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Science points to causes of COVID-19

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Coronaviruses are transmitted between animals and humans. Many are relatively harmless – causing no more than a common cold. Others result in diseases that are new and unfamiliar, like the COVID-19 pandemic, and before that, outbreaks of diseases like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS (2002); Avian Influenza or bird flu (2004); H1N1 or Swine  Flu (2009); Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS (2012); Ebola (2014– 2015); Zika virus (2015–2016); and West Nile virus (2019).

Almost a century’s worth of global trends confirm that coronaviruses are occurring more frequently. A 2016 UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report flagged coronaviruses–or “zoonoses­­”–as an issue of global concern. On average, three new infectious diseases emerge in humans every year; and about three quarters of these are zoonotic.

What is causing the spike in these diseases?  Here’s what decades of scientific research has to say: 

Coronaviruses are facilitated by human actions

According to the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, “There is a single species that is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic – us.”

Not all coronaviruses result in disease. Without animal-to-human transmission, the current SARS-CoV-2 virus would not have presented itself in the form of COVID-19.  Indeed, other coronaviruses are circulating in animals and have not yet infected humans.

Coronaviruses are leaping to humans more frequently because we are providing them with more opportunities to do so. In the last 50 years alone, the human population has doubled and the global economy has almost quadrupled. Rapid migration from rural to urban areas and creation of new urban centres has affected demographics, lifestyles and consumer behaviour. 

Environmental changes

Our evolving lifestyles have dramatically altered the land around us. We have cleared forests and other natural areas to create spaces for urban areas and settlements, agriculture and industries. In doing so, we have reduced overall space for wildlife and degraded natural buffers between humans and animals.

Climate change is also a driver of zoonoses.  Greenhouse gas emissions–primarily the result of burning fossil fuels–cause changes in temperature and humidity, which directly affects the survival of microbes.  Scheduled for release next month, a new rapid assessment by UNEP and ILRI on zoonotics suggests that epidemics will become more frequent as the climate continues to change. 

Behavioural changes

Demand for dairy and meat products has led to the expansion of uniform cropland and intense livestock farming in rural areas and near cities.  Livestock often serve as a bridge between wildlife and human infections, meaning pathogens may be passed from wild animals to livestock to humans. 

Of particular concern are informal markets, where live, wild animals are kept and sold, often in unsanitary and unhygienic conditions. Viruses and other pathogens may be easily spread among animals that are kept close together; or to the humans who handle, transport, sell, purchase or consume them, when sanitary and protective practices are not followed. 

Pathogen changes

Pathogens are always changing to survive in different animals, humans and environments. With the increase of intensive farming and overuse of antimicrobial drugs in both animals and people, pathogens are becoming more resistant to the very medications that might have been effective in treating zoonotic disease.

What COVID-19 is teaching us

COVID-19 is a reminder that human health and the planet’s health are closely linked. There are about 8 million species of life on the Earth, of which humans are just one. These include an estimated 1.7 million unidentified viruses, recognized as the type that may infect people, existing in mammals and water birds.  Any one of these could be transferred to humans, if we don’t take preventative measures now.

The most fundamental way to protect ourselves from coronaviruses is to prevent destruction of nature, which drives the spread of diseases

Where ecosystems are healthy and biodiverse, they are resilient, adaptable and help to regulate diseases. Pathogens that are passed around among reservoirs in animals are more likely to reach dead–and effectively die off–where there is greater diversity.

Genetic diversity builds disease resistance among animal populations and decreases the chances of outbreaks of high-impact animal diseases, according to a 2017 IPBES report.  Conversely, intensive livestock farming can produce genetic similarities within herds and flocks, reducing resilience and making them more susceptible to pathogens. This, by extension, exposes humans to a higher risk.

Behavioural changes

Demand for dairy and meat products has led to the expansion of uniform cropland and intense livestock farming in rural areas and near cities.  Livestock often serve as a bridge between wildlife and human infections, meaning pathogens may be passed from wild animals to livestock to humans. 

Of particular concern are informal markets, where live, wild animals are kept and sold, often in unsanitary and unhygienic conditions. Viruses and other pathogens may be easily spread among animals that are kept close together; or to the humans who handle, transport, sell, purchase or consume them, when sanitary and protective practices are not followed. 

