COVID-19: A Planetary Disease

Covid-19 is a planetary disease and we humans are its cause: “The animals that infected us did not come to us; we went to seek them out.”

By Louise Delany | 2020-07-01 12:00:00

The disease that is now called “Covid-19” was first reported in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The World Health Organization declared it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on 30 January 2020.1

As WHO reported on 8 June 2020, by then there had been almost seven million confirmed cases of Covid-19 and almost 400,000 deaths.2 Covid has spread to every part of the world except Antarctica, and is almost certainly under-reported in many regions. Much is still unknown, but clearly is a highly infectious disease from which (so far) most people do recover. The most vulnerable and likely to die are those who are old and have pre-existing conditions. Its socio-economic impacts will be profound.

What caused Covid-19?

Human beings have always caught diseases from contact with animals. Indeed, most infectious illnesses probably once were zoonotic—that is, of animal origin. Such new diseases have been increasing over the last century, for an obvious reason. Zoonotic diseases require the transmission of biological material between species, for which at least some minimal contact is needed. And there is now more human-animal contact than ever before.

What percent of all current infectious diseases are zoonotic? Estimates vary between 65% to nearly 75%. These new diseases include HIV and AIDS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), MERS, the 2009 pandemic H1N1 influenza virus, and Ebola. These are the ones we’ve heard about, but a new infectious disease emerges about every four months in humans.3

The underlying causes include human population increase (expected to reach around 9 billion by 2050); human food crises; human conflict, decreasing animal habitat; climate change (influencing the environmental distribution of pathogens); deforestation and forest degradation; environmental devastation affecting human and animal populations; biodiversity loss, forcing animals into human contact; the breeding of animals under artificial conditions; and the capture, trade and killing of animals for human consumption, therapeutic purposes, or use as exotic pets. The illegal trade in wildlife is the fourth most lucrative global black market (estimated at around US $23 billion) after drugs, people, and arms smuggling. It explains why so many species are endangered.

Many of these factors are amplified by globalized trade, communication, criminal networks, and consumerism.

While the precise details are unclear, the primary source of the virus seems to be bats. The virus was probably passed on to another animal (perhaps pangolins) and found its way to a Wuhan wet-market.4 (Such markets provide animals freshly dead, dying, or alive and killed on sale.) Pangolins are the most widely traded wild animal in the world, although this is illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Many animals in wet-markets were already injured by their capture and transport. “There may be 40 species—birds, mammals, reptiles— stacked on top of each other,” writes Christian Walzer, chief global veterinarian at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “The mixing of air and bodily secretions allow viruses to exchange, potentially creating new strains—a cauldron of contagion.”

Now we are in the “Pandemic Era” and can expect continued outbreaks. We cannot be surprised by the emergence of Covid, and we must expect other new diseases to impact on humans, with consequences for health system overload, human suffering, and economic meltdown—unless change occurs.

Human activity has resulted in the disastrous state of the planet, of which Covid is just one symptom. In response, there have been mass political movements, scientific research, and work by international organizations. Here let’s review the risks and most promising solutions.

Banning wildlife trafficking and wet-markets

In April a group of 339 animal welfare and conservation organizations appealed5 to the World Health Organization to work for banning or regulating the trade in wildlife. Other appeals have won the cautious support of a few officials (although not particularly WHO), including the acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Bological Diversity, Gustavo Fonseca.6 China has already taken some action in this area, although this does not seem to apply to body parts.7

There are, however, arguments against complete bans, including their enforceability, the risk of trade being driven underground, and business interests, both large and small.

What about international health law?

Since 2007 there has been an agreement—“International Health Regulations 2005 (IHRs 2005)”—among 196 countries, including all states belonging to the World Health Organization. The IHRs set out a process for identifying possible pandemics (called in WHO language “Public Health Emergencies of International Concern” (PHEICs) and for follow-up action. The IHRS also require countries to develop biosecurity controls at their borders on an on-going basis.

It was the SARS epidemic of 2002-03 (caused by a coronavirus) that prompted the developing of the IHRs 2005. The previous 1969 version of the IHRs had been completely inadequate in guiding effective action. SARS provided the urgent impetus for a fundamental reshaping that was finalized within a short period.

