Coronavirus Crisis: Exploring the Human Impact on Nature

Tim Benton and Richard Kock speak to Gitika Bhardwaj about how human activities are making outbreaks, like the coronavirus, more likely.

Published 22 May 2020 Updated 1 June 2023 15 minute READ

Throughout history, humans have been afflicted by diseases transmitted from animals, with the current coronavirus outbreak the latest to have taken place in recent years, from the 1998 Nipah virus in Malaysia, to the 2014 Ebola virus across West Africa.

The World Health Organization has declared four global health emergencies over the past decade and research reveals outbreaks are becoming more common. Why are we seeing this increase around the world?

Tim Benton: The fundamental job of pathogens throughout evolution has been to maximize their chances of infecting susceptible organisms. Pathogens can live in lots of different host organisms and so they are continually looking for an opportunity to jump from one species to another. Some pathogens are particularly good at this like the coronavirus.

Certain species of animals, like bats, appear to have immune systems that harbour a lot of organisms living inside of them naturally but their immune systems can cope with it and they become reservoirs of diseases.

These pathogens then seek the opportunity to jump to another species. But where are they going to find a new host? Well, from an environmental perspective, when humans change the environment, such as by changing the climate, we cause animals to move around the landscape, often migrating northwards towards the Northern Hemisphere, which drives different animals to come into contact with us.

Similarly, when we degrade habitats, animals are forced to squeeze together with other animals into smaller areas. If we then come into contact with these animals, then we risk the pathogens living inside of them, jumping across to us.

The same is true when humans migrate to urban centres which are reservoirs of diseases too. Rats are a prime example of an animal which hosts a lot of pathogens and are common to find in cities, and people, particularly low-wage people, often come into contact with them.

So, climate change, habitat change and our own societal changes are creating new ecologies which are leading us to mix with those new ecologies in new ways and giving the perfect opportunity for pathogens to make a leap across to us.

Richard Kock: 100 years ago, we didn’t have the tools to understand what viruses were so part of the apparent increasing emergence of these diseases is the fact that we’re better able to detect them.

But the movement of a virus from an animal to a human is important. Pathogens jumping to another species is actually an extremely rare event. HIV, for example, was a rare event in the 1950s that led to a disease that spread throughout the human population. Measles, too, is a common disease among humans but was believed to have spilt over from cattle to humans in the 15th century.

But this is what evolution is all about. This crisscrossing is happening all of the time but the chance of you or I getting a zoonosis directly from an animal is actually extremely rare. In fact, the most likely zoonosis that humans might get would be from a domestic animal. Dogs, for example, can give us rabies and there are around 50,000 cases of rabies a year around the world.

We should remember that wildlife is not a threat to us. We are a threat to it, and to ourselves, because we create the conditions for spill-overs of diseases to happen. How do we do this? By invading their environment and, in that process, there is a risk that the pathogens that they carry see an opportunity to jump into us as a new host. So the only person at fault here is us.

Scientists have warned human activities are creating a ‘perfect storm’ for a spill-over of diseases from animals to humans, as you mentioned, and that humanity’s ‘promiscuous’ treatment of nature needs to change or there could be more pandemics like the coronavirus in the future. How far has humanity’s changing relationship with the environment contributed to the likelihood of pandemics, like the coronavirus, occurring?

Tim Benton: The coronavirus outbreak is another example of the fact that, increasingly, as we change our environment, we are creating the conditions for society to get hit by diseases whether it’s the coronavirus or something like bluetongue, which is an animal disease impacting livestock, or Ug99 which is a disease impacting wheat.

But it’s not just about pandemics occurring but the subsequent impacts they can have on human health, for example, the impacts to our livestock systems and our crop systems and, therefore, food availability and the nutrition that underpins our ability to fight diseases like the coronavirus.

When you put all of these pieces together, we shouldn’t just be worried about pandemics occurring, but the increasing shocks to society that could happen in all sorts of ways as a result.

Richard Kock: Yes, human activities, such as deforestation, agriculture and mining, have led to a greater risk of pathogens transmitting from animals and humans.

Population demography is also a problem. There are a lot more people now than there used to be and they increasingly migrate to urban centres where they live alongside a large population of domestic animals – in fact the biomass of domestic animals is about three times the biomass of humans – it’s massive. This is a huge problem because it creates a close connection between us.

Take a rat, a crow, a seagull or a fox. They basically feed off of human waste because we consume all of the natural resources. Bats fly and rats hide but they’re very good at surviving very close to human habitation. That’s why certain domestic species are a greater threat to us because they’re able to occupy the same space as we do and therefore spill-overs of pathogens from them to us are much more likely.