Pathogen changes

Pathogens are always changing to survive in different animals, humans and environments. With the increase of intensive farming and overuse of antimicrobial drugs in both animals and people, pathogens are becoming more resistant to the very medications that might have been effective in treating zoonotic disease.

What COVID-19 is teaching us

COVID-19 is a reminder that human health and the planet’s health are closely linked. There are about 8 million species of life on the Earth, of which humans are just one. These include an estimated 1.7 million unidentified viruses, recognized as the type that may infect people, existing in mammals and water birds.  Any one of these could be transferred to humans, if we don’t take preventative measures now.

The most fundamental way to protect ourselves from coronaviruses is to prevent destruction of nature, which drives the spread of diseases

Where ecosystems are healthy and biodiverse, they are resilient, adaptable and help to regulate diseases. Pathogens that are passed around among reservoirs in animals are more likely to reach dead–and effectively die off–where there is greater diversity.

Genetic diversity builds disease resistance among animal populations and decreases the chances of outbreaks of high-impact animal diseases, according to a 2017 IPBES report.  Conversely, intensive livestock farming can produce genetic similarities within herds and flocks, reducing resilience and making them more susceptible to pathogens. This, by extension, exposes humans to a higher risk.

UN Environment

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Environment

2020, one of three warmest years on record

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The COVID-19 pandemic was not the only long-term crisis the world will remember from 2020. In terms of climate change, the year was also one of the three warmest on record, and rivalled 2016 for the top spot, the UN weather agency said on Wednesday. 

“The confirmation by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) that 2020 was one of the warmest years on record is yet another stark reminder of the relentless pace of climate change, which is destroying lives and livelihoods across our planet”, said Secretary-General António Guterres

He pointed out that at 1.2 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels, the world is already witnessing unprecedented weather extremes in every region and on every continent.  

“We are headed for a catastrophic temperature rise of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius this century”, he warned. “Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top priority for everyone, everywhere.”  

Powerful force 

La Niña, which began in late last year, is expected to continue into the early-middle part of 2021.   

“The exceptional heat of 2020 is despite a La Niña event, which has a temporary cooling effect”, said WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas.  

La Niña and El Niño effects on average global temperatures are typically strongest in the second year of the event. 

“It is remarkable that temperatures in 2020 were virtually on a par with 2016, when we saw one of the strongest El Niño warming events on record”, he added. “This is a clear indication that the global signal from human-induced climate change is now as powerful as the force of nature”.  

The extent to which the continued cooling effects of La Niña this year may temporarily diminish the overall long-term warming trend remains to be seen.  

Following atypical patterns  

WMO pointed to sustained heat and wildfires in Siberia, diminishing Arctic sea ice and record-breaking hurricanes in the Atlantic as being among the climate events that most stood out in 2020.  

The UN weather agency also reminded that temperature is just one climate change indicator. Greenhouse gas concentrations, ocean heat content, global mean sea level, sea ice extent and extreme events are also factors. 

Backed by science 

WMO’s consolidated global temperature update incorporates information from five leading international sets of data.  

It also uses datasets that combine millions of meteorological and marine observations, including from satellites, with models to produce a complete reanalysis of the atmosphere.  

“The combination of observations with models makes it possible to estimate temperatures at any time and in any place across the globe, even in data-sparse areas such as the polar regions”, according to WMO.  

Looking to the future  

The Paris Agreement aims to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels. 

However, the global average temperature in 2020 had already approached the lower limit of the temperature increase that the Agreement seeks to avert.  

Moreover, there is at least a one-in-five chance that the average global temperature will temporarily exceed 1.5 °C by 2024, according to WMO’s Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update, led by the United Kingdom’s Met Office. 

The 2021 Met Office annual global temperature forecast also suggests that next year will again be one of the earth’s hottest years.  

Updating its provisional December report, WMO will issue its final publication in March, which will incorporate temperature figures, information on all leading climate indicators and selected climate impacts. 

