Wildlife: Living with coronavirus

The pangolin payback pandemic

The World Today
2 minute READ

Samantha Gordine

Marine biologist

The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a healthcare issue, it is a symptom of a much bigger problem at hand – the environmental crisis that is engulfing us. After all, this crisis is not just about carbon, but about how we live with, and in, the natural environment. A healthy environment is resilient, but we have weakened nature’s defences.

Currently, we take from nature without giving back. We destroy the basis of life for other species: we burn fossil fuels, we destroy forests, we encroach on wildlife. And then see rising temperatures that make us sweat, out-of-control wildfires that eat our homes and viral pandemics that take our loved ones.

All of this arises because we have persistently pushed nature back and unrightfully claimed its territory. Naturally, we do not belong in close contact with wildlife that can give us new viruses and when a virus does leap between species we are surprised. Yet we treat each event as an isolated occurrence, when in fact these things are all connected.

We saw a fantastic start to 2020 with many industries committing to improving sustainability. Yet I suspect these same industries will soon be claiming that their financial resources have been so diminished by the COVID-19 crisis they cannot continue on their sustainability trajectory.

Similarly, I fear that many climate and environmental targets will be put on the back burner as a result of the crisis. Politicians are already alluding to delays to climate targets. It irritates me that governments managed to conjure vast sums of money to fight COVID-19 but have always claimed such financial resources could not be responsibly generated to fight climate change.

To me, this is paradoxical and increasingly two-faced. Politicians are considering cutting funds to fight climate change because of the debt accrued fighting COVID-19, yet the virus is just another symptom of the wider environmental crisis.

I wonder what would happen if environmental news received the same airtime that COVID-19 generates. Maybe we would finally connect the dots. Maybe then we would be aware of the second pandemic unfolding in front of our eyes. This second pandemic is racing through the world’s coral reefs, the megacities of the ocean. Within these reefs live and work the cleaners, builders and gardeners of the seas. They have been silently fighting mass coral bleaching not just this year, but for many years. There have been three of these destructive events in the past five years, that have wiped out entire coral cities. This catastrophic news gets little mention.

It is worth looking at the origins of COVID-19. Some researchers posit that pangolins, small creatures like scaly anteaters, may be an intermediary host that facilitated the virus to move from bats, which are suspected to be the natural reservoir of the virus, to humans.

Pangolins are hunted because they are the source of some alleged health and fertility benefits to people. We humans have driven these species to near extinction through an illegal wildlife trade. And now we in turn are hunted by a virus that may have jumped the species barrier when humans slaughtered pangolins. A virus that kills cruelly as a result of people believing that making money and encroaching on the habitats of other species is more important than the survival of the rest of world. I wonder if this is the way that this little creature fights back. In my head I have renamed COVID-19: I call it the Pangolin Payback Pandemic.