SEATTLE, Washington — COVID-19 has left very few countries unaffected in just a few short months since its discovery. As of September 24, Johns Hopkins University reports that the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, has infected more than 31 million people worldwide with nearly 978,060 deaths. Amid this horrific loss of life and disruption worldwide, many are wondering how to prevent a future pandemic. One of the best ways might also be one of the most straightforward. Here is how alleviating global poverty could prevent future epidemics and pandemics.
Exploring the Causes of a Pandemic
Pandemics often start from novel viruses, like SARS-CoV-2, that do not have existing vaccines or drug therapies to prevent or treat the virus. Human immune systems have also never experienced it before, meaning there is no immunity from the virus within populations. Therefore, one of the best ways to prevent a pandemic is to stop an unknown virus from infecting a person in the first place.
Novel viruses are usually zoonotic diseases, meaning that they transfer to people from animals, most frequently other mammals. This means limiting contact with wild and livestock animals could prevent a virus from “hopping” to people from a different species. Exposure to dangerous wildlife is more common in areas of the world with high rates of population growth. Moreover, as settlements and cities expand into animal habitats, people exploit natural resources and agriculture practices. A study by the Brookings Institute found that areas at high-risk for a “spark” or the starting location of a pandemic are West and Central Africa as well as South and Southeast Asia. These areas have high rates of population growth and high rates of poverty.
Impoverished Populations’ High Risks
Many other afflictions people living in poverty face increase the risk of a virus outbreak becoming an epidemic or pandemic. Surveillance and monitoring of health are essential to detect a new virus. However, developing nations worldwide have a shortage of affordable healthcare workers and epidemiologists trained to detect outbreaks and novel viruses.
Furthermore, impoverished populations frequently lack access to proper sanitation and may live in dense housing in urban areas, both of which allow illnesses to spread more quickly. Alleviating poverty is closely associated with slowing population growth, better sanitation and better housing conditions, all of which could help prevent a pandemic.
International Humanitarian Organization’s Work
Efforts are already underway to alleviate poverty in these critical regions. For example, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) provides impoverished countries access to water, hygiene and sanitation services. Moreover, further support is going toward those experiencing humanitarian crises in West and Central Africa. However, there remains much room for progress. These impoverished areas are still at a higher risk for outbreaks that could potentially become a pandemic.
Alleviating Poverty in Wildlife Trade
Another way alleviating global poverty could help prevent future pandemics is through curbing the wildlife trade. The often illegal trade of wild animals takes animals that could be carrying novel viruses into bustling city markets. The source for these wild animals is frequently an area suffering from high rates of poverty.
In a 2016 interview for a BBC documentary, a poacher revealed that he was motivated to poach because he was impoverished and felt that poaching was a risky last resort to feed his family. Additionally, a study published in the journal Biological Conservation found that economic factors, such as poverty and economic inequality, were vital drivers of rhinoceros horn poaching in a study area on the border between Mozambique and South Africa. Furthermore, another study published in the International Journal of Biodiversity and Conservation noted that the exploitation of pangolins, an endangered and highly trafficked mammal, is spurred by unemployment and poverty. Although there are many facets of the illegal wildlife trade, alleviating poverty could prevent future pandemics at the source by decreasing motivations to turn to poach practices.
Efforts to prevent poaching often focus on increased enforcement of anti-poaching and anti-wildlife trafficking laws. Yet, some also focus on alleviating poverty. For example, the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) employs rangers to protect wildlife while including a local community in anti-poaching efforts by empowering women to protect and restore wildlife areas. Much more can still be done to alleviate poverty in local communities to prevent poaching. However, nonprofits like IAPF are taking steps in the right direction.
It is sometimes difficult to see how people’s circumstances can impact global day-to-day life and worldwide health. However, the world is highly interconnected, and the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a forceful reminder. An outbreak in one place in the world can quickly spread across the globe. Alleviating global poverty will help prevent future pandemics. It is the critical piece of the puzzle in building global resiliency and stopping this and any other pandemic.