Climate vs. COVID-19: Wildlife filmmaker Malaika Vaz on four lessons from the crisis

In our Climate vs. COVID-19 series, experts tell us what the coronavirus can teach us about the bigger environmental crisis, and why prudence, not panic, is the solution.

by Malaika Vaz Published on : Apr 10, 2020

Humans are always in search of hope, and when it seems harder to find it in trying times such as these—we are ready to create and contrive fictions that bind us together. The internet is abounding with stories of wildlife bouncing back in the most surprising urban locales—from the canals of Venice to the rural villages of China—with many prophesying that the natural world is finally receiving the respite it needed to bounce back. 

Most of these stories are contrived, but more importantly, they act as a perilous placater of sorts, helping us believe that all that it takes is large scale shutdowns of human activity for a few weeks to undo decades of ecological devastation. It will take much more, and perhaps our response to this global pandemic can provide us with a few insights as to what it would take to tackle our other big planetary challenge of climate change. 

A visualisation of COVID-19 | Climate change vs COVID-19 | STIRworld
A visualisation of COVID-19 Image Credit: Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash.com

I do believe that the natural world can benefit from this period in time, as we combat COVID-19 and develop the right processes and systems to deal with climate change with the same precision and drive. 

Over the past few weeks, I have been thinking about the parallels between climate change and COVID-19—besides the disproportionate impact both have on certain communities—the spread of this virus has served as a reminder of the global bonds that bind us, and in many ways evidence of the tragedy of the commons as we all try to protect ourselves and our communities. What makes the struggle similar is the fact that in combating both COVID-19 and climate change, we have to be guided by global beliefs and conventions while having local community-driven responses. Here, as with climate change, no single woman or man is an island, and without global action at an unprecedented scale, we all are compelled to completely upend our lives as we know them and suffer severe consequences. 

Here are four insights from our response to the virus that can help us combat the growing challenges that our natural world faces—in a tangible way. 

1. Global coordination and localised effort: In response to coronavirus and driven by global directives, communities and state machinery across the world have mobilised and acted with remarkable co-operation to impose self-quarantining and provide food, supplies and protective gear to those in need. This is evidenced very successfully by the example of the Bhilwara district in India that has gone from being the epicentre of the virus in the country, to now providing the rest of India with a containment model worthy of emulating. Very often, people are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenges that our climate, ecosystem and food sources face and choose inaction as the easy way out. However, much like our COVID-19 response, we need to hyper-localise our efforts from community-led conservation of species as seen in various national parks and buffer forests in India such as Ranthambore, Pakke and Bandhavgarh amongst many others, to funding and amplifying the work of local conservationists like Sanctuary Asia’s Mud on Boots initiative to people-driven city planning etc. This model allows for local ownership and accountability, while also ensuring that context-specific actions are taken to protect the ecosystems that we depend on.

2. Reporting Matters: A meme a friend shared with me on Instagram perfectly summed up my sentiments on this issue - “Climate change needs to hire coronavirus’s publicist”. The media that we are exposed to, directly influences the world we create around us. The fact that billions of people across the world have been able to access news and information about this virus that has led them to make decisions to protect themselves and their family, is a testament to the power of the media. If we can spend a fraction of the broadcast time that has been allocated to covering COVID-19 on incisive, informative and in-depth pieces on the impact of climate change on ecosystems and communities and the ways that governments, corporates and individuals can work to innovatively mitigate this, we might be able to have the right civil society and political traction to make a difference. 

Scientists believe that the COVID-19 strain originated in bats and was passed on to humans from pangolins | Climate change vs COVID-19 | STIRworld
Scientists believe that the COVID-19 strain originated in bats and was passed on to humans from pangolins Image Credit: Vishu Vishuma on Unsplash.com

3. Re-defining our extractive relationship with our wildlife: Coronaviruses have existed for years, but scientists believe that this particular strain originated in bats and was passed on to humans from pangolins that acted as a vector at the insidious Huanan wildlife market in Wuhan, China. My work as a wildlife presenter and filmmaker has taken me to these wildlife markets in Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong over the past couple of years. During this time, I have come away from interviews with scientists, conservationists and traditional Chinese practitioners with an uncomfortable feeling about the double-edged sword that these wildlife hubs represent.

Illegal wildlife trade is fast destroying the planet | Climate change vs COVID-19 | STIRworld
Illegal wildlife trade is fast destroying the planet Image Credit: Malaika Vaz

Wildlife trade for consumption simultaneously decimates some of our planet’s most ecologically important wildlife while also exposing us to grave public health challenges due to exposure to toxic wildlife products. To protect our wildlife and ourselves, it’s imperative to shut down wildlife trade and associated trafficking pipelines forever.

