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Virus Puts Focus on Deforestation’s Risk to Public Health in ASEAN

An area of Ho Chi Minh City is being converted from marshland to a financial district. (VOA News)

Just across the river from downtown Ho Chi Minh City, a tract of land is being turned into a bustling financial center. It’s still mostly dirt and concrete, but less than a decade ago, the tract was dense marshland where it was easy to spot goats and pigs.

Fast urbanization all over Southeast Asia is changing humans’ relationship to wildlife, and now COVID-19 shows how this process can pose a risk to public health, environmentalists say. They argue that, while climate-harming deforestation has long been known to be a problem for animals, the pandemic highlights more than ever that it can be harmful to humans, too.

Scientists now believe humans contracted the virus from an animal, likely passing from a bat to a pangolin, which was then touched by a human in China. There are multiple ways COVID-19 is affecting climate change debates. In Southeast Asia this includes the destruction of forests as humans develop areas for habitation, bringing them into places recently inhabited by animals.

“Evidence shows that deforestation and urbanization increase our risk of catching infectious diseases like coronavirus,” said Sarah Elago, a congresswoman in the Philippines, where the state is introducing tougher laws against wildlife trafficking in the wake of the pandemic.

She pointed out that Southeast Asia has a particularly high rate of deforestation, having lost more than 32 million hectares of trees since 1990.

The region’s deforestation is coupled with urbanization to accommodate its high economic growth. Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, is now moving its capital city from Jakarta to the island of Borneo, which will inevitably require clearing land. Cambodia has lost more forestland per hectare than almost any other nation on the planet, according to the NASA Earth Observatory. Singapore became the most modern city in the region after converting swampland.

Boats float along the river in Bangkok, which is facing rising sea levels and sinking land. (VOA News)
Boats float along the river in Bangkok, which is facing rising sea levels and sinking land. (VOA News)

The region’s megacities also face rising sea levels and sinking land, according to JLL Global Cities Research, a property firm.

“Southeast Asia has some of the world’s fastest growing and most dynamic cities,” Jeremy Kelly, lead director at JLL Global Cities Research, said. “With mass migration and greater urbanization, many cities here are stretched when it comes to resources.”

Besides the encroachment onto forestland, humans are coming into contact with animals in other ways in the region. Wet markets, like the one in China where COVID-19 is believed to have emerged, are common in Southeast Asia. These nations are also a frequent transit hub for the trafficking of wildlife products. Such trafficking has made it more likely for epidemics to occur, said Ngo Thi Thanh Thao, media manager at Vietnam’s CHANGE, an environmental organization.

In addition to deforestation, there are other issues linked to climate change that are getting renewed attention because of the pandemic. Asia’s economic growth has increased air pollution, a problem that Dr. Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum of the World Health Organization said has generally weakened people’s health, which makes COVID-19 more severe for them if they contract it. However, there are silver linings, too. With humans at home, more wild animals are emerging, such as the turtles that have reappeared on Thailand’s beaches. And carbon emissions have decreased with fewer people driving vehicles and working at factories.

To fight viral infections, particularly from animals, authorities need to regulate economic development as it affects Mother Nature, Philippines Congresswoman Elago said.

“Our governments have to act swiftly against deforestation by increasing protected areas and environmental safeguards against investment projects if we want to reduce the risk of reliving COVID-19-like epidemics,” she said.

One of those governments is Vietnam, which this month tabled a draft amendment to its Law on Environmental Protection, including to increase fines for environmental crimes. National Assembly Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan said there should not be a tradeoff between environmental and economic benefits.

“Increasing budget spending for environmental protection is necessary,” she said.