The Covid-19 pandemic taught us many lessons. Perhaps the most important was how connected everything is. When an impulsive choice to go out to see friends during lockdown might mean a child grows up not knowing her grandparents, our connectedness was obvious. And when we look at the root causes of the pandemic, there once again is interconnectedness. When we destroy nature, we open the door to harmful diseases that can turn our whole world upside down.
These are vital lessons, and to prove they have what it takes to prevent the next crisis, our aspiring political representatives need to show they listened. They need to show how they will work to restore nature, reduce pollution and protect the climate.
How are diseases like Covid connected to nature?
What caused the Covid-19 pandemic? It’s been a question on many people’s minds, and the answer may not be black and white, but we do have some clues.The novel coronavirus Covid-19, which continues to devastate families and communities across the world, is thought to have passed from bats to humans via another animal species – possibly a pangolin – at a live animal market. But this isn’t about one isolated market. Scientists believe that increasing human encroachment into wildlife habitats all over the world means we are coming into closer contact with diseases that afflict other species, but have previously been unknown to human immune systems.
New research by Greenpeace and the University of West England has found links between environmental destruction and the increasing likelihood of pandemics. In their recently-released paper, they write that the majority of human infectious disease events that have emerged in recent decades have their origins in wildlife. The researchers explain that nature – when it is healthy and functioning – limits disease transfer from animals to humans. But, when ecosystems are degraded, these natural barriers are broken down.
What’s more, degrading nature also undermines the resources we need to fight diseases once infection occurs – like access to clean water for hand-washing and sanitation that prevents human-to-human transmission.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that human, animal and environmental health are all interconnected.
How does climate change impact infectious diseases like Covid-19?
As our team of five million went into Level Four Lockdown to protect the health of our most vulnerable, another crisis was happening behind the scenes. Over the summer and autumn, we experienced one of the worst droughts in history, decimating water reserves in Auckland and afflicting farms across the nation.
Auckland Mayor, Phil Goff, held off on the warnings and it’s understandable why. With the whole nation working together to eliminate Covid-19, we needed to know there was enough water to wash our hands. The droughts in Auckland and across the country are a reminder that climate change puts at risk some of the absolute essentials of life, like freshwater to drink and wash, or stable weather for growing food.
The World Health Organisation has issued warnings that climate change is also likely to have major consequences for infectious disease transmission. As the planet warms, more people will be at risk of catching existing diseases like malaria. Older diseases, locked away in permafrost for millennia, could be released into the world again.
It’s no surprise the Lancet medical journal calls climate change the greatest threat to public health in our generation. But medical professionals also see our response to climate change as one of the greatest opportunities we have to improve public health.
Healthy planet – healthy people
One of the unexpected silver linings that many New Zealanders experienced during Lockdown was quieter streets. We’ve probably never seen so many people out on their bikes as we did in April 2020. And I wouldn’t be surprised if many people are looking back nostalgically at a time when they felt safe enough to walk or ride their bikes on our roads.
Making New Zealand streets safer for walking, cycling and using wheelchairs has obvious benefits for mental and physical health. NZ Climate & Health Council, Ora Taiao, are strong champions of what is called “active transport” because it cuts carbon and particulate emissions from car traffic while the extra exercise boosts physical and mental wellbeing.
The same can be said for many of the initiatives we need to protect our climate and the environment. Providing better alternatives to cars, like electric buses and trains, cuts air pollution linked to asthma and stroke. Reducing the number of methane-emitting cows we farm and restoring wetlands, riverbeds and forests prevents gastrointestinal diseases like E. coli, Cryptosporidium and Giardia. Restoring harbours and estuaries protects important fish and seafood species from microorganisms that can spread to humans through our food. Restoring forests, soils and oceans helps to absorb and store vast amounts of carbon dioxide, slowing climate change. Eliminating single-use plastics can prevent harmful microplastics from ending up in our food, with microplastics found in fish, seafood and table salt.
We are part of nature and, when we treat it well, nature looks after us. But, as Covid-19 has shown, the degradation of nature can lead to breaking points where natural barriers and safeguards are eroded. This is happening all around us, through the systems that exist to make our food, our energy and our transport.
But, the good news is, there are so many opportunities for protection and restoration. And with the Government poised to spend billions of dollars in the post-Covid economic recovery, we have a unique opportunity to build a healthier world – to Build Back Better.
Why Election 2020 must prioritise nature
There’s an Election just two months away. On September 19th, New Zealanders will go to the polls to elect the people they hope will deliver the strongest vision for Aotearoa. With Covid-19 front and centre this election, politicians from all parties will be presenting their policies and plans for building back as part of the post-pandemic recovery.
Elections are moments when important environmental wins can happen quickly. Remember the ban on new offshore oil and gas exploration permits? Or the plastic bag ban? Or the end of public subsidies for irrigation schemes? These are all issues that we campaigned for last election – campaigns that, together, we won.
The Greenpeace and University of West England researchers have this key message for political leaders in the wake of Covid-19: Maintaining intact and fully functioning ecosystems is key to preventing new pandemics.
Four transformative policies for the Covid-19 recovery
If restoration and regeneration of nature is an investment in public health, what should our aspiring political representatives be committing to this election? Here are our top four recommendations for all political parties:
- Replace the current industrial agriculture system with regenerative farming methods – where we farm in harmony with nature and don’t use synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. Regenerative farming involves growing a large diversity of crops, plants and animals. Synthetic inputs like nitrogen fertiliser are replaced with practices that mimic natural systems to access nutrients, water and pest control required for growth.
- Replace fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal with locally-produced and owned renewable energy. We can power our homes, transport and businesses using the sunlight that shines on our roofs and the wind that blows through our countryside, instead of importing oil or mining coal and gas from the land and the sea.
- Replace unnecessary single-use products like plastic drink bottles with reusable and refillable options, including glass. Plastic bags, and bottles are just the tip of the iceberg. New Zealand desperately needs a comprehensive national strategy to eliminate single-use plastic waste.
- Invest in the large-scale restoration of nature. From replanting native forests to revitalising wetlands to restoring mussel and shellfish beds in harbours, there are so many opportunities for us to choose from – we just need to get started.