• The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of our dysfunctional relationship with nature.
  • Studies show deforestation and loss of wildlife cause increases in infectious diseases.
  • Half of the world’s GDP is highly or moderately dependent on nature. For every dollar spent on nature restoration, at least $9 of economic benefits can be expected.

Many people are wondering when life will get back to normal after the COVID-19 crisis. We should be asking: can we use this opportunity to learn from our mistakes and build something better?

A focus on nature can help us understand where pandemics come from and how the socioeconomic fallout from the crisis could be mitigated.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Health, economic stability and nature are interconnected

The unfolding COVID-19 pandemic is having undeniable human and economic impacts. To date, the virus has caused more than 119,000 confirmed deaths worldwide, millions of job losses and stock markets to dive. This pandemic is also a stark reminder of our dysfunctional relationship with nature. The current economic system has put great pressure on the natural environment, and the unfolding pandemic has shone a light on the domino effect that is triggered when one element in this interconnected system is destabilised.

Intact nature provides a buffer between humans and disease, and emerging diseases are often the results of encroachment into natural ecosystems and changes in human activity. In the Amazon, for example, deforestation increases the rates of malaria, since deforested land is the ideal habitat for mosquitoes. Deforested land has also been linked to outbreaks of Ebola and Lyme disease, as humans come into contact with previously untouched wildlife.

A study published this year found that deforestation in Uganda was increasing the emergence of animal-to-human diseases and stresses that human behaviour is the underlying cause. Altering nature too much or in the wrong way, therefore, can have devastating human implications.

While the origin of the COVID-19 virus is yet to be established, 60% of infectious diseases originate from animals, and 70% of emerging infectious diseases originate from wildlife. AIDS, for example, came from chimpanzees, and SARS is thought to have been transmitted from an animal still unknown to this day. We have lost 60% of all wildlife in the last 50 years, while the number of new infectious diseases has quadrupled in the last 60 years. It is no coincidence that the destruction of ecosystems has coincided with a sharp increase in such diseases.

Human activity is destroying our natural world.
Human activity is destroying our natural world.
Image: World Economic Forum

Natural habitats are being reduced, causing species to live in closer quarters than ever to one another and to humans. As some people opt to invade forests and wild landscapes due to business interests and others at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum are forced to search for resources for survival, we damage the ecosystems, risking that viruses from animals find new hosts – us.

Given our interconnected and ever-changing world, with air travel, wildlife marketing and a changing climate, the potential for further serious outbreaks remains significant. Pandemics are, therefore, often a hidden side effect of economic development and inequalities that can no longer be ignored. In other words, just as carbon is not the cause of climate change, it is human activity - not nature - that causes many pandemics.

Nature should be part of the solution.

This coronavirus crisis has demonstrated our socioeconomic system’s inherent vulnerability to shocks. As businesses assess how to emerge from this crisis and governments devise stimulus packages to rebuild the economy, such actions need to be carefully determined. The decisions made on how to stimulate growth and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic will determine the future health, wellbeing and stability of people and the planet.

As the World Economic Forum's Nature Risk Rising Report highlighted, over half of the world’s GDP is highly or moderately dependent on nature. Nature provides businesses and governments with vast opportunities. For every dollar spent on nature restoration, at least $9 of economic benefits can be expected. Additionally, a recent report by the Food and Land Use Coalition found that changing the way we farm and produce food could release $4.5 trillion a year in new business opportunities by 2030, while also saving us trillions of dollars’ worth of social and environmental harms. Respect for the way that nature works, therefore, is good for business as well as future generations.

In dealing with the potential economic fallout, governments and businesses could use this opportunity to align economic models with our planetary boundaries by addressing some of the more untenable realities of globalisation that this crisis has revealed. For example, ensuring significant biodiversity in our calorie mix and prioritising local sustainable produce could greatly increase levels of resilience. Similarly, a transition towards renewable energy, tapping into locally available wind and solar assets, could reduce the carbon footprint of industrial activities.

Although a devastating example, this crisis has illustrated the potential of political will and collective action, as well as how quickly nature can heal if only we let it. We must build upon this momentum to develop systems that avert or better absorb any inevitable future shocks.

What next for the global economy?

We are at a critical juncture in planning how to overcome this global health crisis and address economic shocks. But exactly what this will look like is yet to be determined. There can be no going back to business-as-usual.

Designing nature-positive stimulus packages could hold the key to preventing future outbreaks, in addition to ensuring the long-term sustainability of livelihoods and business activities. One of the biggest beneficiaries of shifting towards valuing and investing in natural capital would be the rural economy, securing the future supply of sustainable food and commodities.

These efforts will require strong leadership from government, business and grassroots civil society actors, and cooperation at levels unseen before this pandemic, as well as thorough and targeted financial interventions. This requires swift and effective action not only for the economy but for the long-term capacity of the planet to support healthy and productive human populations.