By Stephanie Kurose – The Hill
The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed more than one million lives, shattered the global economy and left many people overwhelmed by the harsh realities of a changing world.
Congress has struggled desperately to address the disease’s impacts. Yet lawmakers and all Americans have to grapple with a disturbing and irrefutable fact: Even as the novel coronavirus continues to inflict immense suffering, the next pandemic disease could already be brewing somewhere in the world, preparing to leap to people from bats or other host animals.
But what if we could greatly reduce the risk of future pandemics by changing our interactions with nature? That’s the goal of a groundbreaking new bipartisan and bicameral bill in Congress just introduced by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Reps. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Fred Upton (D-Mich.)
Scientists have sounded the alarm for decades that our relentless determination to dominate the natural world would lead to disaster. And it has.
In the past 40 years, exploiting wildlife or wildlife habitat caused all of the worst epidemics and pandemics, including HIV, SARS, avian flu, Ebola, Zika and now COVID-19. As more people come into direct contact with more wild animals, whether in markets or wild places, viruses have more opportunities to jump the species barrier and infect us.
Human exploitation of nature is a disaster for biodiversity, too: Scientists predict one million wildlife species now face extinction, many in just decades if we continue with business as usual. Animals like rhinos and pangolins will vanish forever.
Unless we fundamentally change our relationship with nature and address the root causes of these pandemics — wildlife exploitation and habitat destruction around the world — COVID-19 certainly won’t be the last disease to devastate our society.
Fortunately, the new bill would take a crucial first step towards drastically reducing the likelihood of a future outbreak. The Preventing Future Pandemics Act of 2020 would prohibit the import and export live wildlife for human consumption and close all domestic markets in the United States where live wildlife is sold for food or medicine.
The legislation would invest nearly half a billion dollars in federal agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This would combat global wildlife trafficking, provide assistance and build capacity to improve enforcement and protection in other countries and help communities in developing nations transition to alternative livelihoods to reduce reliance on wildlife exploitation.
With this legislation, this bipartisan group of lawmakers recognizes that this is a global problem — and that solving it requires the United States to lead by example.
We can’t hypocritically chide other nations about their behavior if we don’t end our live wildlife markets where similar behavior occurs. We can’t ask other nations to crack down on the wildlife trade and turn a blind eye to the wildlife products pouring over their borders each year.
The U.S. consumes roughly 20 percent of the global wildlife market, importing more than 224 million live animals and 883 million other wildlife specimens a year. Over a recent five-year period, the U.S. imported almost 23 million whole animals, parts, samples and products made from bats, primates and rodents. These groups of mammals are believed to harbor 75 percent of known zoonotic diseases.
Our major role in this problem must be addressed. The new bill’s common-sense approach puts us on the right path towards finally rethinking our relationship with wildlife.
Given the massive scale of human exploitation of wildlife and wildlife habitat and the risks that entails, we should reevaluate other aspects of this exploitation. We need to ask whether the environmental damage and disease risks are worth the paltry economic benefits of wildlife use and consumption.
If a business is allowed to continue, as usual, tragedies like the COVID-19 pandemic will happen again and again. Now is the time for Congress to take bold, transformational action to protect wildlife and nature and help avert future catastrophes.
Stephanie Kurose is the senior endangered species policy specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity.