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Conservation in a Modern Pandemic

I, like most of the world, was unprepared for what 2020 had in store. In a year where I was expecting to spend long hours finishing my first year of law school and spend my first summer in the Pacific Northwest enjoying all that Oregon has to offer, I was wholly unprepared for the challenges of facing a global pandemic alone, more than 2,000 miles from my family back in Indiana. The world was preparing for the 2020 Summer Olympics and a contentious U.S. election year, not the shuttering of the world economy and the loss of over 400,000 lives to date. While we were unprepared for this pandemic, that doesn’t mean we can’t do more to prepare for the next one.

If there has been one benefit to quarantine, it has been that we as humans have been forced to reevaluate our relationship with the natural world. In a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Sonia Shah, author of Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, validated this point. She explained how the increasing frequency of global pandemics are directly related to human expansion into nature and the current hemorrhaging of Earth’s biodiversity.

Shah clarifies that in the past 50 years, humankind has seen more than 300 new pathogens emerge in new and unexpected places. Although not all of these are as deadly as SARS, Ebola, or COVID-19, more than 60% of these pathogens have been traced back to origins in wildlife. We see COVID-19 as an invader in our human civilization, but in reality, it was likely the continued invasion of the natural world by humans that led to this pandemic in the first place.

Photo: GalinaSt/Adobe Stock

Current top scientific studies led by World Health Organization officials speculate this novel coronavirus originated in a population of bats near Wuhan, China—but the next human pandemic is just as likely to begin near any large city where urban sprawl, overcrowding and poverty run rampant. As humans fracture natural landscapes by cutting down trees, laying down roads and damming rivers, populations of native animals don’t immediately die off; they first try to adapt by seeking new habitat, often bringing them into closer and closer contact with human populations. Bats that once lived deep in a forest catching bugs by moonlight are now forced to live in backyards and catch bugs by the light of LED streetlights. In this environment, it is no longer a matter of if these new pathogens will make the jump to humans, but when.

So, what can we do about this? As a start, we can recognize the immediate and preventative benefits that habitat conservation provides humanity and make policy efforts to solidify those benefits. COVID-19 has provided stark reminders of the impact human actions have on our local environments. Mountain ranges long obscured by smog are once again visible in large city centers from Los Angeles to Jalandhar, India and wildlife has begun to take over once busy city streets as extensive lockdowns keep most people inside and reduce traffic. Without significant policy changes, these silver linings of a larger tragedy will be lost.

Now possibly more than ever, humans are looking to outdoor recreation as a coping mechanism for the stressors of everyday life in a pandemic. After initial fears about the airborne spread of the virus, recent studies have shown that the naturally increased distance, improved air circulation, and decreased duration of exposure that results from spending time outside is less likely to lead to infection. When combined with responsible social distancing procedures and wearing masks, a Japanese study has shown that outdoor transmission is almost 19 times less likely than indoor transmission, although this has yet to be peer-reviewed. It’s beginning to seem like the results are in: the world needs more open, natural, and connected landscapes for humans and wildlife alike.

Supporting local economies is especially vital right now, as unemployment has already hit levels far exceeding those seen during the Great Recession. As federal and state governments scramble to find solutions to get working class Americans back to work, I would implore them to take another look at the economic and employment benefits of habitat conservation work. Large infrastructure projects are often key targets for economic stimulus packages as good investments for the economy as a whole, but wildlife under- and overpasses serve the dual purpose of also saving drivers money via less wildlife-vehicle collisions. Not only can investments in habitat conservation and connectivity help to prevent the spread of new pathogens to begin with, but it seems it may help us recover from the economic shock of them as well.

COVID-19 has been a human tragedy on a scale unfamiliar to many of those alive today, but it is a tragedy brought on and exacerbated by human actions and it is a tragedy that we must learn from. From the ashes of a recovering world, we can now begin to rebuild our broken relationship with the natural environment. We have the opportunity to create federal and state policies focused on rewilding natural habitats and wildlife connectivity, and to do so with broad support and secure in the knowledge that we are truly making the world a better, safer, and healthier place.

Austin Starnes is one of Wildlands Network’s policy interns working this summer remotely from Portland, Oregon where he attends Lewis & Clark Law School. Austin is focused on finding dedicated and sustainable funding for large scale habitat conservation projects in Oregon and across North America.

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