As the world, its people and its economies slowly return to normal after the grinding halt due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we must realise that we are not in the clear just yet. We cannot go back to business as usual because, as we have seen and experienced, business as usual was, and will continue to be, detrimental to our planet.
The Covid-19 pandemic has seen more than 141 million confirmed cases to date. It has swept through countries and continents, caused massive human suffering, shaken financial markets and upended societies. However, while the spread of the current crisis is unprecedented, Covid-19 follows a number of diseases that have emerged in recent decades such as Ebola, AIDS, SARS, avian influenza and swine flu.
Evidence increasingly illustrates the link between humanity’s impact on ecosystems and biodiversity, and the rise of certain diseases. While many of the links are not yet fully understood, it is clear that our health and the planet’s are interconnected. Climate change and biodiversity loss are important indicators of planetary health. If there is anything that we should take away from this pandemic, it is that healthy natural ecosystems are essential to human health.
Given the close link between the environment and human health, livelihoods, water and food security, it has never been more urgent that environmental protection, conservation and sustainable management are mainstreamed at all levels. Unsustainable practices lead to unrecoverable losses, both in monetary and non-monetary form. They are closely linked to climate change, where issues such as unbridled economic growth, change in land use and poor agricultural practices have caused massive negative impacts on the world’s ecosystems. Climate change-related natural disasters cause billions of dollars in losses and impact our ability to produce sufficient food for the future which, in turn, could trigger a host of economic and social issues.
The Covid-19 crisis demonstrates that systemic changes must be made to address the environmental drivers of pandemics. WWF, in supporting the “One Health’ approach, advocates linking the health of people, animals and our shared environment and calls for this to be included in decision-making on wildlife and land use change. The government too has recently made commitments towards prioritising action to ensuring “planetary health” in its climate action and endorsing a green recovery plan to build back better.
This is why steps taken by any and all parties in line with sustainable practices and development should be encouraged and commended. One such step is the recent launch of the Green Vaccination Programme (GVP) guidebook by the Malaysian government, which details the procedures for clinical waste management and sustainable practices throughout the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme. One of the highlights of the GVP is the intention of the government to offset the carbon emissions associated with the vaccination rollout, which is a step in the right direction.
We are at a unique moment in human history. The impacts of our activities on our wildlife, climate, rivers, forests and oceans are profound, as are the consequences for humanity. As a result of the massive land conversion for food, urbanisation, infrastructure and industrial needs to meet the demands of a growing population, our natural habitat is declining drastically.
However, not all is lost. We are the first generation to fully comprehend our devastating impacts on the planet, and we are the last generation that can do something about it. More than ever, we are now aware of the need to restore the delicate balance between preserving the environment and economic growth by retaining natural habitats and promoting sustainable use of resources. We all have a role to play in respecting and caring for our environment, not just to preserve what we have today, but also to sustain it for future generations.
At the end of the day, our economy and, more importantly, our well-being, rely heavily on services from the environment that are often unacknowledged including providing us with fresh water, air, food and protection from severe weather. We are in danger of losing these services if we do not protect our natural environment.
As we welcome Earth Day tomorrow, this year’s theme of “Restore Our Earth” should resonate with all of us – individuals, societies, corporates and governments. Restoring our planet’s health requires all of our efforts. Globally, to secure planetary health, leaders must take urgent action to transform our relationship with the natural world. We need a new deal for nature and people that sets nature on the path to recovery by 2030 and safeguards human health and livelihoods both in the short and long-term. Together, we can prevent the coming disasters of climate change, nature loss and environmental destruction.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a dress rehearsal for the many future challenges we will face, particularly climate change, for which there is no vaccine that can be created. The establishment of the Climate Change Action Council in Malaysia is a positive step towards setting commitments and policies to be carbon neutral. Green development must be part of the new norm.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.
Dr Jemilah Mahmood is special adviser to the prime minister on public health, while Sophia Lim is executive director and CEO of WWF-Malaysia.