C. Walzer, “How Do We Prevent The Next Outbreak?”,  Scientific American (25 March 2020), at https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/how-do-we-prevent-the-next-outbreak/ . The “connections” between humans and animals exist in many agricultural settings with domesticated animals, and in the markets for animals and consumption patterns in China and other South-East Asian countries, in Africa and elsewhere. They exist when humans bring “development” into the forests of the Amazon or Congo, or in their own back years. While governments ignore zoonosis, “nature” does not stand still. Viral systems continue to function, and viruses can even evolve. Relations among humans and animals enable the evolutionary drive of viruses to seek new hosts and expand their range, and spread disease.

When humans travel, they spread the coronavirus. Humans now infect each other. Covid-19 rapidly spread world-wide, even as public health officials work overtime to detect, trace, isolate and treat new cases.  With unprecedented speed, scientific papers about this coronavirus are being published. Government labs and pharmaceutical companies work around the clock to find a vaccine for this virus. Healing the millions of  ill persons is slow and problematic. The human deaths are tragic. No nation is spared.

The economic cost of this Pandemic continue to mount. As early as February 11, 2020, the head of the US Central Bank (the US Federal Reserve), Jerome H. Power took note of “disruptions in China that spill over to the rest of the global economy.” Virtually all factories and trading systems have closed to prevent spread of the virus. Unemployment is at an all-time high. The global disruption to commerce will take some years to repair. Past coronavirus epidemics have been costly, SARS in 2003 spread to 29 countries, and cost $40 billion. Ebola in 2014 cost $54 billion, and its spread beyond Africa was averted largely because the USA contributed personnel and material worth $2.34 billion to do so.  The human and economic costs of COVID-19 continue to be tallied. The US Congress in March, 2020 enacted a $2.2 trillion fiscal stimulus bill, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, designed to offset the losses suffered by businesses and households, hoping to mitigate the economic recession. Even when first adopted, the CARES Act had proven to be insufficient. Further funding is needed in the USA to sustain operations by state governments and local authorities. Comparable economic crises have appeared in every nation across the world. There is an economic pandemic to match the health pandemic.

Virtually no funding – in the USA or anywhere else -is earmarked to address zoonosis, or provide resources for essential long-term studies in ecology and to restore and maintain healthy habitats for wild animals and the virus that associate with them. Virtually no funding is devoted to international cooperation along these lines. Do we get what we pay for? Governments pay dearly to try to find a vaccination, but not to prevent the disease in the first place.

Instead of launching scientific studies into the environmental origins of COVID-19, political, social, and even governmental authorities jump to launch conspiracy theories or “blame” each other for not acting soon enough, or conjure up fanciful ideas and possible stories about the novel coronavirus and it how it appeared so mysteriously among humans. Despite the myriad impacts occasioned by COVID-19, Ignorance about this coronavirus abounds.  WHO has called the spread of misinformation an “infodemic.” It goes viral, spreading over social media like a virus!  Social media magnifies the misinformation. We all should know better. WHO estimates that 61% of all viruses that infect humans come from animals. This phenomenon is “zoonosis.” WHO finds that 75% of new diseases in the past decade are zoonotic. 

It is essential to educate humans in all communities, world-wide, that zoonotic spillovers are neither one-off events not only found in distant lands. They exist in both South and North America, in Asia and Africa, Europe and Eurasia, in fact everywhere. Humans are unaware of and fear a large number of diseases, without knowing about their zoonotic origins: rabies, West Nile virus, plague, Zika, dengue, Chikungunya, salmonellosis, hantavirus, or Lyme Disease. Humans strive mightily to avoid these zoonotic diseases. Lyme disease, spread from small mammals and birds to humans, is but one of the numerous zoonotic diseases transmitted by ticks in North America. Mosquitos infect humans with Zika and other diseases from a large potential pool of animal reservoirs. Zika has no vaccine yet, and its range is likely to expand as warmer winters no longer freeze out mosquito populations. Climate Change makes it all the more urgent that  measure are taken to restore and sustain healthy wild ecosystems, everywhere.

Zoonotic viruses exist widely in the animal kingdom. What can we do to prevent infection by the next coronavirus? What would we give today to have averted the pandemic of HIV/AIDS, a lentivirus that was traced to human contact with infected chimpanzees and soothy mangabeys in West Africa?  The SARS epidemic in 2002 began from human contact with a mammal, the civet, which bats had infected with the coronavirus.

Ben Franklin advised in 1736 that “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Do we not each wash our hands often to prevent contact with viruses? Does our global society not need to do even more about “germs” that afflict us? Viruses, inhabiting wild animals, infect domesticated animals and similarly livestock diseases can decimate the last wildlife populations. African Swine fever is today wiping out pig production across Asia and threatens farms in Europe and North America. For the highly endangered wild pig species of South-East Asia this virus could be the final blow. Avian influenza decimates chickens and can infect humans. Large proportions of the world still fail to implement global sanitary standards in livestock production and trade in animals and their products. The large-scale urban consumption of wildlife knows no standards and can never be considered sanitary and safe.  Humans everywhere are at risk.

What is called for is a more widely understood and accepted vision for environmental justice.  Animal welfare and rights is not a separate legal realm. Recognition of the rights  of nature is not a unique jurisprudential quest. The realm of ensuring public health and guaranteeing water to all through applying Human Rights is not isolated from wider ambit of the environment.  These are facets of holistic justice. The Normandie Chair for Peace has a challenge to make this unity clear, and to understand through research and analysis how it functions, or is prevented from functioning.

The COVID-19 Pandemic exposes this unity. Only by adopting a “One Health” approach to humanity’s caring for the Earth’s natural environment can every country overcome the SARS-CoV-2 virus and avoid or mitigate the next viral infection, which lurks around the corner.

To prevent epidemics, humans must strive to keep the pathogens from leaving the animal kingdom in the first place.  What is to be done? The prescriptions for a “One Health” approach to environmental stewardship exists. Ironically, they were unveiled in 2019, on the eve of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

In October of 2019  the Wildlife Conservation Society and the German government recommended robust action to strengthen global health. The Berlin Principles, for “One Planet, One Health, One Future,” set forth ten practical steps, prescriptions for healthy communities. Governments at all levels should heed this guidance. They can be studied at: https://oneworldonehealth.wcs.org/About-Us/Mission/The-2019-Berlin-Principles-on-One-Health.aspx . The first principle is clear: “Retain the essential health links between humans,  wildlife, domesticated animals and plans, and all nature.” Through adhering to the Berlin Principles, communities can better “integrate understanding of human and animal health with the health of the environment.”

On April 2, 2020, the German government’s federal Environment Minister Schulze advised that once the emergency phase of the Pandemic is over, “There will be a post-pandemic world. By then, at the latest, we need to have understood the causes of this crisis, in order to better prevent a similar scenario in the future. Science tells us that the destruction of ecosystems makes disease outbreaks including pandemics more likely. This indicates that the destruction of nature is the underlying crisis behind the coronavirus crisis. Conversely, this means that good nature conservation policy that protects our diverse ecosystems is a vital preventive health care measure against new diseases.” There are roles for ecologists and international organizations such as Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) , the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), to map out the steps that governments will need to take to establish This  “One Health” approach.

When governments in the post-Pandemic phase seek to avert the “next” pandemic, they will find additional guidance also for taking a multi-sectoral and “One Health” approach to zoonosis.  Also on the eve of the COVID-19 Pandemic, in  March of 2019, the World Health Organization, the UN Food & Agricultural Organization, and the World Organization for Animal Health issued guidelines similar to the Berlin Principles. They are contained in a book, “A Tripartite Guide to Addressing Zoonotic Diseases in Countries.” https://extranet.who.int/sph/docs/file/3524  . This guide re-enforces the consensus that all nations had attained in 2015, in the 15th UN Sustainable Development Goal:  “Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests combat desertification, and halt and reverses land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.” Until SGD 15 is attained, the world of humans will be at heightened risk from zoonotic diseases. As the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has made clear since 1948, nature conservation is essential. Although sustaining Earth’s natural environment is among most important responsibilities of government,  too many economies treat this role as an “externality.” If such ignorance could be excused before now, after the COVID-19 Pandemic to do so is the height of irresponsibility. There is only “One Health” across all the Earth.

Now,  and surely after the Pandemic recedes, is not necessary to wait for the UN or regional government to act. As René Dubos counselled, “Think globally and act locally.”  The Normandie Chair for Peace can encourage actions and research to do so. Municipal parks, wetlands, woods and back yards are hosts to animals. Locally, In Normandie and around the world, steps can be taken to restore and maintain healthy local ecosystems to avert releases of diseases. For example, to keep West Nile virus at bay, micro-manage local mosquito populations, all the time. Waiting to act until a disease infects a human is too late. Responding then by blasting pesticides on flora and fauna is “biocide,” in Rachel Carson’s words, and is also ineffective and can increase susceptibility to diseases. Provincial and local authorities should support the robust and continuous enforcement of environmental laws that protect endangered species, like pangolin, and should ensure humane care of domestic animals and animals raised for market. Doing so also protects us.

Much can be done to advance “One Health.” Every environmental impact assessment (EIA) should undertake to advance the health of nature to the fullest extent possible. Too often governments ignore their EIA duties altogether.  The regression in environmental protection that we experience in many countries, as Michel Prieur has wisely warned, must end. Continuing to regress will cause humans shall suffer as we do now with COVID-19.

“One Health” studies must teach is how to respect nature and manage our exposure to zoonosis.  For example, park and wildlife managers at all levels of government are as essential for ensuring our public health as are hospitals and doctors, of as police and security agencies. They need to be funded accordingly. To avert the next epidemic, governments at all levels should create and increase trans-sector funding to improve health through environmental investments. Such investments nourish us in many ways. John Burroughs, a much loved 19th century naturalist in New York where I live along the Hudson River, summed a “One Health” approach to peace with the Earth in these words:

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”

Healing nature heals us.

Nicholas A. Robinson *

* Prof. Nicholas A. Robinson joins Tony Oposa asan Emeritus scholar in the Normandie Chair for Peace. He is the Executive Governor of the International Council of Environmental Law and is the Kerlin Professor Emeritus of Environmental Law in the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University (New York). 


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