How forests can help protect us from disease

If you are living in an urban area like the majority of the world’s population, you are probably still adapting to the new COVID-19 “normal”. Life in the cities has been disrupted by strict social distancing and other measures. And amid this adaptation, you might not have realized how closely this pandemic is connected to worldwide deforestation.

But what do forest ecosystems have to do with a disease that makes you scared of going to the supermarket?

First, trees help to filter out air pollutants, while deforestation increases the risk of pulmonary diseases. Research has revealed a strong link between the severity of COVID-19 symptoms and air quality (links at the end of this article). In general, people living in deforested and polluted areas tend to have weaker respiratory and immune systems. As a consequence, mortality rates caused by the virus are higher in those areas.

Second, humans have been progressively destroying the natural habitats of species that carry Corona and other viruses. In a nutshell, we’re coming too close and making it easy for diseases to jump from one species to another, to jump from animals to humans. This is what happened with the current Coronavirus making the jump from bats, and this is what has been happening with Ebola.

But there is also some good news. Restoring vegetation with native tree species creates healthy habitats for different species, both those that carry viruses dangerous to humans and those that control the populations of virus-carrying species. These species would otherwise migrate to urban areas in search of food and potentially spread viruses and diseases.

Today, the link between ecosystem degradation and the occurrence of dangerous viruses is widely acknowledged in the scientific community. This awareness, among others, has instigated political action. Reforestation is on the agenda of governments around the world. The EU has just launched its New Green Deal. Private sector companies have started investing in forests. The momentum is growing and you can get involved in several ways.

What you can do:

  • As a citizen, you can get involved with advocacy initiatives focused on passing pro-forests bills, or volunteer with forest projects. You can also donate to forest conservation and reforestation projects. Just make sure that you choose an initiative that avoids invasive species or monocultures, as these reforestation strategies can have negative social and environmental impacts;
  • As an investor, you can diversify your portfolio with forest projects. This is a sector with good earning perspectives in the long term, while providing countless other benefits to people and the planet, such as storing carbon dioxide, improving soil fertility and water availability, stabilizing climate events, enhancing biodiversity, etc. You can read more about the potential of forest restoration in Forests Facts for Climate.

Lets jointly contribute to a world in which people and nature thrive. A world in which pandemics are less likely to cause harm. Let’s invest in our future, and protect and plant more forests, sustainably!

Selected articles linking deforestation and COVID-19

Coronavirus: Disease meets deforestation at heart of Brazil’s Amazon; BBC, 4 May 2020

Coronavirus Has a Strong Ally: Pollution; State of the Planet, 29 May 2020

Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States: A nationwide cross-sectional study; Harvard University, 24 April 2020

Covid-19 Is Accelerating ESG Investing And Corporate Sustainability Practices; Forbes, 19 May 2020

EU plans to plant 3 billion trees and massively expand organic farming; New Scientist, 20 May 2020

To prevent pandemics, stop disrespecting nature; National Geographic, 19 May 2020

The Dilution Effect; The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, 20 June 2016

Morand S and Lajaunie C (2021) Outbreaks of Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases Are Associated With Changes in Forest Cover and Oil Palm Expansion at Global Scale. Front

Title photo: Photo by Alec Douglas on Unsplash