MERS-CoV, which has been developing since 2012, came from a camel which is also a domesticated animal often found in farms in the Middle East. These farms become like pathogen factories where the virus can spill over to humans, and then human-to-human, until we get an outbreak which is what I suspect happened with COVID-19.

Similarly, if you look at the evidence for SARS, we had the civet cat and the raccoon dog which are both domesticated ex-wild animals used for the fur and meat trades in Asia. So, if you put the bats and the rats to one side, it’s also the animals that we’re exploiting directly that are the greatest threat to us but, ultimately, the threat is caused by us.

Human activities have significantly altered three-quarters of all land and two-thirds of all of the ocean on Earth leading to a changing climate and unprecedented global biodiversity loss. In light of a recent warning from the UN that multiple famines of ‘biblical proportions’ could be seen within months following the pandemic, what can we expect to happen if we continue along our current trajectory?

Tim Benton: We can’t continue as we are because it’s taking us to a situation where we are undermining the ability of our species to survive.

The coronavirus crisis is interesting because it is a wake up call for governments and it’s generating much more hard-headed thinking about the challenges of the future.

I’ve been working on these issues for decades now and I remember having conversations with the UK government in the past about the risk of environmental breakdown to our food system. The UK government’s response then was that the market will sort everything out but I think there is very different thinking now. I just hope that we make the changes needed fast enough.

Richard Kock: One of the most interesting things that I have experienced in my career was in 2015, when I was in Kazakhstan, which has a beautiful steppe habitat with very extreme weather. This is where historically the mammoths and the sabre tooth tigers come from and also a species called the saiga antelope. It’s a fast-reproducing antelope that still lives in Central Asia having survived the Pleistocene, unlike many species, although they’re now a critically endangered species.

We started seeing a phenomenon there – a disease wiping out the population – over an area the size of the UK. 230,000 animals died over a period of about three weeks. It was extraordinary. We found out there was a bacteria that is quite common around the world called Pasteurella multocida which was, for some reason, suddenly able to invade each individual saiga antelope across the landscape. But there had been no transmission of the bacteria meaning the bacteria must’ve been present in the animal beforehand.

We then found that a recent change in the weather had caused the bacteria to become activated inside of the animals. I’m not saying it was climate change but it’s amazing what happened with a change in the climate: a warm-blooded mammal was affected by a pathogen due to a change in the environmental conditions and had a 100 per cent mortality rate. Climate change, however, will bring these types of conditions about more often which could lead to a 100 per cent mortality rate of the human population.

COVID-19 has a 1-2 per cent mortality rate which is extremely mild yet look what it does to our economy. We must wake up as humans and realize that there are existential threats out there, through our own fault, which could eliminate us as a species, and the sooner we wake up, the better.

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Saiga antelopes at the Stepnoi Nature Reserve in Russia’s Astrakhan region. The Stepnoi Nature Reserve was created especially for saiga antelopes which are a critically endangered species. Photo: Getty Images.

Saiga antelopes at the Stepnoi Nature Reserve in Russia’s Astrakhan region. The Stepnoi Nature Reserve was created especially for saiga antelopes which are a critically endangered species. Photo: Getty Images.

— Saiga antelopes at the Stepnoi Nature Reserve in Russia’s Astrakhan region. The Stepnoi Nature Reserve was created especially for saiga antelopes which are a critically endangered species. Photo: Getty Images.

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From the Himalayan mountains being discernible to local residents in India for the first time in decades, to falling CO2 emissions which could lead to the largest annual fall since the Second World War, some have argued that a silver lining to the pandemic has been that nature has been able to heal itself. How far does this show that the scale and pace of change needed to address other environmental crises, such as the climate and biodiversity crises, is possible?

Tim Benton: It’s interesting because, although we’ve got a blip in terms of a temporary reduction in CO2 emissions, it’s not a reduction in CO2 in the atmosphere. So, in one sense, that brings home that being Paris-compliant is a huge ask because if still, under all of the rigours of the lockdown we’re currently in, we’re still thereabouts for what we would have to do to be Paris-compliant, then that shows how far we’ve still got to go.

But I think the more important question is whether the current crisis is changing people’s attitudes towards nature so that when they come out of lockdown the say, ‘Enough is enough.’

So, rather than the silver lining being that the environment is healing itself, the silver lining might be that people come out of lockdown and say, ‘We want to make sure that this sort of thing never happens again and that requires us to live in different ways as we move ahead.’

Richard Kock: You know, I think we rather burden ourselves with this belief that we can’t change but we could reduce our meat consumption by 75 per cent next week. It’s going to have implications for the meat industry but, the fact is, it can all be done quickly.

