The pandemic has revealed the limits of our conventional models of growth. As natural ecosystems collapse due to human activity and zoonotic diseases become more frequent, it is time to revisit our approaches and create developmental plans and policies which can anticipate and respond to such shocks in the future.

The health of the planet and of human beings are closely connected. It is a connection that has come under the spotlight during the Covid-19 crisis. The pandemic, in many ways, seems to be a reaction of the planet to human activity. In light of the current discord between ecology and economy, new models of sustainable development are needed to ensure harmony and reduce the risk of diseases of zoonotic origin and their boundless transmission. The Covid pandemic can thus be taken as a wake-up call and a point of transformation for many, with no return to the old ways. However, the “new normal” is yet to be built. This is due to several simultaneous and interdependent factors.

When you push human development into natural ecosystems, the natural balance of species collapses due to various reasons—loss of predators, parasites, scavengers and others—leading to an abundance of species that adapt to human habitats. Rats, bats and some primates are such species which can survive and multiply in human-dominated habitats, and these species put together host 75 percent of all known zoonotic viruses. Over the last 30 years, the world has seen a rise in emerging infectious diseases in humans and, of these, over 70% are zoonotic.

As we go through the coronavirus crisis, there’s a need for radical rethinking of how cities, agricultural lands, transportation and production are organized in order to reduce risks for human health and the overall health of the planet in the future.

After the SARS outbreak in 2003, China had banned wet markets selling wildlife and ocean water animals in one province, but then allowed them soon after SARS passed. That apparently brought us Covid-19 out of Wuhan in 2019. China reportedly still has not shut down wet markets selling wildlife, keeping loops open for another potential jump of a microbe into the human species. Add the factor of globalization to any such escape and you have the perfect ingredients for more global pandemics.

The last 30 years of development in many regions of the world have also been marked by rapid vertical urbanisation. Since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has caused the loss of half of the planet’s flora and plant wealth. Every year, we lose 10 million hectares of forests. Humans consist of 0.01% of all life on the planet, but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals. In light of the current pandemic, two hundred environmental groups have written to the World Health Organization, calling for a ban on wildlife trade. Never has there been a stronger call to stop such trade and markets. Oceans are overfished and choking with plastic waste that absorbs carbon dioxide, which in turn is acidifying the seas and harming the ocean flora and fauna. The ever-decreasing groundwater levels are also a response to rapid urbanization. However, in order to accommodate a population of 10 billion with a growing middle class, we need a radically new path. One that is not just centered around low carbon growth, but more effective sourcing of protein, fresh water and management of earth’s overall resources. This calls for new and stronger institutions for the environment—what has worked in the past 40 years may not be the sort of leadership needed for the next 40 years.

The social and economic shutdown due to the coronavirus has led to growing calls for nearshore production. The pandemic has accelerated de-globalisation. Nearshoring will definitely address the problems of the current hyper-globalised production chain systems. We’ve also seen that with critical Personal Protective Equipment production, new technologies such as 3D printing are making a resurgence in supporting the transition back to domestic production around the world.

In the medical and pharmaceutical industry, ever since the 1970s, cloth gowns and decontaminated and reusable masks were replaced with single use PPEs—plastic surgical gowns, masks and gloves. During the Covid crisis, there have been significant sightings of discarded gloves and other reusable stuff littering public spaces. The sudden increase in plastic waste and composition underlines the crucial need to reinforce plastic reduction policies, scale up innovation for sustainable and green plastics solutions, and develop dynamic and responsive waste management systems immediately. Greater efforts are needed now to prevent a second wave of discarded single-use plastic waste around the world. Moreover, the significant increase in cleaning products around the world in response to the coronavirus will no doubt soon end up in waterways and oceans around the world too. In this regard, the concept of circular economy, which has gained mainstream traction since 2015, and calls for all materials in manufacturing to be reused, recycled or be biodegradable, should find prominence in the new models of growth post-pandemic.

The Covid-19 test that is used to detect coronaviruses, known as a the PCR test (polymerase chain reaction), is a revolutionary technique which is not possible without an enzyme from a thermophilic bacteria, which had been discovered in 1969 in the hot springs of Yellowstone Park, Wyoming. Such tests would not be possible without the evolution of such enzymes in extreme environments. Besides various medicines like quinine and atropine, myriad anesthetics and a slew of drugs that are plant extracts, there are about 40 enzymes discovered that occur naturally and show activity against various coronaviruses. These may hold promise for future treatment modalities for the current pandemic and for diseases that are yet to come. Hence, it is important to understand the wealth of our natural environments which can be of immense use for mankind, before they are lost forever to activities of human growth and development.

We all have seen how lockdowns to contain the Covid crisis led to improved air quality—levels not seen since 1955—with declines in particulate matter and harmful greenhouse gases. This shows that it is possible to rapidly reduce air pollution when the world comes together. The commensurate fall in the price of oil (combined with overproduction by Russia and Saudi Arabia in an already saturated market) has also prompted greater debate on how rapidly the world can transition to more sustainable energy sources before we hit irreversible planetary tipping points.

In conclusion, as we humans have become more numerous and concentrated in cities, as deforestation has brought these generalized species closer to us, and as countries like China, Vietnam and others in Central Africa have tolerated wet markets where these virus-laden species were mixed with domesticated meats, we are seeing more zoonotic diseases spreading from animals to people. These include SARS, MERS, Ebola, the bird flu, swine flu and, of course, Covid-19. But the lesson learnt from all this is that we are messing up nature with the way we live. It may sound crazy but a periodic shutdown of life may be the much needed “new normal” where nature will get a chance to rejuvenate herself. This can be a way of life until we arrive at solutions that ensure the simultaneous well-being of the economy and the ecology.

The writer is a medical doctor (pathologist) and holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of London. The views expressed are personal.