Nature is Not Healing: Lessons from the Pandemic about the Environment and Public Health

Ryan Oneil via Upsplash

Nature is Not Healing: Lessons from the Pandemic about the Environment and Public Health

Public health and environmental researchers have made it clear that human land-use changes – deforestation, urbanization, and ecosystem degradation – are closely linked to the emergence of infectious zoonotic diseases, including the coronavirus. Public health and conservation experts encourage governments to implement nature-positive COVID-19 recovery policies, especially as we reflect on international climate, biodiversity, and public health summits. 

  • Gibb, Rory, David W. Redding, Kai Qing Chin, Christl A. Donnelly, Tim M. Blackburn, Tim Newbold, and Kate E. Jones. “Zoonotic Host Diversity Increases in Human-Dominated Ecosystems.” Nature 584, no. 7821 (August 2020): 398–402. 

  • Everard, Mark, Paul Johnston, David Santillo, and Chad Staddon. “The Role of Ecosystems in Mitigation and Management of Covid-19 and Other Zoonoses.” Environmental Science & Policy 111 (September 1, 2020): 7–17. 

  • Golden Kroner, Rachel, Edward Barbier, Olivier Chassot, Sunita Chaudhary, Lorenzo Jr, Annabelle Cruz-Trinidad, Tracey Cumming, et al. “COVID-Era Policies and Economic Recovery Plans: Are Governments Building Back Better for Protected and Conserved Areas?” PARKS 27 (March 11, 2021): 135–48. 

During the spring of 2020, many sought silver linings in the COVID-19 pandemic. “Nature is healing” quickly became a global headline. Examples – real and fake – of the positive environmental impacts of the pandemic flooded social media, from reduced greenhouse gas emissions to crystal-clear canals in Venice. Yet, research has shown that nature is not healing. In fact, environmental degradation is the root cause of the pandemic itself. Our exposure to COVID-19 is the result of human land-use change. Recent scientific studies suggest that protecting nature may be one of our most effective tools to avoid another pandemic. Nature-positive stimulus packages provide the opportunity to do exactly that.  

Researchers at the University College of London, the University of West England, and Conservation International have studied the relationship between policies, the environment, and public health. Their research tells us that the ways humans interact with nature and the policies that inform land-use decisions are directly related to the emergence of zoonotic diseases and public health outcomes.  

Zoonotic diseases are infectious diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans. They have become more common in recent years. Depending on the virus, zoonotic diseases can be transmitted from wild animals to domesticated animals and then to humans, or directly from wild animals to humans. Ebola, avian influenza (“bird flu”), H1N1 flu (“swine flu”), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), West Nile virus, and Zika virus are all zoonotic diseases. The COVID-19 pandemic is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, a known zoonotic disease. While the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic is still unknown, U.S. intelligence agencies suspect that the pandemic is a result of humans being exposed to an infected animal.  

According to research led by Drs. Rory Gibb and David W. Redding, published in the journal Nature, land-use change is linked to increased infection risk in humans. Land-use change is the conversion of natural ecosystems to cities, farms, and other human uses. It threatens biodiversity and breaks up habitats. In doing so, land-use change increases the chances of human and wildlife interactions, which raise the likelihood of spillovers of zoonotic diseases from nature into human environments.  

The results of Drs. Gibb and Redding’s analysis show that greater land-use intensity and environmental degradation are correlated with 1) the increased richness, or total number of different zoonotic host species compared to all species that are present, 2) the increased abundance, or total number of individual animals per zoonotic host species, and 3) declines in all other (non-host) species. This means that in human-dominated habitats, animals that are zoonotic hosts tend to be present at higher rates than in habitats that have not been disturbed by humans. Overall, the researchers conclude that land-use change around the world has resulted in the loss of global biodiversity. This outcome favors the survival of species that are zoonotic hosts.  

