A few days ago, I was invited by Emirates Nature-WWF to participate in the Connect with Nature Reimagine Youth Circle Series, where I had the opportunity to take part in an interactive dialogue with more than 200 youth from across the Emirates.
It was inspiring to see that during this unprecedented pause brought on by the pandemic, young people from across the UAE understand that environmental issues are intrinsically linked to our own health and well-being; and the COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and press the ‘reset button’.
2020 represents an unmissable opportunity to transform our relationship with nature and secure a sustainable future for people and the planet. The youth that I spoke with agreed that business as usual cannot go on, and that in addition to our economic recovery there must also be a nature recovery plan.
By breaking existential protective barriers against pathogens we lose the natural dilution and filtering services that healthy ecosystems provide humanity. Therefore, in addition to halting the spread of Covid-19, we must also work to address the root cause of the crisis, and not only the symptoms
It is clear that we must urgently recognise the links between the destruction of nature and human health, or we will soon see the next pandemic. After all, science has now shown us that 60-70% of new diseases since the 1990s have emerged through zoonotic diseases, meaning they jump from wildlife to humans.
A new report ‘COVID 19: urgent call to protect people and nature’ by WWF says that the environmental factors driving the emergence of zoonotic diseases are: the trade and consumption of high-risk wildlife, land-use change leading to deforestation and conversion, expansion of unsustainable agriculture and intensification, as well as animal production.
No beating around the bush
We can no longer afford to beat around the bush: the origin of this pandemic and the ensuing socioeconomic crisis is ultimately an ecological one. As we encroach upon and destroy wild spaces and the species that inhabit them, we are essentially destroying our first line of defence.
By breaking existential protective barriers against pathogens we lose the natural dilution and filtering services that healthy ecosystems provide humanity. Therefore, in addition to halting the spread of Covid-19, we must also work to address the root cause of the crisis, and not only the symptoms.
If we are to stand any chance of preventing the spread of other deadly pathogens we must curb the breakdown of our natural ecosystems.
I came across a poem posted by an Emirati designer on social media that helped me understand that this pandemic and its economic fallout may not be equally shared; “People say we are in the same boat in this pandemic, we are not. We are in the same ocean but not the same boat.
Some of us are on yachts, others are on ships — sturdy strong and safe. But most of us are on wooden boats. Others are clinging to debris and many others still are drowning”. Will the youth of our nation have the same opportunities for health and well-being after this pandemic?
Averting future pandemics
Can pandemics be averted in the future? Yes, but we need to ensure that we seek not only an economic recovery, but also a recovery for nature. We can see from our past mistakes that one cannot be realised at the expense of the other.
The understanding that economic success must be achieved in concert with the protection of nature is at the root of our cultural heritage. There are numerous stories of the late father of the nation, Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and his love for nature.
A tale special to many, including myself, is when the late Shaikh Zayed realised one of Al Ain’s oldest trees was going to be lost for the sake of building a new road. When he learnt of the proposed plan to cut down the tree, he demanded the tree be left in its place and the road be constructed around the tree instead.
Shaikh Zayed understood the link between the environment and human well-being — that we must coexist, and our progress cannot come at the cost of resources that are the right of our future generations.
Finally, I want to urge young people to continue to have important conversations, like the one we started together through the Connect with Nature Reimagine Majlis Series.
As a rule, we tend to associate with people who are similar to us, however we all need to talk to those people who are not convinced or do not understand why and how people and nature are linked to truly make a difference.
It is incredible how much you can sway other’s mindsets through your opinions and behaviours — you can drive consumption patterns as long as we are well-coordinated and working en-masse to change business as usual.
This pandemic isn’t the only thing that that’s contagious, positive energy is also contagious, so let’s keep this momentum going.
Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak is the Managing Director of Emirates Nature WWF. She is also Managing Director of the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and the Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi