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What environmental lessons have we learnt from the pandemic?

This month marks one year since the start of the UK lockdown and we can all agree that the pandemic has completely changed our mindset towards health. Covid-19 has reminded us of the need to prioritise public wellbeing over economic growth and, as Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), points out: “We must become more proactive to avoid another pandemic and address endemic zoonotic diseases…this means recognising that human health, animal health and planetary health cannot be separated – we must plan our responses accordingly.”

Covid-19 has raised awareness on a range of previously overlooked issues, such as the importance of public hygiene and renewable energy alternatives, as well as forcing us to re-evaluate our fight against plastic – which has proved to be an essential material in the last year, particularly for providing protective equipment to workers on the frontlines.

2020 also saw global air quality improve to unprecedented levels since the start of satellite monitoring in the 1990s. Many cities worldwide recorded up to a 60% fall in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels compared to the same period the year before. With more people opting to travel by foot and increasing amounts of people working from home, harmful emissions from transportation significantly decreased and statistics from TFL showed that journeys by either walking or cycling increased from 29% between January and March 2020 to an estimated 46% between April and June of the same year.

However, besides these various positive changes, the following guide will explore three of the biggest environmental lessons we must take  from the pandemic in order to positively impact our future.

 

Preserve the natural world

Deforestation has been scientifically proven to lead to more infectious diseases in humans. In 2015, researchers at Ecohealth Alliance discovered that “nearly one in three outbreaks of new and emerging disease[s] are linked to land-use change like deforestation”. This happens as animals carrying certain zoonotic diseases are forced to migrate to other ecosystems due to rapid forest clearing in their natural habitat, subsequently spreading invasive, deadly diseases which can infect humans.

The emergence of new deadly viruses was inevitable, considering the scope of disruptive human activity in the rainforests

Scientists, such as Andy MacDonald (a disease ecologist at the Earth Research Institute of the University of California) had repeatedly warned (pre-Covid) that the emergence of new deadly viruses was inevitable, considering the scope of disruptive human activity in the rainforests. In 2019, MacDonald explained: “It’s a numbers game: the more we degrade and clear forest habitats, the more likely it is that we’re going to find ourselves in these situations where epidemics of infectious diseases occur. If we can conserve the environment, then perhaps we can also protect health.” With widespread deforestation destroying an area the size of a football pitch every second – it is time that we seriously tackle this environmental catastrophe.

 

Eat plant-based foods

In recent years, the environmental advantages of adopting a plant-based diet have been widely publicised. However, since Covid, experts have gone further warning that eating meat has more serious health repercussions than those visible on the surface.

The meat handling process in particular has been highly criticised due to its close relationship with many disease outbreaks – Covid-19 itself is widely believed to have been transmitted to humans in a live-animal market in Wuhan, China. The last year has seen a surge in demands for the closure of such markets, with Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaking for the movement: “It boggles my mind when you have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface that we don’t just shut [live-animal markets] down.”

Many doctors have called for a reassessment of the human diet altogether as we must seriously start reducing our meat consumption

Many doctors have called for a reassessment of the human diet altogether as we must seriously start reducing our meat consumption. Doctors Ikram and Malas of Mercy Hospital argued: “Given that the two largest pandemics in the past 100 years revolve around our food choices – specifically, the consumption of animals – we would propose a global moratorium on this.” Perhaps then it is time to re-evaluate our nutritional choices to help restore both our physical health and the biodiversity of the planet, which go hand in hand.

 

Clean the Air 

Although air pollution has been known to cause many of the underlying conditions which can exacerbate the effects of coronavirus, recent research has discovered that air pollution can also be linked to the spread of disease and may keep viruses aloft longer.

A study by scientists in Romania compared particulate air pollution levels in Milan from January to April 2020 to total Covid total cases, new cases, and deaths. Their conclusion was that air pollution can significantly enhance the persistence of contagious viruses in the atmosphere: “In spite of being considered primarily transmitted by indoor bioaerosols, droplets and infected surfaces, or direct human-to-human personal contacts, it seems that high levels of urban air pollution, weather and specific climate conditions have a significant impact on the increased rates of confirmed Covid-19.” The silver lining is that the air quality improvements we saw at the beginning of the pandemic offer hope for what can be achieved through the power of global cooperation.

Air pollution can significantly enhance the persistence of contagious viruses in the atmosphere

Overall, despite the enormous upheaval and tragedy that Covid has inflicted on everyone’s lives, the pandemic has provided humanity with an invaluable opportunity to learn from past ignorance and seriously rethink its attitude towards the environment to ‘Build Back Better’’ However, we must ensure that these lessons are not simply lost among the chaos of everyday life. Instead, we must return to a ‘new normal’ in a sustainable manner that ensures we take responsibility for both our environment and ourselves. If not, we may one day arrive at an urgent situation where we are forced to adhere to strict lockdowns in a desperate effort to recover the critical health of the planet.

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