Coronavirus: World must change its relationship with animals, says leading animal welfare group

Apr 30, 2020 | News

By Staci McLennan, Opinion / The Parliament Magazine

The world as we knew it has changed: lives have been lost, unemployment is soaring, shops are closed, roads are empty and half of humanity is on lockdown. The economy is suffering and governments are scrambling to identify ways to recover from this crisis.

If the lockdowns tell us anything, it is that the political will, and capacity to enact decisive measures to address a critical threat, exists. Climate change threats were not enough, but a zoonotic disease kicking off from a market half way around the world seemed to do the trick. 

Public health had to be impacted in a more visible and tangible way, by a virus startling in its numbers, indiscriminate nature and speed of spread across the globe.

We will be feeling the socio and economic impacts for long to come. We must not let this moment in history go without a stark change in our approach to globalisation and how people and animals interact around the world.

The lesson learned is quite simple: our disruption of the natural world has consequences. Globalisation brings not only opportunities for economic growth and cultural exchange; it also means species are being introduced at an unprecedented rate to other regions of the world. 

Wildlife consumption and habitat degradation and fragmentation are driving biodiversity loss. These create opportune moments for pathogen spillover to humans.

For more than a decade scientists have warned of this very scenario – when our unchecked movement of wild animals out of their natural habitat, exposure to other species, even our own, often under stressful and immune compromised situations, would create a ticking time bomb for a zoonotic outbreak with devastating consequences.

Globally, wildlife trade, legal and illegal, is a booming market. The EU plays a critical role in tackling wildlife crime as Europe is currently a destination market and a transit hub for trafficking to other regions.

The EU and some Member States are also major donors to conservation projects and development aid in areas rich in biodiversity across the globe. While this pandemic may not have its origin in Europe, we should not ignore the fact the EU has political and financial capacity to lead on building a green recovery to this current crisis on the continent and globally.

2020 was projected to be the environmental super year. Countries around the world were to redefine collective commitments for an ambitious new deal for nature. Now travel is restricted and global meetings such as the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity are postponed, but that does not mean we should wait.

Now more than ever, the EU and Member States must forge ahead. Fortunately, 17 climate and environment ministers have called for the European Green Deal to be at the core of the EU’s post-pandemic recovery plan. 

This call is complimented by an informal Green Alliance, urging for green recovery investment packages to spur the transition towards climate neutrality and healthy ecosystems within the Green Deal.

European Commissioner for the environment Virginijus Sinkevičius has said that “healthy ecosystems lead to a healthy society and therefore it is not too high a price to pay to fix them.”

We must not delay in finding sustainable solutions. Frans Timmermans, the Commission’s First Vice-President, confirmed the commitment to deliver the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy in a matter of weeks. It is vital this addresses wildlife trade through renewal of the EU Wildlife Trafficking Action Plan.

Weak sanitary measures and regulation of wildlife trade have played a critical role in this crisis. For too long, governments have treated the environment, animal health and welfare and, public health as separate policy areas. Most sanitary controls for importing animals to the EU are focused on farm animals, not wild animals where two-thirds of emerging infectious disease originate.

The Covid-19 pandemic and past outbreaks of zoonotic disease, such as Ebola, SARS, and Bird Flu, demonstrate that controlling wildlife trade is not just a conservation and animal welfare issue. It is an animal and public health issue, a biosafety issue, an economic issue and a national security issue.

It is imperative that the EU and Member States develop clear policies that regulate wildlife trade, based on criteria to safeguard biodiversity, public health and safety as well as animal health and welfare. This must be complemented with vigorous enforcement and meaningful penalties that stigmatise wildlife consumption and thus support demand reduction efforts as well.

If there was ever a time to implement the One Health approach and take action to protect and conserve biodiversity, it is now, in response to this global health and environmental crisis.

Staci McLennan is IFAW’s European Union office director.

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