The IHRs 2005 has undoubtedly been a major force in managing public health emergencies over the last 15 years. It has been effective (to varying extents) in managing subsequent outbreaks and PHEICs since SARS, including MERS, Ebola, and several new influenzas.

In the current Covid pandemic the IHRs have been an important management tool, perhaps primarily through their role as “governance by information.”8 However, criticism will doubtless increase over coming months, for several reasons. The IHRs do not have an explicit role in preventing or managing a new disease outbreak until it is almost too late. Their defined purpose is to:

“prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease in ways that are commensurate with and restricted to public health risks, and which avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade” (italics added.)

In other words, the emergency provisions can only apply when a disease crosses borders, and any action is limited by the avoidance of interfering with international trade. This is not what you call prevention! All diseases have to start somewhere, and true prevention and management should begin before, not after, any disease crosses borders.9

The events leading to PHEICs occur mainly in poorer countries—those with the least ability to detect, manage, and prevent the spread of disease to other countries. Some critics are now suggesting that the IHRs should have more of a role in relation to possible pandemics rather than those which have already crossed borders.

There will undoubtedly be a review of the IHRs once Covid appears better controlled. This is unlikely to address fundamental issues, such as whether the IHRs could aim at preventing zoonotic transmission. But in principle, at least, any review could at least consider whether “international spread” must be a prerequisite for emergency action.

International environmental law

Neither calls to counter direct risks (such as wildlife trafficking bans) nor ideas for reforming international health law offer much hope for effective action. Does international environmental law suggest a way to reduce such global crises as Covid?

Unfortunately, overall, international environmental law has achieved little. Indeed, the world’s environment is just getting worse.10 However, it is our only hope and we have to make it work.

Nearly 50 years ago, the 1972 Stockholm Declaration was adopted as an initial international framework for the environment. Later came the World Charter for Nature (1982), the Rio Declaration (1992), the Earth Charter 2000, the Draft Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth (2010), the principles of Climate Justice (2011), and the Hague Principles (2018).

These declarations and proposals have evolved and been influenced by several emerging ideas:

First, the “earth systems” approach considers the world as an interconnected system—not just as oceans or forests or land, but as a whole system that life itself controls. Biological processes are recognized as interacting with physical and chemical processes to create the planetary environment.11

Second, there are new scientific findings that suggest that the planet has boundaries and “safe operating limits” that we, as inhabitants, must respect.12

Third, there is growing awareness that environmental issues are connected to other challenges. Notably, the burgeoning “One Health” approach addresses jointly such matters as zoonotic diseases and planetary health.13

Fourth, there is greater knowledge of indigenous approaches to the relations between human beings and the environment. This awareness is even being incorporated into legal principles.14

Fifth, the nations of the world are increasingly adopting common policy commitments, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Sixth, many approaches to human governance are becoming earth-centered. For example, “Earth jurisprudence” is a legal philosophy that sees humans as only one part of a wider community of beings. The welfare of each member of that community depends on the welfare of the earth as a whole.15

There are numerous proposals for a new international environmental framework, and they are not all alike. For example, some are anthropocentric, advocating that a healthy environment is necessary to enhance human life and wellbeing, whereas others are concerned with the well­being of Earth and all its inhabitants, not only the humans.

Four recent initiatives are gaining traction and, in response to the urgency of Covid, may yield guidelines that can actually be implemented.

The 2000 Earth Charter

In 1987 the UN World Commission on the Environment and Development produced its report, Our Common Future. It recommended a new international charter for sustainable development.16 A number of NGOs did draft such a charter, which was launched in 2000. It emphasises the duty to preserve the Earth’s ecological system, but is now somewhat dated: for example, it does not refer to earth systems science or planetary boundaries.

“Earth trusteeship” is the concept, proposed in 2018, that Earth itself has interests—to live, survive, and thrive—which our legal system should recognize.17 There should be legal mechanisms allowing citizens and institutions to speak as trustees for the benefit of Earth.18 The legal strategy behind this approach has long been used to protect the interests of those who cannot speak for themselves, such as guardianship of infants.

