The Freeland Film Festival returned to Green Lake last weekend, with a focus on preventing future pandemics.
Although the festival was scaled-down this year due to the pandemic, it featured films, panels and shorts aimed at eliminating the root causes of pandemics and creating a world beyond pandemics.
Prior to the film festival, Freeland teamed up with the Vatican, The Independent and United for Regeneration to educate world leaders about preventing pandemics by protecting nature during a roundtable discussion Thursday, Sept. 2.
During the presentation, experts recommended urgent and practical steps that will tackle the root causes of pandemics.
Freeland Founder and End Pandemics Co-Chair Steve Galster explained that preventing future pandemics should be a priority because the COVID-19 pandemic has caused physical and economic damage for many.
More than 200 million people have been infected with COVID-19 globally, more than 4.5 million people have died from it and experts project the pandemic has caused more than $11 trillion in economic damages worldwide, Galster said.
“If we don’t address the root causes of pandemics, future ones could be much worse,” he said.
Aaron Bernstein, interim director of Harvard’s C-CHANGE studying human health impacts of climate change, discussed the origins of pandemics.
He said pandemics like COVID-19 result from viruses that reflect humans’ changing relationship with other life as “the root cause is the movement of pathogens from animal to person.”
While technological innovation has made human life easier, it has “left the rest of life on earth in dire straits,” Bernstein noted.
He identified key pandemic risk factors such as deforestation, livestock handling, as well as wild animal trade and consumption.
“We swim in a common germ pool with all animals,” Bernstein said, noting emerging infections have been rising in recent decades. “If you look at the pathogens of animals, you’ll be looking at the first cousins or even siblings of our own diseases.”
He said regulating the travel of people and depopulating cities doesn’t address the root cause of pandemics as it doesn’t prevent pathogens from jumping between species.
Being proactive in preventing disease “spillover” would be more impactful than post-spillover interventions, Bernstein noted.
For example, preventing deforestation decreases spillover risk while also reducing climate change and protecting indigenous people’s rights, he said.
“The benefits that come with preventing spillover provide an offer that’s simply too good to refuse,” Bernstein said.
Similarly, World Health Organization member Dr. Catherine Machalaba noted most known human diseases, 61%, are shared with animals and more are emerging.
Factors driving disease emergence include deforestation, agricultural expansion, habitat degradation and fragmentation, as well as wildlife extraction/trade, Machalaba noted.
“These drivers are shared for multiple critical challenges that humanity faces,” she said. “When we think about biodiversity loss, when we think about climate change and disease emergence, these are shared priorities that we have to be working on these root causes.”
Machalaba described land use change as the “major driver” and root cause of disease spillover.
She said disease risk is not factored into environmental and social impact assessments when planning for land use changes, which means risk reduction isn’t built into project design.
“If we really prioritize assessing these risks ahead of time, we can very cost-effectively build risk reduction into project design,” Machalaba said. “Some projects will look very different. The equation between the cost and benefits of the development project may shift. When we think about disease risk, we can really build in smart investments and make sure we’re proactive and mitigating risks from the start.”
However, there is no global authority tasked with pandemic prevention, which means intergovernmental government organizations play an important role in managing pandemic risk and impacts, she noted.
However, coordination is lacking and is limited by priorities, mandates and resources as investments largely focus on preparedness and response instead of root causes, Machalaba added.
“We need to work upstream. You need to have multi-sectoral collaboration,” she said. “We need to understand the problem, and we need to work together to really focus on prevention before we see spillover events occur.”
End Pandemics Co-Chair Dr. Niall McCann presented a roadmap to ending pandemics. He emphasized humans’ connection to nature, which produces oxygen, water, food and even diseases.
He said human health, animal health and environmental health are connected and “the more we degrade nature and impact upon the health of animals, including wildlife, the more we put ourselves at risk.”
The four key components to ending pandemics include reducing demand for wild animals, phasing out commercial trade of wild animals, protecting nature and restoring habitats, as well as making farms and food systems healthier, McCann said.
“This road map provides a lasting vaccine preventing future pandemics by addressing their root causes and investing in planetary health,” he said. “... Our continued exploitation of wild animals is a public health catastrophe, as well as a conservation catastrophe.
“Viruses don’t discriminate between the legal trade and the illegal trade of wildlife. The legal trade must be restricted on grounds of public health and sustainability, and the illegal trade must be recognized as the serious organized crime that it is.”