5 June 2021 – On this (UN) World Environment Day, a global stock-taking is due. Most of us who analyze and fear the predicament in which progress has landed us felt certain that climate change would be the big wake-up call. But no. Viral spillovers have issued a more sudden and brutal reminder: we exploit Nature at our peril.

The word spillover — in the infectious disease context — means that the species hosting the infection passes it on to another host. This happens often. Most human viruses were acquired from animal species – a process known as zoonosis and some transmissions are more dangerous than others.

WHO COVID-19HIV, SARS, MERS, Ebola are but a few recent examples. Historically, Plagues have killed large numbers of people. The 1918 flu pandemic (likely zoonotic) infected 500 million people, possibly with more than 50 million fatalities. The WHO reports today that the COVID-19 pandemic numbers 172,242,495 confirmed cases and 3,709,397 deaths. We may never know where and when1 the virus that causes Covid-19 emerged, but the UN is unequivocal in its assessment that zoonotic transmission of pandemic infections can be prevented.

In the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report Preventing the next pandemic – Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission, there are ten key policy recommendations. One of them is:

The report also mentions Habitat and biodiversity loss as a key contributor to the spillover problem:

  • BIOSECURITY AND CONTROL: Identify key drivers of emerging diseases in animal husbandry, both in industrialized agriculture (intensive husbandry systems) and smallholder production. Include proper accounting of biosecurity measures in production driven animal husbandry/livestock production to the overall cost of One Health. Incentivize proven and under-used animal husbandry management, biosecurity and zoonotic disease control measures for industrial and disadvantaged smallholder farmers and herders (e.g. through the removal of subsidies and perverse incentives of industrialized agriculture), and develop practices that strengthen the health, opportunity and sustainability of diverse smallholder systems.

The report also mentions Habitat and biodiversity loss as a key contributor to the spillover problem:

  • The FAO Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020 indicates that deforestation continues globally at a rate of 10 million hectares a year. Rapid increases in the world’s human population from around one billion two centuries ago to over 7.8 billion today, has meant more and more encroachment of humans into natural habitats, which has brought humans and animals into ever-closer contact and increased the risk of animal-to-human disease transmission.2

UNEP COVID-19Covid-19 has been a shock to the entire world; not only the disease and its effect on health and livelihood, but also the lack of coordinated infection control and the political exploitation of distress. Rich and poor nations have been struck with irregular patterns of failure. In Canada the Prime Minister attempted to steer relief administration to a private organisation with which he has close ties, while his country rated worst among developed countries for Covid-19 Long Term Care deaths at 81% compared to the OECD country average of 38%.3 In South Africa the Health Minister is under investigation for pocketing some $8 million from closed-tender PR contacts.4 However, in that country Long-Term Care deaths from Covid-19 stood at 50% in September 2020.5

The environmental issues raised by Covid-19 should amplify existing pressures to end unsustainable industrial side-effects, be they infectious spillovers or chemical pollution. Bear in mind, the Lancet published a study showing that 16% of deaths worldwide (2015) were linked to pollution.6

Progress traps are defined as the condition in which we find ourselves when science, technology and industry create more problems than they can solve or development that excludes solutions to problems that arise from development. To date there can be no more graphic illustration that infectious spillovers and climate change have the same driver: excessive human exploitation of their environment.


  1. Botao Xiao, The Possible origins of 2019-nCoV-coronavirus.
  2. United Nations Environment Programme Preventing the next pandemic – Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission
  3. Canadian Institute for Health Information Long-term care and COVID-19: International comparisons
  4. The Daily Maverick Exposed: DoH’s R150m Digital Vibes scandal
  5. Leon Geffen COVID-19 in long-term care facilities in South Africa: No time for complacency
  6. Prof Philip J Landrigan, MD, Richard Fuller, BE, Nereus J R Acosta, PhD, Olusoji Adeyi, DrPH, Robert Arnold, PhD, Prof Niladri (Nil) Basu, PhD, et al. The Lancet Commission on pollution and health