Where the virus grows

We’ve published a number of posts on Covid and Climate, most recently ‘Covid, Climate and Transition’. Graham Checkley continues this theme reflecting on the links between ecology, environment and pandemics.

Habitat destruction has been pointed out, by both the UN and the World Health Organization, as a major contributing factor behind pandemics.  In such situations we see displaced and stressed animals, carrying their own viruses and probably sick, coming in to contact with new potential hosts, including humans.  It is not only the animals that are stressed; people, driven off their land and deprived of any other food, can end up eating dangerously prepared and already diseased meat.

Nature does not usually do things this way; a common analogy for the relationship between species is a long, slow, evolutionary arms race between predator and prey, sometimes, oddly, to mutual advantage.  But there is a potential for violent change, and from an evolutionary point-of-view it is nothing personal, just a virus living through a period of mass species extinction by evolving to use a novel new host, all 8 billion of us.  Avian flu, Ebola, HIV and SARS have all jumped the species gap from their original host to humans; Covid-19 is only the latest virus to do this, and with global habitat destruction it will not be the last.

While the habitat destruction in Africa, Brazil and China makes the headlines, something just as terrible is happening here in Britain, a few trees at a time.

The report from the state of nature partnership for the UK in 2019 documents that 15% of UK species are threatened with at least local extinction, and that 41% have decreased in abundance over the last 50 years.  Perhaps most alarming is the 60% drop in UK priority species over that period, species identified as key indicators of the health of UK biodiversity; what this means in practice is that our habitat is becoming less species rich and as a result less resilient to change.

Habitat loss is a major factor here, putting pressure on wildlife as thousands of hectares of farmland, woodland and wetland are built on every year to meet the needs of our increasingly urbanised population.  However, it is local government policy that is driving that urban sprawl, a policy with an emphasis on city centre offices, shops, cafes, restaurants, hotels, Airbnb, student accommodation and no affordable housing.  Family home in Edinburgh?  You need to move out to East Lothian and commute.

How things often are: Graham Checkley

At a more detailed level we see one development project after another leading to habitat destruction.  While the most infamous have been the destruction of ancient woodland for the HS2 rail project and the conversion of SSSI protected dune systems into golf courses, we also see proposals for a theme park on Swanscombe Marshes and the building of a dual carriageway through bat habitat in Norfolk.  But perhaps the most bizarre and revealing piece of un-joined-up thinking is a proposed development in Edinburgh, felling more than 800 trees to create a new green corridor walking and cycle pathway; a development green-washed by planting 5000 new trees, aka trees moved there from a nursery that may never grow to maturity and do their bit to combat climate change.  In other words, a net loss of trees.  It is perhaps not surprising to discover that biodiversity is a declining government priority, with expenditure in this area dropping by 42% in 5 years; it now stands at 0.02% of GDP.

However, the good news is that good work is still being done.  Local Ranger Services still look after important biodiversity sites, public groups participate in such work both physically and financially, and conservation groups can still celebrate major achievements in habitat restoration and species re-introduction.  Similarly, some species have benefited from improved legal protection under EU law, but Boris Johnson wants to see an end to that.

But why does it have to be such a struggle?  Surely the science tells us that we need a healthy ecosystem to avoid pandemics, and aren’t we all in this together?

I believe that the answer goes back to the question of the 8 billion hosts; not all hosts are born equal.  Covid-19 has proved to be a disease spread by the rich that kills the poor; a president who catches it is guaranteed a place in hospital, a slum resident is not.  The rich can afford to self-isolate, the front-line worker cannot.  So, for the rich few of the 8 billion it is just a case of hanging out by their personal pool until they can get a private vaccination for this pandemic, and for the one after that, and for the one after that, and…  Also, many of them have money invested in mining companies, where environmental destruction comes as standard.  Given a choice between green and money, well, money will pay for that emergency bunker and the security guards to go with it.

So, if this explains the, at best, indifference of the rich, what about our elected representatives?  There are some good ones who lobby to see the right thing done, but they are mostly mesmerized by the money, and trees do not pay council tax.  Decades of cuts have made councils very developer friendly when it comes to planning regulations and decisions; they will enforce the letter of the law, but why should a little less woodland matter?

If we don’t force system change, the system will produce pandemic purgatory.

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