In 2018 the Hague Principles were adopted, calling for a universal declaration on human responsibilities and earth trusteeship. The 17 global declarations on human responsibilities proclaim the duty of all human beings and States to protect Nature; and announce that human rights are grounded in our common membership in the Earth Community.19

UN Global Pact for the Environment

The most recent major initiative, the UN Global Pact for the Environment, was prepared under the auspices of the French government. The UN General Assembly adopted it in 2018 as a resolution entitled Towards a Global Pact for the Environment. It had been intended as a legally binding treaty, but this proposal was rejected in favor of a non-binding political declaration, to be deferred until the fiftieth anniversary of the Stockholm Conference. The UN General Assembly reaffirmed this approach in a vague way and authorized the declaration to be part of a high-level meeting to take place in February 2022.

What to do next?

The Sustainable Development Goals remains as a major policy framework to which there is some global commitment. An immense amount of work has gone into them but the SDGs are not law, hence are not binding, and have never been funded by the international community to enable their achievement. Covid makes the SDGs even less likely to be attained by the intended date of 2030.

The only legal initiative with potential traction at present is the Global Pact. But the Global Pact is not now intended to be legally binding, its contents are weak, and it makes no attempt to establish legal or governance institutions, nor to protect the Earth’s ecosystems. Its anthropocentric approach has misled the world into our present state. As it stands now, the Pact cannot address the ecological crisis of the 21st century.20

But perhaps the Global Pact could be revitalized with an earth systems approach that takes account of planetary boundaries and the obligation of States to protect the community of life. Klaus Bosselmann suggests that the Pact could include elements of the Earth Charter, along with the Hague Principles.

Somewhat similar ideas are expressed by Edgar Fernández and Claire Malwé, who characterise the Global Pact as “very distant from an Earth systems approach.” They argue for incorporating a planetary boundaries approach in international law.

As we tackle the coronavirus crisis, the World Wildlife Fund insists that it is now imperative for governments to sign on to a New Deal for Nature and People, a globally binding agreement to halve our footprint on nature, stop the loss of natural habitats, and stop the extinction of living species.21 However global officialdom has not picked up these ideas.


There is no promising movement for radical change to tackle the drivers of this pandemic. The only policy project with much international support is the SDGs, which are non-binding; and the only legal initiative is the Global Pact, which at present is wholly unambitious, lacking in legal force, and uninspired in its values.

There are, however, many ideas and initiatives with real potential. Perhaps, just perhaps, they could invigorate the Global Pact in time for adoption at Stockholm in 2022. Here are my ideas for action:

The Stockholm conference will occur only two years from now. That is a very short time for international law-making, but the need is urgent. Knowing the effects of Covid, we cannot wait two years to address the factors that caused it.

While we wait, animals will continue to be traded and killed in distressing circumstances, heir habitats will be destroyed, and the chances of disease transmission will continue multiplying. Such actions require political will, so the public needs to become aware of the organizations that are addressing the risk factors and the underlying causes.

Naoko Ishii, the chair of the Global Environment Facility of the UN/ World Bank, has said:22

“For the sake of our planet, we need to address the causes of the coronavirus outbreak, which at their deep roots are the same as the drivers of climate change, environmental damage, and biodiversity loss. Our modern economic development has been so powerful and driven human systems too close to the natural ones, which has made it easier for pathogens to travel from wildlife to humans, then spread around the world through a global network of trade and travel. We are living beyond the carrying capacity of our planet, putting human systems and natural systems on a collision course: COVID-19 is a manifestation of this fact. The fundamental cure and prevention for this will be to change how we live.”

Louise Delany is a lecturer in the Department of Health, University of Otago, New Zealand.

List of organizations


1 Information on the environmental causes of Covid-19 for this article is drawn from a range of sources, particularly Global Environment Outlook: Healthy Planet, Healthy People (UN Environment, 2019); UNEP Frontiers 2016 Report: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern (UNEP, 2016); also Karesh, W. A., Andy Dobson, James O Lloyd-Smith, Juan Lubroth, Matthew A Dixon, Malcolm Bennett, Stephen Aldrich, Todd Harrington, Pierre Formenty, Elizabeth H Loh, Catherine C Machalaba, Mathew Jason Thomas, David L Heymann (2012), Zoonoses 1: Ecology of zoonoses: natural and unnatural histories. Lancet, 380: 1936–45, 1936-1945.

