Future-Proofing against Pandemics

A health worker sanitizing public spaces at the height of COVID-19 in Indonesia.
Heading off future pandemics entails protecting forests, especially where there is rich biodiversity like in Southeast Asia. Photo exclusively licensed to Asian Development Bank until 2025.

A forester, Ruth Tawantawan knows the delicate balance needed to protect forests and make them available for people’s use. As more viruses, like the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), cross from the wild to people, Tawantawan, who is the assistant secretary of the Philippines’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources, sees the need, more than ever, to protect forests.

“Our first line of defense against wildlife-related diseases is an intact and balanced forest ecosystem,” she says.

With the Philippines seating as chairman of BIMP-EAGA’s Environment Cluster, Tawantawan wants to press for measures to head off another COVID-19. “It’s not too late to start implementing measures to protect BIMP-EAGA’s forests and biodiversity in light of COVID-19,” she says.

“We need to be prepared for untoward circumstances. It’s better to be prepared.”

Because ASEAN, which includes BIMP-EAGA, has such a rich biodiversity ensuring forests are healthy has never been more urgent. According to the ASEAN Biodiversity Outlook 2, the region’s forests are among the most biologically rich and diverse in the world.

Worrying trends

Tawantawan has cause to be worried. Scientists have warned of increasing incidence of animal-borne diseases crossing over to people due to deforestation and exploitation of forest habitats.

One thing COVID-19 has shown is the cost could be staggering. An article from journal, Science, estimates COVID-19’s global damage at between $8.1 trillion and $15.8 trillion as countries shut down their economies to halt the spread of the virus.

The economic impact on Asia and the Pacific, alone, is estimated at $1.7 trillion under a 3-month containment scenario and $2.5 trillion under a 6-month containment scenario, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

ADB also predicted that economic growth of developing Asia will decline sharply in 2020 due to the effects of the pandemic. It forecasts regional growth of 2.2% in 2020, against the 5.5% forecast in September 2019.

Forests continue to be under siege

As COVID-19 continues to cause global havoc, forests worldwide remain under siege. A report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says deforestation and forest degradation continue at alarming rates.

The report estimates that between 2015 and 2020, the global rate of deforestation was at 10 million hectares per year.

Southeast Asia, alone, is poised to lose 70–90 percent of habitats, according to the ASEAN biodiversity report. BIMP-EAGA is part of ASEAN.

Asia as a hotspot for outbreaks

Against such backdrop, Asia has become one of the hotspots for outbreaks caused by zoonotic viruses, which are transmitted from animals to humans.

“Where you have forest you have high biodiversity, which is more likely to have high presence of pathogens that can be transmitted to people,” says Francesco Ricciardi, environmental specialist at ADB's Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department.

Theresa Mundita S. Lim, executive director of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, agrees. “Southeast Asia is rich in biodiversity, but it becomes a problem… if we have habitat loss because it can lead to interaction between wildlife and humans.”

She notes that Southeast Asia is home to 346 species of bats, which scientists say are natural carriers of diseases that can be transmitted to humans. Because the region is developing rapidly, some of its bat habitats are under threat. “That can trigger the jump of a virus from bats to other animals. It may be why Asia is now a hotspot for new and emerging diseases.”

Why zoonotic diseases are emerging

Ricciardi blames several factors for the rising number of outbreaks traced to wildlife.

The rise in human population especially in rural areas or in areas close to high biodiversity areas is a factor as it has created more interface between wildlife and humans, he says.

He also cites deforestation, or loss of habitat, as another factor.

Farming close to, or in protected areas, as people raze forests to give way to farms and livestock is another factor, he says.

Trading and transport of wildlife is also a factor, as wildlife comes in close contact with people during transport. In the case of illegal wildlife trade, their transport also bypasses checkpoints set up by authorities. 

Heading off future pandemics

Both the ASEAN and FAO reports have noted how measures to curb deforestation have slowed the rate of forest loss. But Tawantawan, Ricciardi, and Lim all agree more needs to be done to protect forests and control the spread of zoonoses.

Protect forests. First thing countries should do is protect forests, says Ricciardi. “Forests are your natural wealth, your natural capital… If you destroy your natural capital you have the emergence of pandemic diseases.”

He says protecting indigenous people living in forests is also crucial because of their link with biodiversity.

Tawantawan wants BIMP-EAGA countries to reforest denuded forest areas and convert non-forest areas into productive land which can be planted with high-value crops, like coffee and cacao. She also recommends planting of fast-growing trees, like bamboo, to make idle land more productive. 