  • Wildlife trade puts precious species at risk while also causing grave health hazards to humans| Climate change vs COVID-19 | STIRworld
    Wildlife trade puts precious species at risk while also causing grave health hazards to humans Image Credit: Malaika Vaz
  • Seized wildlife parts show a sorry state of affairs | Climate change vs COVID-19 | STIRworld
    Seized wildlife parts show a sorry state of affairs Image Credit: Malaika Vaz

There is no place for markets selling endangered species in 2020. Similarly, while we combat climate change by reducing emissions, we need to ensure that we stop destroying sacrosanct wildlife zones, decimating populations and razing down carbon sucking biomes that act as natural solutions to protect a deteriorating climate.

In all our actions, we need to be guided by the principle that a stronger, more resilient and diverse natural world is our strongest line of defense against everything from virus outbreaks to climate change. 

We need to create equitable and publically accessible health care systems | Climate change vs COVID-19 | STIRworld
We need to create equitable and publically accessible health care systems Image Credit: Tedward Quinn on Unsplash.com

4. Strengthening our health care responses: Mitigation is the key, but with numbers of both COVID-19 and climate change victims spreading across the world, we have already crossed some lines, and at this point strong infrastructure to reduce the impact of both is important. COVID-19 has led to financial breakdown for many families unable to afford treatment and access health care, while climate change-induced increases in vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue, drought-caused starvation and much more have disenfranchised entire populations for over a decade now. To protect our most vulnerable from both a global pandemic like COVID-19, and the long term impacts of climate change - we have to move away from austere governmental medical spending patterns and create equitable and publically accessible health care systems - that can help nurture, revive and protect the most hard-hit victims. 

Much like COVID-19, the spread of climate-change triggered diseases is only increasing | Climate change vs COVID-19 | STIRworld
Much like COVID-19, the spread of climate-change triggered diseases is only increasing Image Credit: Martin Sanchez on Unsplash.com

While we all see a growing death toll attributed to COVID-19, it’s much harder to put a quantitative estimate on the hundreds of millions of people who have lost their lives to climate change related, such as air pollution, environmental famine and degraded ecosystem related casualties. It’s also important to remember that climate change only increases the risk factor of many existing chronic and contagious diseases. The WHO estimates that climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 due to heat exposure, malaria, and childhood malnutrition amongst others. And when it comes to our amazingly complex and diverse wild world, climate change threatens over one million species with extinction today. It’s about time we brought all our passion, collective skill, mobilising power and action to the fight against climate change as well - with the understanding that just because we can’t see the impact of something viscerally in a rising death count delivered to our smartphones every day, doesn’t mean that we can ignore the evidence, science and data out there on how climate change devastates us deeply. 

Another important parallel between COVID-19 and climate change is that they both hit our planet’s most vulnerable and poor communities hardest. This might be a time for introspection, ideation and preparation for projects that can be implemented to positively impact our planet after this virus tides over, but more importantly, now is a time to be aware of the inequity of impact of COVID-19 and look out for the communities of people rendered most vulnerable by the virus outbreak. While we as the privileged can protect ourselves through our financial safety nets, online food delivery and lots of Netflix in the weeks ahead, most people on the margins are struggling to feed themselves and their families in these times. Look out for and help feed the communities of migrant labourers, domestic servants, orphaned children, transgender street dwellers and stray animals that you live alongside. Because for the first time in a while, as we stay indoors - the planet we live on can wait a few months but our most marginalised communities cannot. 

Globally, we are constantly dealing with issues that divide us deeply - but at this point in history we have a less polarising issue that can teach us immensely - and help us move towards a society that is more empathetic and action-oriented when it comes to tackling our biggest challenges - least of which is climate change. 

Click here to read other views from senior environmentalists, wildlife workers, economists and socio-political experts as part of our Climate vs. COVID-19 series.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this piece belong solely to the experts. They do not reflect the opinions or views of STIR or its members. STIR is only a platform to facilitate these views.)

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About Author

Malaika Vaz

Malaika Vaz

A National Geographic Explorer, TV presenter and wildlife filmmaker, Vaz focuses on creating documentaries to spur conservation impact. Her films on endangered species and human-wildlife conflict have reached millions of people on TV networks like Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. She works along with environmental organisations such as WildAid and the Wildlife Trust of India on wildlife trafficking investigations and initiatives.

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