TO THIS STATEMENT? By Zakiyah Ebrahim 

The Covid-19 pandemic, brought about by the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), has severely disrupted human life and the global economy since its outbreak. As at 27 May, there were over 5.6 million reported cases and more than 353 000 confirmed deaths, indicates the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. But what exactly has this crisis meant for our natural environment? We take a look. 

Coronavirus crisis: a blessing in disguise?
The UN’s environment chief, Inger Andersen, told the Guardian that humanity is placing immense pressure on the natural world, and that our actions are having damaging consequences. Andersen said that if we continue our current behaviour, our planet may not be able to take care of us in the long run. 

“At the end of the day, [with] all of these events, nature is sending us a message. We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves. And as we hurtle towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we need to go into this future armed with nature as our strongest ally,” Anderson said. 

Covid-19, agriculture and food security 

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it is estimated that up to 40% of food crops are lost annually, and the causes behind this are plant pests and diseases. Such a staggering loss of crops damages agriculture, and perhaps unfortunate of all – it leaves millions of people without food. A 2019 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that more than 820 million people in the world are still hungry today, and that about two billion people across the world experience moderate to severe food insecurity. 

The year 2020 was declared as the International Year of Plant Health (IYPH) by the United Nations General Assembly. It is an opportunity to raise global awareness on the importance of plant protection and the fight to protect our environment. 

In South Africa, however, the agricultural industry is facing some inconveniences due to strict lockdown regulations. Although farmers in the country have been in a fortunate position to be classified as essential workers during the lockdown period, ensuring food security through informal food suppliers have been particularly challenging, explained Dan Kriek in a News24 article. 

It is also worrying that food demand has shot up dramatically, especially with the majority of people in the country being homebound for several weeks, however, on the bright side, considering the outlook for the harvest season and the rainfall patterns we have been experiencing in the country, it looks fairly upbeat for our winter crops, Pertunia Setumo, an agricultural economist at FNB Agri-Business told SABC news. 

“We had a good season for summer crops. We’re now looking into the winter crop season, and the recent showers have set the tone for a good season, but it’s still too early to tell,” Setumo said. FAO also draws importance to the threat of climate change (due to human activities) on plant health, explaining that it alters ecosystems and reduces biodiversity. Since the pandemic, our planet has been seeing some unexpected beneficial change in a number of ways. 

Unexpected environmental consequences 

Since many countries around the world, including South Africa, Italy and Germany, have imposed lockdowns to curb the spread of the coronavirus, spaces have become emptier and streets quieter. In some ways, nature has ‘taken over’ cities. Cape Town residents, for instance, were entertained by a rare sighting of dolphins frolicking in Hout Bay waters in April, while deers have been wandering through city streets in Nara, Japan. 

Venice’s canals have also seen crystal clear waters – certainly an uncommon sight amidst the usual crowds of tourists flooding the city – and pollution from the city’s motorboats have been greatly reduced. As a result of fewer activities in city centres and the temporary closing of factories worldwide, this also means less carbon emissions and, ultimately, a positive impact on our carbon footprint. In fact, in China, satellite images have revealed a significant drop in nitrogen dioxide pollution in northern Italy under lockdown. And, as humans continue to stay indoors, some councils in the UK have stopped mowing verges and parks, which, as a result, is expected to lead to a boost in wildflowers, reports the BBC. 

An article by the Conversation explains the remarkable resilience of nature, in that it is known to ‘reclaim’ land once humans have abandoned it. This, it further explains, is referred to as ‘ecological succession’, where temporary pioneer species initially inhabit spaces and are gradually replaced by shrubs and trees. In the long run, this supports more diverse wildlife and an overall biodiverse ecosystem. Pioneer species are the first to take over disrupted or damaged ecosystems. When this happens, it begins the chain of ecological succession. 

Wake-up call 

Possibly the biggest lesson to take from this pandemic is the requirement of humanity
to press pause on the destruction of the environment. After all, activities such as
deforestation, intensive farming, and destroying wildlife habitats are leading to an increase in disease-carrying wild animals moving closer to humans, and this might just cause more deadly pandemics in future. Smiley Evans, an epidemiologist at the University of California told CNBC that the coronavirus is the most recent example of how human degradation of wildlife habitats is linked to the spread of infectious diseases. Evans added: “Preserving habitats for wildlife and preserving our world is a human health issue.” 

In the end, if we really think about the global battle against Covid-19, we will realise that as our lives are continuously confined within the four walls of our homes every day, parts of nature are bouncing back, and so, our environment may just be the only true beneficiary of this crisis. 

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