Ocean Health and COVID-19: Environment-Health Nexus

IN YEAR TWO of the COVID-19 pandemic, while countries are still responding to or preparing for new waves of cases, efforts to address other global challenges resumed and are moving forward. On June 8, the UN organised a global virtual celebration for the 13th World Oceans Day. This year’s theme was “The Ocean: Life and Livelihoods”, resonating with the UN’s COVID-19 response and recovery plan. The convergence reflects the connection of the two agendas and the need to synergise global action to deal with different challenges.

The global health crisis has prompted extensive reflections on public health and the notion of planetary health has received increasing public and policy interest. Planetary health essentially refers to an approach to public health that links the health of people with the state of surrounding natural ecosystems. Evidence of this linkage is plenty. Examples include the correlation between environmental pollution and human health problems as well as the zoonotic origin of coronavirus diseases, such as SARS and MERS. One hypothesis of the origin of COVID-19 is that the virus originated from the nature and transmitted to humans from animals.

As part of the ecosystems, the state of the marine environment has important bearing on human health too. The oceans are crucial for many people’s food security, supporting source of nutrition for over three billion people. The quality of fish and seafood concerns food safety.

The inextricable links between human activities and oceans caused serious consequences on the marine environment. About 40 per cent of the ocean suffers from pollution, depleted fisheries, and loss of coastal habitats. Degradation in the marine environment threatens human health. One example is Minamata disease in Japan, which was caused by consumption of fish and shellfish contaminated with methylmercury.

Action to restore and protect ocean health began to gain momentum globally a few years ago. The UN convened the first Ocean Conference in 2017, during which governments adopted the declaration, “Our Ocean, Our Future: Call for Action”. This year marks the beginning of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030).

Southeast Asia has also seen the same trend, with a particular focus on dealing with marine plastic debris. This region faces a daunting challenge from marine plastic pollution, with Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam as among the biggest contributors of marine plastic waste in the world. To combat this growing threat, ASEAN adopted the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in ASEAN Region in June 2019 and launched the Regional Action Plan (2021-2025) last month.

The COVID-19 pandemic was viewed by some people as a window of opportunity for addressing environmental and climate challenges, including marine environmental pollution. Containment measures such as temporary shutdown of activities and travel restrictions substantively reduced emissions of various pollutants.

Nevertheless, other forms of pollution have increased as a result of the pandemic response, many of which have added stresses on the marine environment. Lockdowns resulted in a surge in plastic packaging, which would most likely end up in the oceans. As most governments prioritise pandemic response over other issues, previous environmental gains could be reversed during the pandemic, such as campaigns to reduce single-use plastics.

As social and economic activities are gradually getting back to normal in several countries, it is important to make sure that environmental initiatives will resume and stimulus packages take strongly into account the environmental impacts of economic recovery. The COVID-19 pandemic is a powerful reminder to care for the health of our surrounding environment, including the oceans, as it is closely linked to our health.

By The Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre)
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)
Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore