Covid-19: An opportunity to overhaul green policies
‘One Health’, which focuses on humans, animals and ecosystems, must be the pillar of environmental policyUpdated: Apr 29, 2020, 17:42 IST
The two overriding emotions that India is witnessing these days, thanks to the coronavirus-induced crisis, are fear and happiness. The first stems from the panic that the virus has caused and the harsh impact it has had on the poor and the economy. At the same time, there is a degree of relief at the impact on the environment; air and water bodies are cleaner now, and snow-clad mountains are visible from cities situated in the foothills.
But are these a cause for celebration? Many commentators point out that these developments are only a short-lived reality. When the lockdown is over, it will be business as usual, and we won’t slow down to remember this magical interlude.
The last two months, however, have made us intensely aware about the linkages that exist between the destruction of the ecosystem and the systematic plunder of the natural environment to the coronavirus crisis. These observations are not new, but now they are gaining traction because we are collectively facing a crisis. It is known that zoonotic diseases emerge due to anthropogenic activities, linked to unsustainable economic practices of plundering diverse ecosystems through deforestation, mining, and illegal trade in wildlife. The coronavirus disease (Covid-19), like Avian influenza, Ebola, Nipah, and Zika, has origins in excessive human influence on natural environments. The recent exhortation by the acting executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, to ban wildlife markets is testimony to this.
A return to business as usual will be suicidal. A balance must now be achieved in how humans and other living beings, as well as natural ecosystems, survive, if not thrive, in each other’s company. The concept of “One Health” for humans, animals, and ecosystems can work as a guide to nations.
Originating from the discussions on biodiversity and the health of ecosystems, “One Health” is defined by the World Health Organization as “an approach to designing and implementing programmes, policies, legislation, and research in which multiple sectors communicate and work together to achieve better public health outcomes”. The areas of work in which a ‘One Health’ approach is particularly relevant, the WHO says, is “food safety, the control of zoonoses (diseases that can spread between animals and humans…) and combating antibiotic resistance.” We believe that “One Health” should become a key pillar of India’s environmental policy.
A recent European Commission report highlights the links between the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) and the climate crisis. The report noted: “Experts suggest that degraded habitats coupled with a warming climate may encourage higher risks of disease transmission, as pathogens spread more easily to livestock and humans. Therefore, it is important — now more than ever before — to address the multiple and often interacting threats to ecosystems and wildlife to buffer against the risk of future pandemics, as well as preserve and enhance their role as carbon sinks and in climate adaptation.”
Realigning the focus of environmental policy with the “One Health” concept will be transformational. It will prioritise the resilience of ecosystems as well as the relationships of humans and other living beings to their ecosystems, rather than focus on solutions like pollution control.
Such transformative change also requires new kinds of partnerships and alliances between actors within the government, civil society, and the private sector. To draw up a plan of action, the involvement of environmentalists, conservationists, and medical doctors will be a must. The ministries of environment, forests, climate change, and health and family welfare would have to work to develop and implement this transformative agenda.
There are some elements of this plan in the Government of India’s programmes, but these have to be more emphatically articulated and implemented. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it untold misery. But it’s given us an unexpected gift — the potential to press the reset button of the planet. We might celebrate the moment by taking photographs of peacocks on our terraces, but we shouldn’t lose the opportunity of a large-scale overhaul of our environmental policies.