Conservation news

As a campaigner against deforestation, almost dying of COVID-19 was ironic (commentary)

Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest canopy. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest canopy. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

  • Etelle Higonnet has worked for years to reform the palm oil, rubber, soy, and cocoa industries, which are heavily involved in tropical deforestation.
  • Pandemics like COVID-19 are linked with deforestation and the wildlife trade, and she’s married to a public health expert, so it was ironic that she nearly lost her life to the disease last month.
  • Higonnet argues that ending the wildlife trafficking which seems to have caused the pandemic is of no use if animals’ forest homes continue to be bulldozed, sending them into contact with people.
  • This post is a commentary and does not necessarily reflect the views of Mongabay.

I have been sick with COVID-19. When I started writing this, holed up in my New York apartment, I could feel the shakiness, sharp headache, muscle and joint pain that I came to associate with my coronavirus fever during the first week. As the writing and my illness progressed, the virus attacked tissue around my heart, sending me to the emergency room of the nearest hospital, where I was separated from my husband and contemplated the possibility of dying alone while I wrote my will.

My husband, who ironically enough is a public health expert specializing in pandemic preparedness, was also sick. In our regular lives, whilst he fights to provide better access to life-saving health systems for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, I try to protect rainforests. I conduct undercover investigations into deforestation, and campaign to hold major companies accountable for their role in destroying nature.

This infection had me reflecting with particular urgency on how his and my work intersect: a planetary binge-destruction of forests and the creatures in them is setting us up for one pandemic after another.

Most epidemics, as my husband ceaselessly reminds me, start with ‘zoonosis’: when an illness makes a leap from animal reservoirs to humans. The CDC estimates that three-quarters of humanity’s emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife–there are perhaps 1.6 million potentially zoonotic viruses. MERS likely came from dromedary camels; measles and TB from cows; AIDS from primates; avian flu from birds. SARS shared 99.8% of its genome with a civet coronavirus. (Many civets were massacred after SARS hit.) The 1918 “Spanish flu” is thought to have come from a US midwestern pig farm. COVID-19 appears to trace its origin from a bat via a pangolin.

In my case, I have COVID-19 because my husband kissed me. He contracted the virus from meeting with someone else who had it; the infection chain traces all the way back to a Chinese “wet market” where the fateful pangolin was sold after being wrenched from its forest home. If anyone ever thought health and environmental concerns are not connected, they should think again. Deforestation and wildlife trafficking are exactly how we got into this global COVID-19 pandemic.

Etelle Higonnet, image courtesy of the writer.

The more we encroach into forests, the likelier it is we humans will come into contact with heretofore undisturbed animals, whose pathogens will have the exciting opportunity to penetrate new victims – us. And when we raze forests, their animal inhabitants stumble into our human strongholds. I’ve witnessed it firsthand in my work: disoriented, lost, homeless creatures seeking a last desperate toehold even in areas where humans abound.

This new proximity simply makes it more likely that pathogens will leap from wildlife to humans. I have documented devastation of rainforests cut down at vast scale for agricultural commodities, and have seen what this does to scattering wild creatures. Poaching, trafficking, and consuming wildlife just rolls the dice towards zoonosis again and again.

Right now, we are rightly consumed with social distancing, hand washing, and life-saving medical help. But for the future, a crucial step humanity must take to protect itself from new pandemics has got to be a total ban on wildlife trafficking worldwide, and an urgent end to tropical deforestation.

Unfortunately, President Trump has not only exhibited spectacular incompetence in managing testing (my husband and I went a week in New York without being able to get tested, embroiled in Kafkaesque calls galore) and other pandemic preparedness, and his administration has also embraced global forest destruction. By doing so, Trump and his ilk are creating ripe conditions for a pandemic like COVID-19 to hit us again.

Every nation should step up to champion a clear path to ending all wildlife trade at the next UN conference on the Convention on Biological Diversity. I hope that the representatives of nearly 200 countries there will realize they can simultaneously protect people from pandemics, and species like pangolins from mass extinction – via a robust ban on the wildlife trade, as it seems Vietnam and China may do.

