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Threat of new pandemics tests food systems

By Alberto Leny
Tuesday, July 7th, 2020
Health Cabinet secretary Mutahi Kagwe. Photo/Gerald Ithana

Kenya continues to hold a crucial position in the global search for solutions to the health, environmental and economic challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Yesterday, two leading research institutions based in Nairobi released a landmark report warning of further outbreaks of pandemics unless governments take active measures to prevent other zoonotic diseases from crossing into the human population.

A joint effort by the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute, the report, Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission, sets out 10 recommendations to prevent future pandemics.

The report finds that Africa, which has experienced a number of zoonotic epidemics including Ebola, could be a source of important solutions to quell future outbreaks.

The Covid-19 outbreak has defined the emerging public health threats posed by zoonotic diseases and infections naturally transmitted between people and vertebrate animals and captured in three classes: Endemic, epidemic and emerging/re-emerging.

The report identifies seven trends driving the emergence of zoonotic diseases, including increased demand for animal protein, rise in intense and unsustainable farming, increased use and exploitation of wildlife, and the climate crisis.

Some studies have credited pangolins with playing a role in the emergence of the new coronavirus and might, therefore, hold clues to fighting Covid-19. Research suggests the virus originated from bats, found its way into pangolins sold at Chinese “wet markets”, and migrated into humans.

Science shows that the exploitation of wildlife and destruction of the ecosystem has seen a rise of zoonotic diseases jumping from animals to humans. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, humanity should be wary of a looming emergence of further pandemics.

According to UN Environment Executive Director Inger Andersen, “Pandemics are devastating to our lives and economies… the poorest and most vulnerable suffer the most. To prevent future outbreaks, we must become much more deliberate about protecting our natural environment.”

Grappling with the vexing challenge of protecting the environment and reopening the economy and other activities, we have to devise the safest ways to save lives and livelihoods. There’s broad consensus on the public health side of reopening:

Sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days, hospitals’ ability to treat all patients without chaos or lowered standards, ability to treat everyone who has symptoms and capability for case monitoring, contact tracing, and isolation. Can we meet these criteria?

The economy and livelihoods scenario is less clear. Reopening policies must aim at supporting recovery post-coronavirus without worsening vulnerabilities. 

Recovery will succeed only if inequalities in our socio-economic structures are reformed and the financial stimulus ensures the flow of credit to households and business.

Access to health and basic services, finance and the digital economy should be broadened and social safety nets expanded to extend unemployment insurance coverage to informal workers.

EcoAgriculture Partners president Sara Scherr and Rockefeller Foundation Food Initiative managing director Sara Farley support the Africa Landscape Action Plan initiated in Nairobi in 2014, embracing sustainable development and biodiversity conservation. 

They have serious concerns about the pandemic. “The Covid-19 crisis is a ‘stress test’ for our global food systems – and they are failing. There’s little coordination between communities working on nutrition, agriculture, food, environment, water, health, climate, employment and  trade or transport.” [email protected]

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