- Peaking fires in the world’s rainforests combined with the global COVID-19 pandemic threaten to create a devastating public health crisis, experts warn.
- The fires typically follow recent deforestation, as farmers and ranchers burn brush and trees to make way for crops and livestock.
- Soot from the fires causes severe respiratory problems and exacerbates existing conditions, health researchers say. The uptick in the need for treatment could overwhelm already-strained hospitals in the Amazon and Southeast Asia.
- Researchers say that solutions exist, involving government enforcement, consumer demand for deforestation-free products, and company commitments to halt the destruction of forests. Now what’s needed is political will.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the arrival of fire season in two of the world’s major rainforests are on a collision course, scientists and public health researchers say, and the results could amount to a public health disaster.
Experts argue for the need to stem the deforestation that nearly always precedes fires in wet tropical forests, in addition to containing the spread of the virus circulating around the globe, because the pollution thrown into the atmosphere by the fires could multiply the effects of the pandemic, especially for indigenous populations.
Tropical rainforests aren’t fire-adapted landscapes like parts of Australia or the western United States, Ane Auxiliadora Costa Alencar, director of science at the Brazilian research NGO IPAM, told reporters in a call June 17.
“Fire just does not occur naturally in those biomes,” said Ruth DeFries, a professor of ecology and sustainable development at Columbia University who was also on the call. “It’s too wet.”
But every year, fire seasons predictably follow deforestation in the Amazon and Southeast Asia as farmers and ranchers clear the land of recently cut debris. Pique over the burning of the Amazon reached a zenith in 2019, with widespread media attention that often conflated these intentionally set blazes with the more familiar wildfires of drier temperate forests. While destructive, these more frequent wildfires are a part of the ecology of the regions in which they occur.
The destruction wrought by fires in the humid tropics, on the other hand, can destroy ecosystems, and they cause widespread human health problems. According to a study by DeFries and her colleagues, smoke from burning peatlands in Indonesia kills an average of 36,000 people prematurely across Southeast Asia every year. In dry years, such as the El Niño year of 2015, that number can approach 100,000, DeFries said.
“It’s well established that chronic exposure to these small particulates increases the risk of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and premature death,” Harvey Fineberg, a medical doctor and the president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, said during the call. “This year, it’s especially concerning because the small particulate matter — the smoke, the soot that is emanating from these fires — exacerbate[s] respiratory infection[s]” like COVID-19.
In the Amazon, researchers from the Amazon Conservation Association’s Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project recently discovered the first fires of 2020 several months ahead of the season’s expected peak in August and September. Deforestation in the Amazon, a predictor of future fires, in the first months of 2020 is tracking ahead of where it was at this time in 2019. And researchers from INPE, Brazil’s national space agency, warn that higher-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean could make for drier conditions in parts of the Amazon.
All of these factors are likely to increase the number of fires in the world’s largest rainforest in 2020. More fires will likely mean a spike in patients who need treatment for respiratory problems, which in turn could swamp hospitals in the Brazilian Amazon. Many are already operating near capacity, their beds filled with COVID-19 patients, as well as people who have come down with seasonal malaria and dengue fever, a mosquito-borne illness that has reached epidemic proportions across the Amazon, said Marcia Castro, a professor of demography at Harvard University.
“We see a system that is overloaded,” Castro said. “They cannot possibly take all the patients that need hospitalization.”
Given the novelty of COVID-19, Fineberg said it’s difficult to say just how much the air pollution from fires could make cases of the disease worse. Still, he added, “The directionality is pretty clear.”
He pointed to an early study suggesting that a particulate increase of one part per million could translate into an 8% jump in COVID-19 deaths. It’s difficult to say how that correlation will hold up to further scrutiny, Fineberg said, “But the abundant evidence over many years about the relationship between particulate matter in the environment and excess mortality is very, very well established.”
The unknowns of the pandemic aside, the researchers agreed that tested solutions exist to snuff out the possibility of future fires. The study by DeFries and her colleagues, published in the journal GeoHealth in 2019 before the outbreak of COVID-19, projects that restoring Indonesia’s peatland ecosystems could cut the loss of life due to fires by as much as two-thirds.
DeFries also pointed to policies in Malaysia involving grinding up biomass that’s been cut down. It’s “more expensive and requires mechanization,” she added, “but there’s not fire associated with that.”
Not only do the reductions in deforestation ultimately spare the lives of those with respiratory illnesses and other complicating factors such as heart disease who might succumb to the effects of the fires. Lower deforestation rates also mean that less of the population will be exposed to diseases like malaria and dengue, as well as untold zoonotic diseases that have yet to spill over from their animal hosts to humans, as a result of carving up the rainforest, Castro said.
More recently, as the furor over the Amazonian fires rose to a fever pitch in North America and Europe in 2019, the Brazilian government responded by sending the military into the Amazon to protect forests and fight fires. The result in October 2019 was one of the lowest months for fire alerts in recent memory, Alencar said.
“We know how to do it, and we can do it again,” she said. “We only need really political will.”
Banner image of peat forest being burned for a new oil palm plantation by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon
Marlier, M. E., Liu, T., Yu, K., Buonocore, J. J., Koplitz, S. N., DeFries, R. S., … Myers, S. S. (2019). Fires, smoke exposure, and public health: An integrative framework to maximize health benefits from peatland restoration. GeoHealth, 3(7), 178-189. doi:10.1029/2019gh000191
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