The links between new diseases and habitat destruction should prompt Australian governments to think about how to protect biodiversity and reduce future health risks, writes ACF's Nature Campaigner, Jess Abrahams.

While the world is not yet certain of the exact origin of COVID-19, we do know that 75 per cent of new diseases infecting humans, including coronaviruses, have their origin in other species. 

For example, SARS is believed to have passed from bats to civet cats and then humans. MERS is thought to have passed from bats to camels and then humans. One theory for COVID-19 is that it passed from bats to pangolins before infecting humans.

No matter the pathway, zoonosis, when pathogens jump from one species to another, is a potent reminder that humans are an inseparable part of nature.

The United Nations Environment Program identifies five causes of zoonosis, namely illegal wildlife trade, intensive animal agriculture, antibiotic resistance, climate change and deforestation. 

Environmental crimes

Australia is guilty, to one degree or another, of all five of these environmental crimes.

While wildlife trade in China has conveniently caught the Australian government’s attention, other zoonotic risk factors prevalent at home – habitat destruction from logging, land clearing and unsustainable urban sprawl – deserve rigorous examination.

Before laying the blame squarely on China’s wet markets, we should make sure our own backyard is clean.

Let’s not forget the Hendra virus killed four people in Queensland in the 1990s. The outbreak, thought to have jumped from bats to horses to people, has been linked to the unsustainable clearing of woodland for new housing estates and other projects. Researchers suspect clearing the bats’ natural habitat forced the species into closer contact with horses, which somehow contracted Hendra virus from bats’ urine or faeces. People caring for the sick horses then caught the disease. 

Encroachment on habitats

The lesson from Hendra is clear: when we encroach into the habitat other species need to survive, ecosystems are thrown out of balance and the risk of people being exposed to dangerous disease-causing pathogens increases.

It is wrong and lazy to blame wild animals for our ills. The responsibility lies with reckless governments and ruthless corporations, including Australian companies, that fail to protect, or worse, actively destroy precious wildlife habitat.

The more humans disturb and disrupt natural ecosystems, the further we tip them towards crisis and even collapse. The misguided call by Victorian MP Tim Smith to cull or relocate fruit bats from Melbourne’s Yarra Bend Park is yet another example of the failure to see how human wellbeing depends on a diverse and healthy environment.

Time for self-reflection

The direct links between the COVID-19 crisis, new diseases, habitat destruction and extinction should make Australian governments stop to think about to reduce future health risks in Australia. 

Such a self-reflective approach would be more fruitful than pointing the finger at other countries for their wildlife wet markets.

Right now, the Australian Government has the perfect opportunity to reflect on these connections. Australia’s national environmental laws are being reviewed by former ACCC boss Graeme Samuels.  Since these laws came into effect in 1990, 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat, an area the size of Tasmania, has been destroyed. This destruction of habitat not only compounds Australia’s extinction and climate crises, it helps prepare the ground for a home-grown zoonosis epidemic.

We should not ignore the environmental lessons from the coronavirus crisis. As we transition from curve flattening to economic recovery, fossil fuel interests want to further weaken Australia’s environment laws before the review of their effectiveness is even completed.

Listen to scientists

If there is anything this pandemic has taught us, it is the need to listen to the scientists. When it comes to a healthy and safe environment, the advice of scientists is crystal clear: we need to strengthen Australia’s environment laws, not weaken them.

Instead of degrading the environment and cooking the climate for short term economic gain, we can re-build the economy and reduce the risk of new diseases by creating millions of new jobs in restoring natural ecosystems, generating clean energy and fighting climate change.

Diseases like Ebola, Hendra and now COVID-19 demonstrate how the health of people, wildlife and the natural environment are inextricably linked. This is not rocket science. 

If we want to enjoy a healthy and thriving future, the Australian government must reckon with the environmental lessons of COVID-19 and protect and restore, rather than pillage and plunder, the natural ecosystems we, and all other species, depend on.

Jess Abrahams is a nature campaigner at the Australian Conservation Foundation.

This piece was originally published by Croakey.

Header pic: Gunlom Falls, Kakadu National Park, by Bette Devine.

Jess Abrahams

Nature lover. Mountain biker. Healthy Ecosystems Campaigner at ACF. Find me in the forest.