• Colm Ashe

Smoke Signals from the Amazon on the Next Pandemic


A virus is invading our lungs.


Not Covid-19. Its name is humanity—and it’s burning through the lungs of the planet.


Though it no longer flashes across our news feeds, the Amazon is still on fire. We cared for a flash in 2019. Then, Australia caught fire and our eyes darted to the next climate disaster. Now, the pandemic has commanded our attention. But this, too, shall pass and the wandering eye of the public will find a new drama to binge watch as the 24-hour news cycle spins our brains, round and round, rinse and repeat.


But will we ever get the message? We didn’t when the Amazon was screaming through scorched lungs.


The Amazon Is Still Burning


Deforestation was up 85% from 2018-2019, but the first quarter of 2020 brought another 55% increase as Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, makes good on his promise to open the Amazon for business.


Many who have tried to protect these precious ecosystems, from indigenous tribes to activists, have been brutally murdered. The killers––military officers, illegal loggers––act with impunity, emboldened by Bolsonaro and his open contempt for the native people of the Amazon. As these mercenaries blaze through the rainforest, hopes for a climate-conscious, post-pandemic world fades into the flames.


Last year, many of Brazil’s citizens choked on black smoke as it rolled in from the Amazon. This year is shaping up to be much more devastating. While the world is battling a disease that attacks the respiratory system, a bad smoke season is even deadlier.


Clogging Up The Carbon Sink


As these trees fall, the carbon stored in their roots rises, along with global temperatures. This means more wildfires worldwide. We’ve already shattered heat records in 2020. And thanks to winter heatwaves, the Arctic is melting faster than it can freeze.


Many are racing to cool the planet by planting trees, but it’s hard to keep up as we’re losing up to 10 billion trees a year. Plus, old forests are unparalleled in their ability to store carbon. The Amazon has always played a crucial role in sequestering carbon, but now that humans have mowed down so much of it, the rainforest is starting to emit more CO2 than it can absorb.


As the Amazon turns to ash, not only do we lose our best defense against climate change, we lose our biggest bulwark against future pandemics: biodiversity.


Biodiversity Is Preventative Medicine


Biodiversity is declining faster than any other time in history. Around a million species of plants and animals face extinction, not to mention the ones we’ve already erased from the face of the Earth. Now only a few species can survive—which is great news for infectious diseases.


When species are diverse, pathogens have a harder time hopping from host to host. They have to adapt to a new immune system with every invasion. West Nile virus only became a problem after bird migrations from Africa to the U.S. began losing woodpeckers and rails. When generalist species like robins and crows, began to make up more of the flock, the virus spread.


Nowhere is the lack of biodiversity more apparent than on factory farms. When pigs are piled on top of one another, a pathogen only has to adapt to one immune system––which has already been compromised by an unnatural diet of grain and antibiotics. Then, the virus can easily jump from pig to pig until it finds a host with similar immunity––ideally, a species so advanced that it can crisscross the planet in a day. That’s how we got swine flu.


What’s Next?


Three out of four new diseases that infect humans come from wildlife or livestock. New viruses are surfacing at an accelerating rate, yet humanity pushes deeper and deeper into the heart of the Amazon, disrupting ecosystems and stirring up new viruses that await in bat caves. And for what? To build more cattle factories and soy fields––petri dishes for the next pandemic.