Time for a planetary, circular health

As we all follow the evolution of Covid-19 pandemic, the international scientific community is studying the virus outbreak from different perspectives. A number of researchers is looking at coronavirus to track its origin and understand if and how we could prevent similar issues in the future.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that three-quarters of new or emerging diseases that infect humans, including coronavirus, are zoonoses, meaning they originate in animals.

Disease ecologists explain that this kind of pathogens are very likely to spread from the many informal markets that have sprung up to sell live animals and provide fresh meat to fast-growing urban populations around the world. That’s the case of the “wet market” in Wuhan, thought by the Chinese government to be the starting point of Covid-19 (it has been shut down), but similar locations can be found in west and central Africa, as well as in other Asian countries.

Should we ban those markets to grant public health globally? Forbid wet or informal markets may not be a fully effective answer, say some scientists. As they are essential sources of food for hundreds of millions of poor people, getting rid of them might results in moving traders underground, where they may pay even less attention to hygiene.

The problem should be considered from a wider viewpoint. It is widely acknowledged that tropical forests and exotic wildlife naturally harbor the viruses and pathogens that can lead to new diseases in humans such as Ebola, HIV and dengue. So, many researchers today believe that it is actually the accelerated pace of deforestation, uncontrolled urbanization and the destruction of biodiversity that create the conditions for the outbreak of new diseases such as Covid-19.

While short-term efforts need to be focused on containing Covid-19 infection and mitigating its effects, in the longer term we should think over more sustainable approaches to urban planning and development.

A new discipline – called planetary health – is focusing on the increasingly visible connections between the wellbeing of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems. Professor Ilaria Capua, virologist and veterinarian at the University of Florida, worldwide known for her studies on influenza viruses, suggested health should be conceived as a circular system, just like economy: “We think of the economy as a closed system in which resources have to be reinvested, and the same is true for healthcare. Circularity is the issue of the future. I believe that within this new conception of health we have to be open and ready to include new perspectives that can help us live a balanced existence within our aquarium. Because we live in a closed system, just like an aquarium”.

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