Similarly, if you reduce the livestock population by 75 per cent, think of the space you’d create. Massive areas of land will suddenly become available to nature. When it comes to biodiversity, we don’t have to do anything, nature will do it itself.

To me, the solution is straightforward. If you restore the land, the forests and the oceans, you’ll restore natural processes but humans have to make that decision.

You both have mentioned changing people’s attitudes and recent polling has revealed two thirds of Britons think climate change is as serious as the coronavirus and want it prioritized in any plans for an economic recovery. Following historically high levels of public engagement with climate change over the past couple of years, how far do you think the current crisis is changing public attitudes towards our relationship with nature?

Tim Benton: In the run-up to the emergence of the coronavirus, we had Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg, the COP in Madrid and a whole host of things gearing up for 2020 to be a ‘super year’.

There were a lot of things that were shifting public attitudes in the direction of wanting to embrace more sustainable living and now what we have is people starting to recognize that the coronavirus outbreak is not just a global health emergency but an environmental one too.

So, I think there is a chance, after decades of being told as citizens that we can’t act on climate change because it’s too expensive, we will. If there are enough people coming out of lockdown saying, we want to make sure that our recovery is a green recovery, then we can do it, but it is a societal choice.

Richard Kock: There are many societies and religious communities around the world who recognize the importance of nature but, unfortunately, in the speed of modern life, we’ve lost sight of it, particularly in the West. However, people are beginning to recognize that climate change is not a good thing and biodiversity loss is not a good thing and are seeking ways to solve it.

The problem is that we have many people who have no interest in wellbeing at all. Most people, who have decided for humans throughout history what the right pathway for development is, have not considered the value of each society and whether it does a good or bad thing for the planet.

They have instead given value to ways of life that are harmful to our wellbeing and, ultimately, to the environment. So I think we need to change our value systems and orient people away from the sort of pathway that we’ve chosen.

Governments around the world have warned of another global recession as a result of the pandemic, with Germany falling into its biggest recession since 1945, and the number of unemployed in the US rising to over 36 million.

Companies in the US, UK and France have called on governments to prioritize a green economic recovery while the EU has argued for climate conditions to be included in bailouts for airlines. With questions emerging over whether to restore the old economy or invest in a new greener one, in your opinion, what should be the ‘normal’ after the crisis?

Tim Benton: For me it’s all of the above. It’s a simple question at one level because I’d like to see a better world but a fiendishly difficult question at another level because we don’t yet have a vision for what a green future should be like that everybody buys into.

But, certainly, there are things we can do. We have the ability to make sure that we have renewable energy at the root of our energy systems and we can move towards more sustainable transport and more sustainable diets.

In fact, food is an interesting example because if you think about the morbidities that have been associated with deaths resulting from COVID-19, after age and gender, obesity and the diseases associated with obesity, like diabetes, are high risk factors. So, if we are going to have more resilient health systems in the future then we have to have some movement towards preventative healthcare which means healthier diets.

If we’re eating healthier diets, that means growing different things, and farming in different ways, which means a revolution in farming to make it more sustainable.

We would then have more biodiversity in the landscape because we wouldn’t be growing lots of the wrong food that makes us ill on large swathes of land.

Sustainability is all about everyone living within the boundaries that the planet has set. It’s not about driving economic growth at the expense of everything else. It’s about using the economy to provide wellbeing to all.

Richard Kock: I think it would be great if wealthier countries after the crisis realize, actually, are slower economies all that bad?

Some argue that people won’t have jobs in slower economies, but if we are fair in the way we distribute our resources, we’ll see significant benefits to our wellbeing.

I’m hoping that the experience of the coronavirus crisis will teach us all a lesson that, yes, this was uncomfortable but we can cope and that we, as a society, can get through these things if we make some changes.

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The Himalayan mountains seen from Himachal Pradesh in India. The Himalayan mountains have come into view for first time in almost 30 years in northern India as lockdown due to the coronavirus has led to a drop in air pollution. Photo: Getty Images.

The Himalayan mountains seen from Himachal Pradesh in India. The Himalayan mountains have come into view for first time in almost 30 years in northern India as lockdown due to the coronavirus has led to a drop in air pollution. Photo: Getty Images.

— The Himalayan mountains seen from Himachal Pradesh in India. The Himalayan mountains have come into view for first time in almost 30 years in northern India as lockdown due to the coronavirus has led to a drop in air pollution. Photo: Getty Images.

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Experts have been arguing for years for the adoption of a ‘One Health’ approach that recognizes the intersectional nature of human and animal health with the environment. How could this approach work together with calls for a Green New Deal to address global health, climate and biodiversity challenges?

