Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
NPR Health

Scientists Say The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Worsened Deforestation Worldwide


In the time that it takes me to read this sentence, the world will have lost a soccer-field-sized area of old growth tropical forest. That's how quickly deforestation happened last year. And there are concerns that the rate is increasing because of the ongoing pandemic. NPR's Nathan Rott reports on the connection between deforestation and disease.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: We've all heard or seen some version of this story at this point - with humans staying inside to slow the spread of the coronavirus, nature is getting a much-needed break.

EDWARD BARBIER: However, what's happening in tropical forests in particular is basically a field day for illegal activities.

ROTT: Edward Barbier is a distinguished professor at Colorado State University, where he focuses on the relationship between economics and ecology. And he says the pandemic is forcing more people, especially in developing countries, to lean on the land for money and sustenance. At the same time, government resources are being gobbled up by the COVID response, leaving forested areas unprotected and vulnerable to illegal clearing.

BARBIER: For agriculture, mining, logging - you name it.

ROTT: In Southeast Asia, Africa and South America, there have been reports of increased deforestation this year. None of that is good for the climate or biodiversity, but it's also really not good for the risk of future disease outbreaks.

Amy Vittor is an assistant professor of infectious disease at the University of Florida.

AMY VITTOR: As we destroy natural habitats, it's kind of like poking a beehive.

ROTT: That's because natural habitats, especially in the species-rich tropics, are home to countless pathogens - viruses, bacteria, fungi - bees, to use Vittor's analogy - that usually just buzz around in their own hive. But when humans come along and poke...

VITTOR: Stuff will change, and stuff will shake out.

ROTT: When a pathogen shakes out and jumps from an animal to humans, it's called a zoonotic spillover. And it's really common. Researchers believe 75% of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic. The coronavirus that's upturned the world is believed to have originated in bats. And a growing body of evidence suggests that by changing the Earth, we're making spillover events more likely.

CHRISTINA FAUST: So Ebola's, like, a classic example on that - recent deforestation predicts Ebola outbreaks.

ROTT: Christina Faust is a postdoc at the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State University.

FAUST: There are several pathogens that once you have a deforestation event, then you get spillover. And we don't know whether that's because we're losing biodiversity that otherwise would kind of help dilute that pathogen or if that's humans coming into the area and increasing their risky behaviors.

ROTT: Most likely, it's a combination of both. As the extinction crisis worsens and more species die off, ever-evolving pathogens have fewer and fewer non-humans to infect. At the same time, an increasing human population keeps fracturing the landscape.

Laura Bloomfield is a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University who's done work in Uganda. She says when you cut a road through a forest or cut out chunks of it...

LAURA BLOOMFIELD: You actually increase the number of edges between human landscapes and forested landscapes. So you can kind of think of, like, each of those edges as providing a potential opportunity for human-animal interactions.

ROTT: The kind of interactions that can lead to zoonotic disease. Bloomfield and other researchers say there are plenty of things we can do to limit those interactions. We could better monitor high-risk areas. We could protect more ecosystems, create more paths for wildlife to move without coming in human contact. We could also provide more aid to people in developing countries so they're not as dependent on the landscape. Some of these may seem far-fetched, given the economic woes afflicting the world. But one thing is clear - this is a global issue. And as Amy Vittor says, if we continue to poke the beehive...

VITTOR: We will continue to see these events occur.

ROTT: Nathan Rott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.