WHO/Europe: Protecting nature protects health – lessons for the future from COVID-19

5 June 2020

This year, World Environment Day on 5 June focuses on “Time for nature” by celebrating biodiversity and calling for its preservation. Natural and diverse environments have profound impacts on health and mental well-being. They are the original source of the clean air, water and food that support healthy human societies. Nature is both the origin of infectious and vector-borne diseases and the source of medicines, including many antibiotics.

But human activity – deforestation, intensive and polluting agriculture, and unsafe management and consumption of wildlife and natural resources – is undermining these ecosystem services.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is tragically affecting people’s health, lives and livelihoods, it has also had a noticeable positive impact on our environment in just few months. In many places, reduced economic and transport activities brought about by measures to reduce the spreading of the pandemic have resulted in the short term in cleaner air, reduced carbon emissions and less noise.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres recently noted that COVID-19 is presenting us with an opportunity “to use the recovery to build back better” – not only socially and economically, but also by addressing urgent environment and climate change concerns.

Following this call, WHO published its “Manifesto for a healthy recovery from COVID-19”. Its first prescription is to protect and preserve the source of human health: nature.

Natural environments support us and need our protection

Human impact on the environment is increasing the risk of emerging infectious diseases in humans, over 60% of which originate from animals, mainly from wildlife. Plans for post-COVID-19 recovery, and specifically plans to reduce the risk of future epidemics, therefore need to go further upstream than early detection and control of disease outbreaks. They also need to lessen our impact on the environment to reduce the risk at its source.

Natural environments and accessible green spaces also play a direct role in health and well-being. They can mitigate climate change impacts such as extreme temperatures or flooding; reduce pollution in air, soil or water; and lower the risks of disasters caused by the combination of extreme weather events and land erosion, as in the case of flooding and landslides.

Natural settings also support active recreation and provide a place to relax and leave daily stress behind for a while. A recent study has shown that being able to spend time in nature is something that communities experiencing COVID-19 lockdowns have particularly missed.

As part of Sustainable Development Goals 14 and 15, it is the responsibility of all sectors to protect nature and biodiversity, and to maintain and enhance a variety of their direct and indirect benefits to health and well-being.

To compile evidence on the relationships between nature, biodiversity and health, WHO/Europe has established a dedicated Collaborating Centre on Natural Environments and Health at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, which will provide a first overview report in 2021.

Source: WHO/Europe.