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Biodiversity, health and COVID-19: How did we get here?

Questions and answers with Ontario Tech sustainable development advocate Dr. Peter Stoett


Scientists warned for years about the potential for a pandemic like the one unfolding with the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Ontario Tech University sustainable development expert Dr. Peter Stoett is Dean of the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities, and contributes extensively to international environmental research. Dr. Stoett is one of 250 global experts who contributed to last year’s United Nations Global Environmental Outlook, a comprehensive assessment of the current state of the planet’s environment.

Dr. Stoett shares answers to range of questions related to COVID-19, biodiversity and health:

What is the connection between human disregard for environmental issues and the advance of COVID-19?

“It is important to avoid simplifying this complex situation. The interlinkages between biodiversity and health are central to what is unfolding with COVID-19 and should lead us to think about how human activity and biodiversity loss influences zoonotic disease emergence patterns. Zoonosis results when humans are exposed to new infectious diseases carried by non-human animal hosts. In this case, there may be a link to the illegal wildlife trade flourishing across the globe, but this is only one dimension of the complex relationship. In that regard, I hope this calamity can stimulate more serious regulation and enforcement.

But we should not forget that habitat destruction and land use are the primary causes of biodiversity loss, and climate change will exacerbate all of this. Also, early evidence indicates a positive correlation between COVID-19 deaths and air pollution, which could be an indication of terrible things to come in India and other areas. In short, when we harm the ecosystems that provide us with life, we weaken our ability to respond to sudden public health crises.”

Did we know about this eventuality years ago?

“Yes, we did. Prior experience with other emerging infectious diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Ebola virus disease, as well as scientific studies, have warned about this possibility for many years, from global health, epidemiology, development policy, and conservation perspectives. The ‘One Health’ approach, which links human health, biodiversity, and ecosystem health, and which has been endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations’ (UN) Convention in Biological Diversity, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN and others, has grown in recent years, at least partially, as a result of these concerns. Nonetheless, most governments were unprepared for this pandemic. We are not sufficiently investing in long-term prevention.”

What role does politics play in all of this?

“On the international level, despite its slow start to cope with the outbreak, China is emerging as a global health superpower as more traditional leaders like the United States and European Union have faltered. The inadequacy of nationalist approaches and anti-science rhetoric has hopefully been laid bare; the need for deeper support for multilateral agencies such as the WHO has never been stronger. Canada’s multilateral orientation is a positive factor on the global stage. The awkward dance between the need for stricter measures of social control and the desire for democratic freedoms will continue.”

What should we be doing in our corner of the world?

“Locally, we need to avoid what I have elsewhere termed the ‘bio-apartheid’ scenario where the more vulnerable in society are written off and cordoned into formally or informally quarantined zones of ill-health; not only is this ethically troubling, but social isolation will just increase the overall level of insecurity and eventual health-care costs. Our courageous health-care workers need real support. Widespread testing is an essential response and should be scaled up globally. While engaged in self-care, we need to be aware of the needs of others, and support local initiatives such as the Back Door Mission for the Relief of Poverty. We are working on ways the university can help our community partners as well as our students, faculty and staff.”


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Bryan Oliver
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Ontario Tech University
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