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The environmental dimension of pandemics

The environmental dimension of pandemics

Global warming expands the habitat of mosquitoes, which bring tropical diseases to temperate zones. Logging increases contact with animals that can transmit viruses. Animal trafficking and agribusiness are also important factors.

You can believe that it is a design of God, you can say that it was an exotic animal or you can blame a market thousands of miles away. And you can also look for the causes of pandemics. Researchers from different countries make a direct link between the viruses that plague humans and the hand of man that devastates territories, raises animals in an industrial (and inhuman) way, and the global climate crisis. The environmental dimension of viruses and pointing to the causes so that it does not recur.

"Destroying nature unleashes new infectious diseases," says doctor of biology and climate change specialist Alex Richter-Boix, from Spain. He wrote a long and detailed article that reviews malaria, Zika, dengue, and chikungunya. “Viruses and other pathogens are found in wild animals. When human activities come into contact with wildlife, a pathogen can jump in and infect domestic animals and from there jump to humans. Or directly from a wild animal to humans ”, he explains.

Richter-Boix is ​​one of the people in charge of the Mosquito-Alert project, a citizen science project created to investigate the mosquito vectors of Zika, dengue, and chikungunya. He highlights the scientific concern that future diseases such as the SARS, Ebola or Covid-19, all of them have emerged from wild animals ”. And remember that mosquitoes are not the only ones that transmit pathogens from nature to human populations: “Bats, primates and even snails can have diseases that at any given moment can jump to humans. The dynamics of transmission can change as soon as we alter their natural habitats ”.

“It is the human destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases to emerge. Deforestation, the opening of new roads, mining and hunting are activities that are implicated in the unleashing of different epidemics ”, affirmed Richter-Boix.

Silvia Ribeiro is a researcher at the ETC Group (organization of reference in everything related to technologies and agriculture), she questions the "perverse mechanism of capitalism to hide the true causes of problems" while the States spend enormous public resources on prevention measures, containment and treatment, but they do not act on the causes.

He finds it cynical to blame animals (in this case, bats) or consumption in Asian markets. And he points out: “The true systematic factory of new viruses and bacteria that are transmitted to humans is the industrial breeding of animals, mainly birds, pigs and cows. More than 70 percent of antibiotics on a global scale are used for fattening or prevention of infections in non-sick animals, which has produced a very serious problem of resistance to antibiotics, also for humans ”. He explained that the fundamental factor is the destruction of the habitats of wild species and the invasion of these by urban settlements and the expansion of industrial agriculture, which creates situations for the accelerated mutation of viruses.

In an article entitled "the landowners of the pandemic" (on the Desinformémonos site), Ribeiro questions the spread of certain viruses does not point to the agro-industrial model (and its large companies). She is convinced that if these causes are not targeted, another pandemic and more deaths will ensue. The silence on the winners of these disasters, including the multinational pharmaceutical companies, is also striking.

Matías Mastrangelo is a doctor in biology and a researcher at Conicet. Together with the researcher María Guillermina Ruiz, he wrote an article where he lists and develops five ways in which human beings transform the environment and create pandemics: wildlife trafficking, destruction of natural ecosystems, extinction of wild species, global climate change and urbanization-globalization .

“Wildlife trafficking on a global scale increased contacts between wild animals and human populations that otherwise would never have occurred. Each animal carries in its organism a variety of viruses that it has hosted for a long time. During that millennial coexistence they have developed immunity against these viruses. This balance is broken when a virus is transmitted to another species with which it has never lived, thus finding a host that has not developed immunity against it, ”they explain.

Regarding the extinction of wild species, a product in large part of the destruction of habitats, they point out that food chains were simplified and the relationships between species that naturally control the size of animal populations were reduced. "The absence of natural predators of species that have adapted to live in transformed ecosystems allows their populations to grow uncontrollably, increasing their frequency of contact with people and thus the probability of transmitting pathogens", they affirm.

Climate change, product of the destruction of ecosystems and the use of fossil fuels, increased the planet's temperature and caused tropical species to find an appropriate habitat in temperate regions. "Typically tropical insect species that are vectors of infectious diseases, such as mosquitoes, have expanded their distribution to temperate zones and have spread diseases such as dengue, Zika or malaria to areas where they had never reached before", they graph.

The concentration of inhabitants in megacities and the great mobility between continents facilitate contagion very quickly. The authors highlight that the five factors that they point out show that the ways of producing and consuming are largely responsible for the pandemic, due to its impacts on the environment, on which human health depends. It emphasizes that the health of the planet and of humans is one. And they propose some actions to change the present: agroecology (production of healthy food, without transgenics or pesticides), reduce travel, avoid consumerism and "elect leaders who prioritize the environment", among other aspects.

  • By Darío Aranda. Article published on March 30, 2020 in the newspaper Página12.

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