Environmental collapse triggers pandemics

frog census

Angelo Capparella, a vertebrate zoologist, is conducting a frog census at Merwin, a ParkLands Foundation Nature Preserve near Bloomington. He can identify a frog species by its call and is trained to assess size of a frog population. He said this kind of basic science is essential for understanding environmental changes. (PHOTO BY CLARE HOWARD)

Nature is shouting out warnings of pandemic tsunamis barreling down upon us, but repeated warnings are repeatedly ignored.

Angelo Capparella listens to frogs for warnings. Jen Walling reads warnings in ongoing dismantling of environmental regulations. Elizabeth Maruma Mrema sees loss of biodiversity and destruction of natural habitats blazing a trail for more pandemics. She has noted this environmental destruction is linked to increasing zoonotic diseases that jump from animals to humans.

A retired microbial ecologist who had secret government clearance said these increasing risks were well understood as a national security threat by the U.S. military complex for decades.

From industrial agriculture to real estate development, the global economy is destroying natural habitats and pushing human populations into closer contact with wildlife that are vectors for a whole reservoir of viruses.

Climate change is one factor that shifts wildlife from one region to another. As animals and insects are displaced due to climate change and development, they carry with them new viruses to populations with no natural immunities.

Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, has written climate change makes COVID-19 and future pandemics more likely. The health of the planet plays an important role in the spread of zoonotic diseases that jump from animals to humans. Survival means we have to change production, consumption, transportation and energy to cleaner and greener, she said.

Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, said, “We systematically dismantled government preparedness. Reducing mileage standards and rollbacks on pollutants damage our environment and our health.”

She said the airline industry is 50 years away from developing electric airplanes. Rather than subsidizing the airline industry, we should be increasing subsidies for high-speed rail and zero-emissions locomotives.

“Unregulated economic growth is not OK,” Walling said.

Mrema, acting executive director of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, stated in a paper the links are clear between destruction of nature and new human illnesses.

Capparella, professor emeritus of vertebrate zoology at Illinois State University, said “We have ignored these warnings. These risks have festered for a very long time. We have been unwilling to listen to scientists.”

Just some of the recently ignored warnings include Hurricane Katrina, Ebola and Lyme disease.

“Habitat fragmentation helped release Lyme disease,” he said. “We are not listening to scientists. Prevention is cheaper than dealing with destruction and pandemics.”

From the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, “it is hard to find environmental policy not weakened by this administration,” Capparella said, adding we are left with corporate lobbyists establishing public policy and reducing mileage standards.

By way of example, he pointed out DDT. Corporate pesticide manufacturers insisted there was no link between thinning eggshells and DDT use. However, years of baseline data compiled by scientists proved that when DDT use began, eggshells of eagles and falcons began to thin and the raptor populations plummeted. The problem was identified before the losses became permanent.

Many scientists call for legal prohibitions against wet markets like the one in Wuhan, China, that is the likely epicenter of the COVID-19 virus that crossed from animals to humans. But scientists also warn wet markets that many of the world’s poor depend on for food must not just be eliminated but replaced with alternatives.

Capparella said, “We need more international assistance, and we need to reduce dependence on wild-caught animals, but if wild animals are used, it should be sustainably.

“What kind of a world do we want to live in –– one with an equitable economy or an unsustainable economy that is subject to periodic collapses? It’s a stark choice.”

We can’t stop scientific climate research without impairing our ability to understand the emergence of coronaviruses, he said, warning that the current pandemic has shut down universities that lead research in the very fields of study most needed to survive.

“We have a big black hole in the data –– ongoing as long as this pandemic continues,” Capparella said, noting that some of his frog research locations are shut down but some parks remain open and his work can focus on those locations.

“We are all interconnected. There are no borders between people and countries. It is in our own self interest to work toward a healthier planet.”

Perhaps most frustrating is that the U.S. government was running simulation models for decades and knew pandemics were a huge threat and knew there was need for masks, ventilators and supplies yet did not adequately prepare, said a microbial ecologist who asked not to be identified because of his government work.

He said the current administration has undermined science and worsened national preparedness.

The second wave may be worse in the fall. When it hits refugee camps, the devastation will be enormous, the scientists said, noting when flights to China were suspended by the Trump administration, it was already too late for control. There are two ways to control pandemics: robust testing and early contact tracing and quarantines.

The administration failed in both measures and continues to undermine common sense, the scientist said.

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