As the World Health Assembly opens today against a backdrop of continued suffering caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 30% of people surveyed across China, Myanmar, Thailand, Viet Nam and the United States say they have consumed less or stopped consuming wildlife altogether because of the health crisis.
More specifically, 28% among those surveyed in China consume less wildlife or have stopped consuming wildlife because of COVID-19, with numbers nearly doubling in Thailand (21% in 2020 to 41% in 2021) and remaining stable in Viet Nam (41% in 2020 to 39% in 2021). There remains a committed contingent of wildlife consumers, however, with 9% of participants intent on buying wildlife products in the future in all five countries.
The figures come as part of a survey conducted for WWF by GlobeScan and published today in a new report entitled, ‘COVID-19: One Year Later: Public Perceptions about Pandemics and their Links to Nature’. It builds on an initial study a year ago to deepen understanding of public attitudes and behaviours about addressing future pandemics. With the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recent investigation pointing to wildlife as a likely source of the pandemic, this year’s survey discovered that support is strong in all five countries to back government efforts to close high-risk markets selling wildlife (85%) and stop deforestation (88%), as root drivers of zoonotic disease outbreaks.
More than a year after the COVID-19 outbreak, the data shows that there is a strong understanding that risky human-animal interaction, often connected to deforestation and high-risk wildlife trade, can lead to serious disease outbreaks, with 46% of all participants listing disease transmission from animals to humans as the root cause most likely to trigger future pandemics.
“The message is clear: our nature’s health is directly impacting our health, and people are now getting that message. Moving forward, our solutions should work with nature and not against it. Globally, as well as nationally here in the Philippines, the steps we are undertaking to ensure the end of this pandemic should also ensure that we are preventing the next one,” said WWF Philippines Executive Director Katherine Custodio.
The majority of those surveyed believe that preventing future pandemics begins with addressing root causes, including high-risk wildlife trade and deforestation. More than four out of five people surveyed support government action to tackle these threats, and in the event where no measures are taken to close high-risk wildlife markets, 79% of all the participants in the five countries say they would be extremely worried or very worried about a similar outbreak.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the impacts of human activity on nature tragically close to our homes and families, and people are increasingly concerned and urging action: addressing the key drivers of zoonotic disease outbreaks and taking a One Health approach has to be part of our collective global pandemic prevention strategy,” said Marco Lambertini, Director General, WWF International. “The only way to prevent future pandemics is by reducing destructive human activities that drive the loss of nature – such as deforestation, unsustainable wildlife trade and risky wildlife consumption – rather than reacting to outbreaks after they have emerged. Prevention of pandemics is estimated to cost 100 times less than responding to them. The pandemic has made it blatantly clear that investing in planetary health and nature is the only way to avoid paying such a terrible social and economic price again in the future with scientists being very clear that unless we rebalance our relationship with nature, the question would be ‘when’ a next pandemic will strike, not ‘if’.”
Key drivers of zoonotic disease outbreaks include wildlife farming, land-use change leading to deforestation, and high-risk wildlife trade, which can all facilitate easier spread of diseases like COVID-19, SARS, MERS and Ebola by putting wild animals in closer proximity to people and domestic animals.
The Chinese government announced a broad ban on the consumption of wild animals in February 2020, and the survey found that in China, closing high-risk wildlife markets is seen as the most effective measure to prevent pandemics (91%). In Viet Nam, where the Prime Minister also announced actions against the illegal wildlife trade last year, 84% of participants agree that closing high-risk wildlife markets is crucial.
WWF’s Preventing Future Pandemics advocacy action calls on government entities to adopt a One Health approach to high-risk wildlife trade and deforestation.
The conservation organisation is also calling on decision makers to include interventions needed to address key drivers of zoonotic disease outbreaks in their pandemic prevention plans. Halting deforestation and closing risky wildlife markets, for example, will help recover wildlife populations and maintain local and global biodiversity that naturally help regulate disease, as well as help ensure sustainable use of natural resources.