Tim Benton: Everything is linked together. Putting them under the One Health agenda, therefore, just makes a hell of a lot of sense to me. We have to start thinking about human and planetary health all within the same envelope.

Richard Kock: I’m a great believer in a multidisciplinary approach. One Health, to me, is about recognizing the need to look at human health from the perspective of creating a healthy environment.

But it’s important to point out that health isn’t just a job for doctors and vets. It’s society’s job. Politicians need to ask themselves, ‘Do we want a healthy society?’ If so, then they need to recognize there are certain limits to the way we exploit the planet.

I’m afraid some international organizations are struggling to practise One Health at the moment too. They talk about One Health but they don’t sit down together to discuss solutions as they should. For example, with the current coronavirus crisis, if this had been a problem within the animal population, we would’ve stopped movement in January and there wouldn’t have been a coronavirus crisis. It’s a shame that there hasn’t been a cross-disciplinary approach to guide some of the public health strategies so far.

I have, however, been working with about 300 international experts on COVID-19 and what has been great is that we’ve got vets, modellers and scientists all talking to each other and that’s One Health.

Political polarization over response to the coronavirus crisis appears to be widening yet UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has called for closer cooperation among countries to stop future pandemics. How do you see national and international efforts taking shape going forwards?

Tim Benton: The huge roadblock to a global approach is that there isn’t one. We’re now in a place that is effectively unimaginable compared to, say, a decade ago.

If you look back to the turn of the century, there were people legitimately asking about whether we are living in a post-nation state world because, at the time, we felt like we were global citizens because of the liberal architecture of international co-operation.

But now, just a decade later, we’ve had undermining of the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization, withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, international trade wars, all of which, a few years ago, would have been unthinkable. Everywhere – left, right and centre – we have moved away from international co-operation to international competition.

So, I think, we’re going in the wrong direction if we are to meaningfully tackle the challenges ahead, particularly the urgency of climate change and environmental issues in general.

We have a window of opportunity over the next decade or so, but if that window of opportunity closes, then we’ve lost.

Richard Kock: You know, they always say, it takes a crisis to get a solution. Isn’t that terrible? But it does seem throughout human history that you need a crisis for things to get sorted because the shock of it gets people to say, ‘We have to change.’ So, yes, I think the COVID-19 pandemic gives us an opportunity to change.

This talk about getting rid of the World Health Organization is a result of a type of politics that has been developing which is a reflection of the people who don’t want to see change. We vote for these strong leaders with popular support who look as if they’re going to solve everything. Let’s take responsibility ourselves to solve these problems but in a way where there are checks and balances.

I believe we’ll get back to an integrated politics where we can have people with a strong green agenda, a strong industry agenda and a strong health agenda working together but we need to get the balance right if we are to move forward.

It is true that national and international institutions can become ankylosed and so I think we need to refresh our institutions, because if we don’t, we will find that they no longer work, and in many of our democracies, that’s been the problem.

2020 was touted to be a ‘super year’ for nature, from the setting of long-term climate change goals, to agreement of a post-2020 global biodiversity framework, to the first legally-binding international agreement to protect the world’s ocean. How hopeful are you that the world can recover from the current pandemic to accomplish these goals in the months and years ahead?

Tim Benton: I’m less hopeful now than I was a year ago. I think there is potential for the current COVID-19 pandemic to create a sea change in public and political opinion as we go through the next year or so.

If you think about some of the flashpoints around the world, in the countries that are suffering the most, they’re either vulnerable countries or they’re countries where there’s nationalist, populist, inward-looking governments. But those that are feeling the pandemic the most could create, if those governments change, a huge change in the way we collectively work at an international level.

However, I do think at the moment we’re not seeing enough of the scale of international cooperation that we’ve had in the past such as during the food price spike and the global financial crash between 2007-08.

My optimism therefore sits with those governments around the world who want to tackle these existential threats. We can’t wait for those countries who don’t want to work together to come around to our way of thinking. We have just got to find ways of making sure that there are coalitions that are willing to push ahead fast enough.

It’s not an entirely positive place to be, but I think, if we want it enough, we as citizens can let our feelings be known and hopefully that will create some degree of political momentum.

Richard Kock: I’m hopeful but those people who believe in the green agenda can’t do it alone – they’ve got to bring the rest of society along with them – and we can do this by developing understanding across society by stopping the separation of responsibilities and realizing we’re all responsible. Then, I believe, things will change because they’ve changed in the past and there’s no reason why they can’t change again in the future.

We’ve got extinctions happening at an unprecedented rate, but if we can change now, within the next 50 years, nature will be back. I’m particularly optimistic that young people can force these changes and there are a few of us, at the end of our careers, who will join them too.