Dr Nial Moores, Birds Korea (April 2nd 2020).
I am not a medical doctor and I do not pretend to have specialist knowledge or insights on the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, as someone who lives in the Republic of Korea (ROK), I simply want to express my sympathies to those who are suffering and to give my sincerest thanks for the great response to the outbreaks that struck the nation back in February. This is why I agreed, happily, to do a podcast in mid-March with my wonderful brother Charlie, for Lush’s fascinating War on Wildlife project. I also want to raise some specific concerns – most especially about the need for really strong biodiversity conservation measures in the months and years ahead.
Two weeks on from that podcast interview, the ROK has continued to do what no other democratic nation has yet come close to doing. It has successfully controlled several mass outbreaks; for now at least, putting the COVID-19 pandemic back into a box. This at a time when a million people and more worldwide have been afflicted by what the General Secretary of the UN recently called “the most challenging crisis since World War II…a pandemic threatening people in every country” .
Following the first case here in late January, thousands became sickened in February. By the end of the month, the ROK was only second globally in the number of cases to PR China. Through March, the rate of new infections started to fall; and by the start of April, the ROK had been overtaken by a dozen other nations in numbers of reported cases and deaths.
As of April 2nd, the ROK is ranked 14th globally in the number of COVID-19 cases, with under 10,000 cases in total and fewer than 200 reported deaths. The majority of new cases here of COVID-19 – about 100 a day – now appear to be linked to people coming to the ROK from overseas. On April 1st, the nation therefore imposed a two-week quarantine on all people newly arriving from overseas.
It is especially remarkable that this tremendous reduction in new cases of COVID-19 nationwide has been achieved through aggressive testing, contact tracing and social distancing without the need for blanket stay at home orders or the closing of airports. It seems obvious to me that all of those involved in relevant decision-making and in treating the sick deserve proper recognition, in addition to our collective support and thanks. If this were not an election year, the nation as a whole would rightly be giving itself a huge pat on the back – social distancing allowing, that is.
Yes, of course, the economic losses caused by the pandemic have been awful and the year ahead will be very rough financially for almost everybody – including here in the ROK, even if we somehow manage to avoid a second wave of COVID-19. It is not just businesses and their employees that are hurt, of course: it is almost all of us, including civil society organisations too. In common with many other NGOs in the ROK and globally, Birds Korea has long been chronically under-funded, even at the very best of times. And we have now lost substantial revenues through postponed and cancelled projects because of COVID-19. It will be a struggle to survive.
And this is why it seems important to state here that any loss of vitality in environmental conservation organisations in the ROK or globally at this time would be a terrible loss. If we are to prevent similar pandemics in future and if we are to maintain a habitable planet, it is our voices that will need to be heard more than ever.
This is because going forward many national leaders will have little choice but to push rapid economic growth ahead of all else. In the words of one president, there will be a never-before-seen push to “return to our lives and they will be great lives maybe better than ever… bring(ing) our economy back and bring(ing) it back fast” (USA Coronavirus Task Force Update, late March, 2020). If previous responses to smaller economic downturns are anything to go by, massive infrastructure projects will be proposed and environmental regulations will be weakened.
And, just as importantly, many of the essential lessons on pollution and animal welfare, on climate change and on biodiversity loss, will be missed.
Already air pollution produced by industry and our modern lifestyles is changing the climate, resulting in an increase in devastating so-called natural events, the spread of disease and the loss of ecosystem health. Air pollution also kills more directly. One study found that, ‘China’s two month coronavirus lockdown may have saved the lives of 4,000 children under 5 and 73,000 adults over 70 with a reduction in air pollution” (Global Food, Environment and Economic Dynamics. March 8th; as cited in UNESCAP 2020). What cost to human health of the next wave of unregulated industrial expansion?
And what too of our relationship to wildlife? The emergence of COVID-19 was a direct result of trade in wildlife, which brought a mix of otherwise wild species into repeated direct, close contact with people ( see here, for a genuinely disturbing Sixty Minutes documentary looking at the role of “wet markets” in diseases like COVID-19). The virus responsible for the current outbreak is just one of many circulating in wildlife. Habitat loss combined with a brutally exploitative and often criminal trade in wildlife and industrial animal-agriculture all increase the likelihood of zoonotic transmission and the emergence of new diseases in people. Holding multiple species of wildlife together in unnaturally dense concentrations is cruel. It results in species-to-species transmission, and likely contributes to an increase in pathogenicity. As confirmed by a recent study, most Avian Influenza outbreaks follow the route of trade and not of wild birds. This is why Birds Korea has long described so-called bird flu as Poultry Flu. What cost our species’ mindless exploitation of biodiversity?
There is a real need to learn from this pandemic and to change our relationship with other species. To avoid even worst crises, we must rebuild economies in ways that are genuinely sustainable and genuinely mindful of the planet’s limits to growth.
This is why, even in the midst of this pandemic, the environmental and conservation movements need to find our voices and to be heard. For we understand already that, however terrible COVID-19 might become, it is in reality “Global warming, climate change, and the devastating loss of biodiversity (which) are the greatest threats humanity has ever faced” (Prince Charles, Davos, January 22nd 2020: Yahoo Finance UK).