But ending trafficking is of no use if animals’ forest homes are bulldozed, sending them fleeing to our back yards. We should go further and declare an end to deforestation for agriculture in the world’s most destructive commodities: beef, soy, palm oil, rubber, coffee, and cocoa. This would be a courageous and intelligent response to COVID-19. If you think it’s expensive, then just mull over the likely financial losses hitting us from this pandemic we are in. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

See related podcast interview: The links between COVID-19, wildlife trade, and destruction of nature with celebrated environmental journalist John Vidal

Mist rising from the Amazon rainforest at dawn. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

This is especially true for the coming summer. Every summer, vast swaths of the Amazon and Indonesian woods are burned in raging forest fires, largely driven by beef, soy, and palm oil industries. When forests burn, toxic smog billows out in quantities that can be seen from space. In 2015 alone, the toxic haze from Indonesian peat and forest fires led to an estimated 100,300 premature deaths and exposed 69 million people to unhealthy air pollution. What will happen when respiratory infections peak from COVID-19, at the same time as killer smog spreads across the Amazon and Southeast Asia, in already fragile health systems? Harvard scientists recently published a new nationwide study for the US linking pollution to COVID-19 death rates. If I was near a forest fire, I’m not sure my already overtaxed lungs and heart could have handled it. I might be dead now.

The smart answer for world political and corporate leaders is an immediate, strict zero-burning policy.

Limiting exposure to “exotic” animals and protecting their forest homes is key, but we ignore at our peril transmission from “conventional” domestic animals. Our world’s food systems must be reformed to make our planet more pandemic-proof. If poaching is rolling the dice with our lives, then livestock rearing is Russian roulette. Many concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, as the industry calls them, are festering cesspools of illness, including pathogens just waiting to make the leap to animal-to-human transmission.

With birds and pigs often held in unhygienic, atrocious, closely-packed conditions, small wonder that they get sick, or that bird flu and swine flu occasionally spiral out of control at warp speed, as pathogens rapidly recombine and mutate into novel viruses. With 3/4 of antibiotics administered annually to food-producing animals in the US, we also are on track to experience serious outbreaks of drug-resistant diseases like flesh-eating strains of bacteria that can leap from animals to humans. Our meat industry is essentially providing adventurous pathogens with vast banquets within which they can mutate and spread, all within close contact to us. Coincidentally, our meat industry is also one of the major global drivers of deforestation, which brings us back full circle.

Positive solutions and leadership on this challenge could involve making bailouts of the meat industry conditional on giving power and money back to small farmers instead of billionaires, favoring farms with fewer animals that are more safely raised. We need ‘social distancing’ for farm animals – i.e. more space, less crowding, smaller farms, cleaner spaces where animals don’t wallow in their own excretions and feces (which is often how viruses are shed), and help for any struggling farmer who is willing to transition out of animal husbandry. Carrots will never give us coronavirus, and there is no risk of “broccoli flu.”

COVID-19 has shown just how closely interwoven we are. Infecting one person can rapidly sicken millions. We humans sink or swim together. Viruses respect no borders between nations, and they aren’t limited to one species, either.

Our current plight sheds light on our interconnectedness with the natural world. I pray that coronavirus can teach us to open our hearts, to love the earth, and understand that treating one part of our planet ill endangers all of humanity.

Maybe it’s my fever dreams echoing in my waking ears, but I can almost hear the world’s forests whisper: if we burn, you burn with us.

Etelle Higonnet is a Senior Campaign Director at global environmental campaign organization Mighty Earth, where she has fought to reform the palm oil, rubber, soy, and cocoa industries. She was recently named a Chevalier of France’s Ordre National du Mérite (National Order of Merit) for her work to protect the environment.

See all of Mongabay’s coverage of COVID-19 pandemic here.

Banner image: Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest canopy. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.