She also suggests planting indigenous, or native tree species, in critical and protected areas as they are more resilient against typhoons.

Lim says governments should help communities that depend on ecotourism for their livelihood as tourists stayed away due to the pandemic. Since these communities have lost their income due to COVID-19, they need alternative sources of livelihood so they will not resort to poaching. 

She says the biodiversity center is also looking at drawing up a program that would allow ASEAN to set up transboundary protected areas across the region to shore up individual countries’ efforts to conserving protected areas.

Stop wildlife trade. Tawantawan says countries should also ban wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, to minimize interaction between animals and humans. “I’m very sorry to business sectors engaged in legal wildlife trade, but we have to try at least in the wake of COVID-19.”

Ricciardi agrees, noting the interaction of wildlife with humans due to wildlife trade has been shown to be vectors for virus transmission.  

Trust science. “It’s not probably by chance that some of the most affected countries in the world are where there are some degree of skepticism against science and scientists in general for various political reasons,” says Ricciardi. He notes that scientists have flagged the presence of COVID-19-related virus in bats in the People’s Republic of China a few years ago, but the warning was ignored. “Trusting science is important in preventing future pandemics.” 

Monitor at-risk communities. Ricciardi says countries should also monitor the presence of virus in remote communities because of their proximity to wildlife. Communities close to livestock areas should also be monitored as some outbreaks in the past have been traced to diseases jumping from wildlife to farm animals, then to people.

Mainstream biodiversity protection in all sectors. Lim says this entails incorporating biodiversity protection even in projects not directly under the environment sector. “Protecting our biodiversity cannot be the responsibility of the environment sector alone. It’s time to talk to the infrastructure, tourism, health, and other sectors and see how biodiversity is being addressed in their planning process.”

In building roads, for example, the infrastructure sector needs to take into account whether the roads will go through the roosting areas of bats. “Those are important information you need to take into account when doing your planning. What habitat areas will be affected? What ecosystems will be affected? Is there a way to plan or design a project to have the least footprint? Those haven’t been meaningfully integrated in project proposals.”

Lim says governments also need to engage the business sector so they could incorporate biodiversity protection in their investment or business plans, and not just as part of their corporate social responsibility programs. “The challenge is how they can actually do it,” she notes.

She says there are already global guidelines, but the center wants to come up with a 

version with an ASEAN context. “This is the right time to do it. I’m glad we’re getting in touch with some companies that have reached out to ASEAN on this matter.” 

Take advantage of cooperation programs. Lim says regional cooperation programs like ASEAN, or BIMP-EAGA, also play an important role in the fight against future pandemics. They provide opportunities for countries to work together, especially since some threats are transboundary in nature, which entails coordination among the countries.

Ricciardi says regional cooperation programs also play a key role in information sharing, especially during pandemics so countries could have a coordinated response. 

Change behavior. Ordinary folks can also help in protecting the world against animal-borne diseases.

Ricciardi says for those who like to travel, choosing nature-based tours can help. “We all like to travel. What I’ve noticed is that the consumption of wildlife is often driven by the presence of tourists. In Indonesia, people sell live bats because tourists consider bats as delicacies.”

Lim says ecotourism has been proven as one of the businesses that can support communities that live or around protected areas. When hired as guides or resource persons, members of these communities actually become partners in protecting the forest and its biodiversity.

Shift in diet can also help, says Ricciardi. “Shifting our diets to consuming less meat and more vegetables is healthy for us and the planet.”

Future pandemics are inevitable

As disruptive as COVID-19 had been, from a certain point of view, “we have been lucky,” says Ricciardi.

“Even if COVID-19 is terrible and created a lot of death all around the world, and the economic burden has been unbelievable… the mortality rate has not been extremely high. There could be other potential pathogens even more dangerous. We don’t know yet.”

Still, he takes heart that people now realize how important it is to protect nature and wildlife. People should also realize that the cost of protecting nature is just a fraction of the damage COVID-19 has caused. Citing the Science report, he says preventive measures to protect nature and early detection of animal-borne diseases, among others, can amount to $22 billion and $31 billion per year against trillions in damage COVID-19 has caused so far.

A change in mindset is also important. “I’d like to see a shift from ‘let’s protect nature because it can be dangerous for us if more pandemics emerge’ to ‘let’s protect nature because they’re the foundation of our planet, health, and wealth’,” says Ricciardi.    

This article was first published by BIMP-EAGA on 26 August 2020.