2 CTV News. June 8, 2020.; Thiaw, I. (2020). Coronavirus : « Les animaux qui nous ont infectés ne sont pas venus à nous ; nous sommes allés les chercher ». Le Monde.

3 World Health Organization; see

4 The precise source of the coronavirus is unknown at this stage.The likely natural animal reservoirs for coronaviruses are bats. Prior disease outbreaks, like SARS in 2002-03 and MERS in 2013,are both considered to have originated in bat coronaviruses. Then, the virus jumped to humans via civets and camels, respectively.In the case of COVID-19, the intermediate animal group in the transmission chain is in question. Currently the main focus is on pangolins, which may have become hosts after being infected by bats kept in close quarters in wildlife markets where live animals are sold in China” (Global Environmental Facility, 2020).

5 Lion Coalition. (2020). Open letter to World Health Organisation [Press release].

6 Fonseca is also the Director of Programs at the UN Global Environmental Facility.

7 “At the request of the CITES Management Authority of China, the Secretariat has issued a Notification to Parties No. 2020/018 concerning China’s urgent measures regarding wildlife trade regulation on 5 March 2020. It states that on February 24, 2020, China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress adopted a Decision to eliminate the consumption for food of wild animals to safeguard people’s lives and health, which came in force with immediate effect.”

8 von Bogdandy, A. V., P. (2020). International Law on Pandemic Response: A first stocktaking in light of the Coronavirus crisis.

9 Broberg, M. (2020). A Critical Appraisal of the World Health Organization’s International Health Regulations (2005) in Times of Pandemic: It Is Time for Revision. European Journal of Risk Regulation, 1-8.

10 Kim, R. E., & Bosselmann, K. (2013). International Environmental Law in the Anthropocene: Towards a Purposive System of Multilateral Environmental Agreements. Transnational Environmental Law, 2(02), 285-309.

11 The Global Environmental Change Programmes. (2001). Earth System Science: An Integrated Approach. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 43(8), 21-27.

12 Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin, F. S., Lambin, E. F. … Foley, J. A. (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. Nature, 461(7263), 472-475.

13 The Berlin Principles on One Health. (2019). Also see: Whitmee, S., Haines, A., Beyrer, C., Boltz, F., Capon, A. G., de Souza Dias, B. F., … Yach, D. Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene Epoch: report of The Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on planetary health. The Lancet, 386(10007), 1973-2028.

14 von Bogdandy, A. V., P. (2020). International Law on Pandemic Response: A first stocktaking in light of the Coronavirus crisis.

15 From Harmony in Nature Website:

16 Mackey, B. (2020). “Toward a Great Ethics Transition: The Earth Charter at Twenty”, opening reflections for a GTI Forum, Great Transition Initiative (February 2020).

17 The concept of ‘earth trusteeship’ first evolved in academic writing. More formally, the Earth Trusteeship Initiative was established during the first Earth Trusteeship Forum, 10 December 2018, at the Peace Palace in The Hague.

18 Kotz, L., Kim, R. (2020). Earth system law: The juridical dimensions of earth system governance. Earth System Governance.

19 See

20 Bosselmann, K., & Botrel, M. (2020). Constitutionalizing international environmental law. La Revue des Juristes des Sciences Po, 18(18).

21 The proposal to ‘halve our footprint’, as argued by the World Wildlife Fund, reflects the “Half-Earth” concept expounded in Edward O Wilson’s book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (Wilson, 2016). Wilson’s ‘half-earth’ principle is animated by the same sense of moral commitment to nature and the planet that characterise many indigenous perspectives, earth jurisprudence, and ecological law.

22 Regulations (2005) in Times of Pandemic: It Is Time for Revision. European Journal of Risk Regulation, 1-8.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2020

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2020, page 17. Some rights reserved.

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