World Biodiversity Day in the era of COVID-19

Interspecies social distancing — we need to give nature some space to save biodiversity

By Guy Broucke

To read the published version in The Print click here.

Today, on 22 May 2020, the year of COVID-19, we once more celebrate the International day of Biodiversity.

More acutely than ever, the current crisis makes us aware of the fragility of life on earth.

‘Biodiversity’ is our modern expression for this “life” in all its forms, but throughout the history of humankind, celebrating it has been an integral part of all cultures.

In past eras, the concept was local, we celebrated our own animals, plants, forests; and beyond our horizon the planet’s biodiversity seemed limitless. Today, we have reached these limits. 

There are no new continents to move to when we have depleted our own, and we are discovering that in nature also, degrading parts of a system ultimately destroys the whole system.

This year, a lot of visibility has been given to the risk of zoonotic diseases. We live closer and closer to places that used to be ‘remote’, so the risk of disease transmission increases. But scientists are also ever more aware that biodiversity is our ‘toolbox’ to find cures or vaccines. 

So it is a sobering thought that the 2019 global IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems) Report on Biodiversity warned that 1 million species are threatened with extinction. 

What if tomorrow we find a cousin - an ape species - who has immunity against COVID-19? It would greatly accelerate our own research. 

We may find that in one or other country certain traditionally used endemic plants also give remarkable results to mitigate the impacts of this infection. 

But if we fast forward 50 years, and we have a similar crisis, at least half the ape species may no longer exist. And rainforests that have the highest density of plant diversity are also rapidly disappearing. 

So we call ourselves the intelligent ape – ‘homo sapiens’ – but we are destroying our own toolbox… How smart is that?

Our current ‘civilization’ model also goes with global reduction in food crop diversity. We promote monoculture, often genetically modified. One species of potato, one species of wheat, of rice, the one that grows and sells best. Today, if a disease comes along, we still have ‘wild’ varieties of those species. But fast forward again, and few if any of those may exist.

The ongoing rapid degradation of biodiversity leads to a reduction in our own resilience. This planet and its resources have been shaped by all the bits and pieces of life that we have. We cannot simply remove a million of those and expect the system not to change dramatically.

Many of us are talking about a “return to normal” as soon as possible. But perhaps this is a good time to take stock and ask ourselves what the “normal” is that we wish to go back to?

Perhaps we need to think of a “interspecies social distancing” concept, where we ask the question how much space each species requires to allow it to exist?

-Guy Broucke, Head of Natural Sciences, UNESCO New Delhi