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Given the suffering and economic damage of the past year and a half, citizens across the world have every right to expect their governments to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic with meaningful plans to prevent future pandemics.

No doubt governments have learned many lessons on how to limit the spread of viruses, urgently procure medical equipment, and develop affordable vaccines. Recognising that international cooperation is key, a group of Presidents and Prime Ministers — including Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron — have called for a new international treaty for pandemic preparedness and response.

International efforts to plan for the next pandemic must not be stuck in a public health silo. As well as improving pandemic responsiveness plans for next time, we need to examine where novel viruses come from in the first place  — and act to stop them at source. To do this, pandemic prevention must be informed by the ecology of zoonotic disease emergence.

In truth, the call for a new treaty recognises this, describing the need for a ‘One Health’ approach that “connects the health of humans, animals, and our planet”.

While the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus outbreak is still unknown, close relatives to the virus have been found in bat populations in Southeast Asia. Zoonotic diseases first recorded in humans over the past 70 years include Zika fever, Ebola, AIDS, and Nipah virus infection. 

Ecologists believe potential hotspots for emerging infectious disease to be tropical forests with high mammal biodiversity undergoing land conversion. Conversion of natural habitats is thought to increase the likelihood susceptible humans and livestock will come into contact with infected wild hosts, with the process actually favouring host species such as bats and rodents. 

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the role intact natural habitats play in mitiga-ting the risk of novel virus emergence needs to be recognised internationally for what it is — a major global public good.

One of the main messages of the recent government-commissioned Dasgupta Review into the Economics of Biodiversity is that natural ecosystems underpin human welfare in a variety of ways. But the economic system, left to its own devices, will underinvest in these assets because they provide public goods. Markets are very good at delivering goods and services which benefit individuals with the desire and means to pay for them. They are extremely bad at navigating trade-offs between the provision of private and public goods. People don’t tend to voluntarily forgo income and consumption which immediately benefits them for small changes in diffuse public goods. 

That is why governments need to step in to protect public goods. International institutions and treaties, however, have so far failed to adequately protect biodiversity over the past decade. A criticism of previous international biodiversity targets has been that they stimulated the creation of protected areas on paper, but failed to ensure that these protected areas are effectively managed or resourced, or created in areas of high conservation value. 

The easiest way to meet an area-based target is to protect areas with low opportunity cost, that is, little in the way of alternative economic uses. But the areas most at risk of zoonotic spillover are those undergoing land conversion — areas with high opportunity cost. A nature conservation strategy aiming to reduce zoonotic spillover risk would need to bite this bullet.

Such a strategy would require concerted international political commitment and effort to fill the implementation gap being left by international treaties and targets. It would need financial resources, willingness, and goodwill from tropical forest nations, penalties for companies profiting from uncontrolled deforestation, and transparent, fair, and financially stable mechanisms for ensuring poor people living close to forests have alternative, sustainable livelihoods. It would also mean policy being made on the basis of scientific evidence which is complex and evolving, on the understanding that research needs to be supported in tandem with policy.

According to one estimate, the annual cost of achieving a 40% reduction in an area at high risk of virus spillover would be $2-10 billion. This is not a trivial amount. But it is small compared to the $5.6 trillion in lost GDP from Covid-19, not to mention the millions of deaths, the 110+ million people pushed into extreme poverty and/or food insecurity, and the larger global social costs of longer-term disease and lockdowns.

Tropical deforestation is not a politically easy problem to solve, as those working on existing efforts to tackle it know far too well. But if we are here in ten years’ time amidst the fallout of another pandemic caused by a virus which once confined itself to bats or monkeys — having failed to read the signs — we will be looking at not just another lost decade for conservation, but one of the great public policy failures of our time.

Helen Jackson is an environment and natural resource economist and an Associate Fellow of Bright Blue. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Target secured?. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona]