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UNEP report stresses on preventing the next pandemic


It becomes intensely important for Manipur and the Northeast region to focus on planning and re-thinking on issues that are directly relevant to biodiversity conservation and the possibilities of outbreak of zoonotic diseases in the future.

By Salam Rajesh

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)’s recent report, ‘Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission’ (April, 2020) while referring to the UN Framework for the Immediate Socio-economic Response to Covid-19, says: “The success of post-pandemic recovery will be determined by a better understanding of the context and nature of risk. In view of the Covid-19 crisis, this includes developing and maintaining a global mapping of encroachment, illegal trade, wet markets, etc. that are pathways for future pathogen transmission and thus potential future zoonoses identified”.

The statement refers to the global concern on extensive biodiversity loss and the over-exploitation of wildlife for human consumption and illegal trade in wild animals and their body parts for food, fur and medicine which has been linked to transmission of viruses from wild animals to humans. The spread of SARS-CoV-2 virus from Wuhan in China across the length and breadth of the globe has been attributed to this factor.

UNEP’s executive director Inger Andersen commenting on her organization’s report says, “Covid-19 has caused profound damage to human health, societies and economies in every corner of the world. This illness is zoonotic, a type of disease that transmits between animals and humans. It may be the worst, but it is not the first”.

Jimmy Smith, ILRI director general also referring to the report says, “Most efforts to control zoonotic diseases have been reactive rather than proactive. Covid-19 has made us all aware that it’s time to change that. To prevent future outbreaks of novel zoonotic diseases, we need to address the root causes of their emergence”.

The strategy outlined by the report refers to the need of raising awareness and increasing understanding of zoonotic and emerging disease risks and prevention at all levels of society, and to build widespread support for risk-reduction strategies. This assumes importance in the context of ground-level campaign to reach out to the last man on the dangers of the emergence of zoonotic diseases due to undesired activities of humans. The call is for the prevention of large scale depletion of vital forests, more particularly rainforests, which could induce release of pathogens in uncontrollable measure. The assumption on transmission of viruses from animals to humans as in the case of Wuhan is widely being discussed as the basis of the current pandemic, although China strongly disputes the story.

The UNEP and ILRI assessment recommends ten policy response options to reduce the risk of future zoonotic pandemics and to ‘build back better’, namely, (i) raise awareness of health and environment risks and prevention, (ii) improve health governance, including by engaging environmental stakeholders, (iii) expand scientific inquiry into the environmental dimensions of zoonotic diseases, (iv) ensure full cost financial accounting of the societal impacts of disease, (v) enhance monitoring and regulation of food systems using risk-based approaches, (vi) phase out unsustainable agricultural practices, (vii) develop and implement stronger bio-security measures, (viii) strengthen animal health (including wildlife health services), (ix) build capacity among health stakeholders to incorporate environmental dimensions of health, and (x) mainstream and implement One Health approaches.

The United Nations and its various organs including the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have knocked heads together through the year 2020 to reason why the world needs to deliver particular thrust on biodiversity conservation to address multiple issues. The discussion confirms to the concept of ‘One Health’ where global actors will converge to a common platform to address global health issues. The UNEP, ILRI report also builds on the conclusions of global expert groups that a One Health approach is “the optimal method for preventing as well as responding to zoonotic disease outbreaks and pandemics. Adopting a One Health approach, which unites medical, veterinary and environmental expertise, will help governments, businesses and civil society achieve enduring health for people, animals and environments alike”.

Elaborating on this concept, the report outlines the intricate relationship between animals and humans, more concerning with spread of viruses from animals to humans as in the case of the current pandemic. The report emphasizes that “It is important to recognize that disease emergence is not only about the relationship between domestic animals or wildlife and people, but also about the complexity of the system as a whole and the interactions between biotic and abiotic components. Biodiversity, and the complexity of our landscapes and seascapes, is integral to social and ecological resilience”.

The thrust understandably then is on the intrinsic value of conservation and protection of spaces that in-house valuable biological diversity and supports rare and endemic wildlife species. For that matter, the entire North East India region comes under the coverage of the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot indicating presence of valuable natural landscapes, vital rainforests, peatlands and water bodies. The region in-houses several species of rare, endangered and endemic trees, plants, animals, birds, reptiles, fish and insects – some of which are limited to the region and not found anywhere else in the world. The ground lily species Shirui Lily (Lilium macklineae Sealy) in Manipur’s mountainous Ukhrul District is a classic example. The other flagship species is of course the Manipur Brow-antlered Deer (Rucervus eldii eldii).

The UNEP, ILRI report while defining sustainable agricultural intensification notes that this is a concept that ‘challenges global agriculture (crops, livestock, forests, fisheries) to achieve a doubling in world food production while sustaining the environment in which we live. Food production efficiency needs to double in order to feed a growing global population using only currently available land while protecting our living environment and conserving natural and agricultural biodiversity’. This gives thrust on the emphasis of taking up sustainable agriculture to reduce pressure on forest lands, such as the intense pressure on forest areas by slash and burn agriculture that is prevalent in the uplands of the northeastern States.

The global concern floats down to the need for pushing forward on the concept of One Health which is broadly outlined as a ‘collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach – working at local, regional, national and global levels – to achieve optimal health and well-being outcomes recognizing the interconnections between people, animals, plants and their shared environments’.

It then becomes intensely important for the State and the region to focus on planning and re-thinking on this concept to address issues that are directly relevant to biodiversity conservation and the possibilities of outbreak of zoonotic diseases in future times. The Covid-19 crisis has been a lesson learnt in the hard way for humans to realize that for every action committed there is an equal reaction. In this case, the folly committed by humans has rebound in the unleashed of a deadly virus that has turned life upside down for the entire world.

(The writer is associated with IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic & Social Policy. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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