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Environment

Step up action and adapt to ‘new climate reality’-Report

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Though countries have made progress in planning for climate change adaptation, there are significant financing shortfalls in getting them to the stage where they provide real protection against droughts, floods and rising sea levels, a new UN environment report has found. 

According to the 2020 Adaptation Gap Report, released on Thursday by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), as temperatures rise and climate change impacts intensify, nations must urgently step up action to adapt to the new climate reality or face serious costs, damages and losses. 

“The hard truth is that climate change is upon us,” Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director, said in a news release announcing the findings. 

“Its impacts will intensify and hit vulnerable countries and communities the hardest, even if we meet the Paris Agreement goals of holding global warming this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius and pursuing 1.5 degree Celsius.” 

Global commitment needed 

Annual adaptation costs in developing countries are estimated at $70 billion, but the figure could reach up to $300 billion in 2030, and $500 billion in 2050. Almost three-quarters of nations have some adaptation plans in place, but financing and implementation fall “far short” of what is needed, according to the UNEP report. 

Stepping up public and private finance for adaptation is, therefore, urgently needed. 

“As the Secretary-General has said, we need a global commitment to put half of all global climate finance towards adaptation in the next year … this will allow a huge step up in adaptation, in everything from early warning systems to resilient water resources to nature-based solutions,” Ms. Andersen added. 

Adaptation is a key pillar of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. It aims to reduce countries’ and communities’ vulnerability to climate change by increasing their ability to absorb impacts.  

Nature-based solutions 

The UNEP report also underscored the importance of nature-based solutions as low-cost options that reduce climate risks, restore and protect biodiversity, and bring benefits for communities and economies. 

Its analysis of four major climate and development funds: the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the Adaptation Fund, and the International Climate Initiative (IKI), suggested that support for green initiatives with some element of nature-based solutions has risen over the last two decades.  

Cumulative investment for climate change mitigation and adaptation projects under the four funds stands at $94 billion. However, only $12 billion was spent on nature-based solutions, a tiny fraction of total adaptation and conservation finance, it added. 

Cutting emissions will reduce costs 

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions will reduce the impacts and costs associated with climate change, according to the report. Achieving the 2 degrees Celsius target of the Paris Agreement could limit losses in annual growth to up to 1.6 per cent, compared to 2.2 per cent for the 3 degrees Celsius trajectory. 

UNEP urged all nations to pursue the efforts outlined in its December 2020 Emissions Gap Report, which called for a green pandemic recovery and updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that include new net-zero commitments.  

“However, the world must also plan for, finance and implement climate change adaptation to support those nations least responsible for climate change but most at risk,” the UN agency added. 

“While the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to hit the ability of countries to adapt to climate change, investing in adaptation is a sound economic decision,” it said. 

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Africa Today

Insecurity and bureaucracy hampering aid to Ethiopia’s Tigray region

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photo: UNFPA/Sufian Abdul-Mouty

Nearly three months after the start of conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, hundreds of thousands of people have yet to receive assistance, the United Nations reported on Wednesday, citing information from its humanitarian coordination agency, OCHA.

“Humanitarian assistance continues to be constrained by the lack of full, and safe, unhindered access to Tigray, caused by both insecurity and bureaucratic delays”, UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told journalists

“The UN and its humanitarian partners in Ethiopia urgently call on all parties to allow the immediate safe passage of humanitarian personnel and their supplies to the Tigray Region to be able to reach all people who desperately need assistance.” 

Over two million in need 

Mr. Dujarric said the UN continues to receive alarming reports of civilians being injured and killed in rural areas in Tigray, as well as of violations against civilians, though verification remains a challenge.  

“Aid workers have been able to deliver assistance in some areas, mainly in cities, where access has been granted by the authorities. However, the number of people reached is extremely low compared to the 2.3 million people we estimate are in need of life-saving assistance”, he said. 

The situation is particularly critical for newly displaced people and refugees, especially those who were living in two camps that remain inaccessible, according to OCHA

Humanitarians further warn that the majority of the 270,000 people receiving benefits through the Government’s Safety Net Programme have also been without assistance as banks in most rural areas have been closed since before the crisis began. 

“These are extremely vulnerable people who rely on monthly cash transfers to meet their basic needs,” said Mr. Dujarric.

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