According to EcoHealth Alliance, land-use change is linked to 31percent of outbreaks of emerging zoonotic diseases including HIV, Ebola, and Zika virus. In his new research in the journal Environmental Science and Policy, Dr. Mark Everard and his team investigated the ways in which human-environmental linkages enable the outbreaks of zoonotic diseases. The researchers identified causes of greater land-use intensity such as deforestation, intensified agriculture and livestock production, and illegal wildlife consumption and trade. 

Importantly, as noted by Dr. Everard’s findings, environmental degradation caused by human activities also destroys the ecosystem services that otherwise work to suppress the spread of diseases. Ecosystem services are the services that nature provides, such as clean water, that help humans - and all other life on Earth - survive. The researchers found that restoring ecosystems can help reduce the risks of zoonotic diseases. By restoring ecosystem functions, nature can help address public health threats. For example, reestablishing natural barriers, such as forests, can keep humans away from disease transferring zoonotic animals.  

The research of Dr. Rachel Golden Kroner, published in the journal PARKS, explores the ways in which governments are responding to the coronavirus pandemic, and how those responses are, or aren’t, making ecosystems and human communities more resilient. To better understand the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on conservation, Dr. Golden and her team reviewed economic stimulus packages and other government policies that were implemented or advanced during 2020, the first year of the pandemic.  

Overall, the researchers discovered that COVID-19 economic stimulus packages and policies have undermined, rather than enhanced, environmental protection. Within the timeframe covered by the Golden et al. study (January to October, 2020), G20 nations pledged US$ 12.1 trillion to economic recovery efforts. Yet only around ten percent of COVID-19 stimulus can be considered “green stimulus” – stimulus with positive environmental impacts. Much of the stimulus funding is dedicated to stimulating economic growth, but in doing so, sacrifices nature and human rights. For example, in Malaysia, a proposed 97 percent reduction of the Kuala Langat Forest Reserve could threaten the traditional livelihoods of the Indigenous Orang Asli peoples. In Russia, the requirement to complete environmental impact evaluations was suspended during the pandemic, and new laws were passed to permit deforestation in protected natural areas. In the United States, the Trump administration auctioned off oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which could negatively impact wildlife. These policy decisions may have been designed with economic recovery in mind, but they fail to leverage the cost-effective opportunities nature provides to ensure the health of people and the planet.  

These rollbacks could exacerbate risk of future pandemics by degrading the ecosystem services that nature provides. Further, policies that downgrade protections on nature could undermine the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities. Because many ecosystems are effective at storing carbon and reducing the brunt of climate impacts, policies that reduce protections for ecosystems could also increase the rate of climate change, which itself is a public health threat. 

There are, however, several examples of countries that have incorporated nature into their COVID-19 “build back better” plans. At the time of publishing the Golden et al. paper, the European Union had contributed 30 percent – a total of US$ 249 billion of its stimulus funds to green initiatives. Kenya invested US$ 18.4 million in the employment of 5,500 people through the Kenya Wildlife Service and has supported 160 community nature conservancies. Pakistan’s Green Stimulus Initiative expands protected areas, launched Pakistan’s National Parks Service, and created around five thousand new jobs with the US$ 24 million the country invested in their COVID-19 stimulus package.  

Environmentally responsible COVID-19 recovery plans are important for human, ecological, and economic well-being. Science shows that protecting nature defends humans from exposure to zoonotic diseases, such as the coronavirus. Nature-positive policies that encourage ecosystem restoration and conservation will benefit public health in the long-term by reducing the risk of future pandemics, while also helping to address climate change. 

Nature-positive COVID-19 recovery plans were highlighted during two of the largest international environmental gatherings in 2021: the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity’s 15th Conference of the Parties (CBD COP15), and the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP26). At these meetings, countries convened to decide how to act against deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the climate crisis. Nations pledged to the international community to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, restore forests, and invest in renewable energy infrastructure. These promises, if kept, are critical for ensuring the health of humans and the environment


If there’s one key takeaway from this research for world leaders, it is that nature plays a critical role in protecting humans from pandemics while providing services such as clean air, clean water, and cultural and spiritual wellbeing. The science is clear: when we choose to steward the Earth, the health of humans and the environment prospers