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SUSTAINABILITY | 4.08.2021

What challenges will our planet need to face to prevent the next pandemic?

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Humanity faces two major global challenges: the current SARS-COV-2 coronavirus pandemic and climate change. We can no longer talk about the medium- and long-term because both are pressing issues. While one of them has taken over media headlines and social network news feeds, the fight against environmental degradation has not been neglected, as it may seem. 

All the agendas, both from social pressure groups and various national and supranational bodies are still in progress. The objectives remain intact, although the activism work has decreased as it is limited to the digital space under the current circumstances.

While it might appear that these are two completely different challenges, that is not the case. As we already mentioned when talking about World Environment Day, many experts are warning us that we’re more exposed than ever to new pandemics, as biodiversity—which acts as our protector—is being lost.

The extinction of other species on our planet makes humans more vulnerable to zoonoses — infections transmitted from animals to humans. Protecting biodiversity means preserving the environment and the planet’s diverse habitats. And climate change is the sign that we aren’t doing well.

The “Great Reset” proposed in Davos 

When a computer starts to lag and stops working properly, we often restart the device. A similar idea was proposed for our planet at the most recent World Economic Forum in Davos. Seven lines of discussion were prepared, with one of the most important being protecting the environment.

A total of 250 proposals were submitted for this topic. The concept of zero net emissions (carbon neutrality, zero carbon footprint) was, of course, discussed, but so were clean energy and circular economy.

More closely related to the issue of pandemics is the proposal to improve the study of zoonotic diseases within the health policy package. Moreover, geopolitically speaking, the conclusion that global problems, such as climate change or the COVID-19 crisis, require global and coordinated responses was reached.

As the World Economic Forum’s own website says, new ideas are needed to catalyze a “Great Reset” after the crisis. They see a change in global attitude as key, as well as setting the focus on what really matters: more on social and environmental benefits and less on strictly economic measures.

Concrete solutions on the table

One of the recurring themes discussed is achieving the goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. This goal is sponsored by the UN and other supranational bodies such as the European Union, and is supported by major countries around the world such as the United States, following their change of government.

In addition to governments and civil society, participation from the business and industrial world will also be essential. Again, the World Economic Forum website states that the main industries (food, automobiles, fashion, etc.) account for 50 percent of global CO2 emissions. We have the technology to decarbonize their supply chains and doing so would result in an affordable cost increase for end consumers of between 1 and 4 percent. 

However, carbon dioxide is not the only pollutant in our atmosphere. While this type of information must be taken with caution, studies suggest that increased air pollution may have led to higher rates of coronavirus infection in some regions.

There also appears to be a general consensus on promoting clean and renewable energy. As we’ve mentioned before, billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates clearly backs investing more money into researching this type of energy, calling for public administrations to be involved. Another of his ideas, which may cause more controversy, is the idea that nuclear energy could be the perfect complement to renewable energy in combating climate change.

Let’s reflect on the issue of biodiversity, which we’ve already mentioned is crucial in slowing the spread of zoonoses that could lead to pandemics. An essential part of protecting biodiversity is tackling deforestation, as this practice is responsible for the disappearance of both plant and animal species. Greenpeace points out that a million species could disappear forever because of this pressing problem.

What do we do if another pandemic comes?

It would be counterproductive to delude ourselves and think that, if we make progress in protecting the environment, we’ll be safe from new global epidemics, despite the close link between the two areas. Pandemics have taken place throughout history, and will likely continue to happen. That’s why it’s important to stop and think about what we did wrong this time and focus on how our response could be improved in the future.

Two experts from the University of Texas, Tiffany A. Radcliff (an expert in health policy) and Angela Clendenin (an expert in epidemiology), propose five strategies to prepare for the next pandemic by mitigating its effects and even trying to prevent it all together. Some of their proposals are to strengthen existing epidemiological monitoring systems, better prepare citizens by providing clear and coherent criteria, improve coordination and take advantage of the new normal to make changes such as by promoting remote work.

 

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Regarding the final point, 39 scientists from 14 countries published an article in Science journal asking for what they call a “paradigm shift” in the fight against airborne diseases, like the current one.

We’ve already talked about the influence that epidemics have had throughout history in the architecture and urban planning of cities—for example, in the sewage system—and how they will impact the design of cities in the future.

But all these scientists are asking for something much more concrete: improved ventilation systems in interior spaces. Just as we were able to improve the hygiene of drinking water in the past by eliminating the pathogens in it, they believe that the challenge now is ensuring the quality of the air we breathe in all kinds of buildings.

In short, we can’t be certain that humanity will not suffer any more global epidemics, but we have the power to minimize the odds of them happening and their effects. At the same time, there is a key, long-standing motivation for tackling the serious problem of climate change: doing it for us and for future generations.