I was lying on the chilling, snow-covered ground after a long day of skiing when I heard my sister read aloud an article about the Dow Jones. It had dropped thousands of points, far below that of the 2008 financial crisis. There was shock, and a hint of fear in her voice. It makes sense. She had just graduated from college last spring and is currently working as a clinical specialist in elective surgeries, interpreting electroanatomical maps for hospitals in the Philadelphia area—hospitals being the key word there. With COVID-19 as virulent as it is, hospitals would soon become synonymous with warzones, and a fresh-out-of-college lab tech would surely be considered nonessential personnel, along with the staggering 18% of U.S. workers getting laid off. The full extent of the novel coronavirus’ spread soon became apparent as it corroded every facet of life, from stock investments to job security to grocery shopping. Toilet paper and diapers became objects to covet, and a survival of the fittest mentality glazed over people. As the country, and the world for that matter, struggled with the socioeconomic effects of COVID-19, I began to wonder why there was not more concern over the novel virus’s origins and on how we could learn to prevent future zoonoses?
COVID-19 is yet another addition to the growing list of zoonoses—viruses that spread from animals to humans. While some people are unfazed by these diseases, understanding them to be a reminder that humans are just another animal species, what is undeniably alarming is our potential role in causing zoonoses. Recently, scientific evidence has indicated a correlation between deforestation, its associated population changes, and the emergence of zoonotic diseases. According to various studies, the loss of forests results in habitat fragmentation causing forest inhabitants to live in closer proximity. These higher concentrations of primates increase the chance of disease transmission among their own species and even the spillover onto other species, like humans.
David Quammen elucidates this spillover concept in his 2012 book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, where he eerily warns his readers about the risk of a future zoonotic virus. The link between deforestation and zoonoses can be seen in a study published by the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases providing evidence of a sharp increase in human malaria cases in Malaysian Borneo, a region devastated by rapid deforestation. The results suggest a statistically significant likelihood that deforestation and associated environmental changes are “key drivers” in the transmission of the malaria parasite, P. knowlesi, in the Borneo region. Throughout history, there have been numerous cases of pathogens emerging from forests, including the Zika virus, Dengue, Chikungunya, and yellow fever—all from forests in Africa. A misinformed respondent might argue that outbreaks are the responsibility of the country in which the virus emerged. However, deforestation is actually a global problem, as palm oil plantations, pulp plantations, logging and other deforesting industries are financially sustained through their exports to countries around the world.
Today, 3 billion people in 150 countries use products containing palm oil. Globally, each individual consumes an average of 8 kg of palm oil in a year. Palm oil is an ingredient in pizza dough, ice cream, detergent, lipstick, chocolate, and shampoo—just to name a few of the manifold household staples that contain the substance. Consider how many of these products you have in your own home, now expand that to a global scale.
Each and every one of us has an ecological footprint that we are responsible for. We get to decide how large or how small the footprint is. By understanding the correlation between deforestation and spillovers through a global lens, we can see the interconnectivity, the responsibility that we all share, and even a way to alleviate our coronavirus anxiety. By understanding the origin story of a zoonosis, and our individual role in it, we can all turn our fears into something we have power over. We can be conscious consumers. We can look for products with RSPO certifications (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) that ensure the socially and environmentally responsible production of palm oil. We can support companies that protect biodiversity. Let’s learn from our past mistakes to ensure that the encumbering effects of COVID-19 do not occur again. We can stop fearing the next zoonosis that hides away in a jungle. We can take action and recognize our role and responsibility in this interconnected world that we live in.
To quote the extraordinary Martin Luther King Jr., “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Isabella Durcan can be reached at email@example.com.