Healthy forests stand sentry against COVID-19 impact

22 Sep, 2020

‘Collective effort by people to rebuild their bond with nature can help safeguard human well-being and environmental health’

By Dr. Sanjay Tomar, Senior Advisor and Aashima Negi, Jr. Communication Expert, GIZ

The COVID-19 pandemic has emerged as one of the most difficult global challenges that people have faced in recent history. The Indian government’s main focus has been to overcome the health emergency and implement rapid economic rescue measures. The impact of the lockdown measures by the government were felt by people across the country, whether living in urban, rural or remote areas.

Although the forest sector is traditionally seen as more resilient, because the harvesting cycles are longer than other commodities, its multi-faceted contribution to broader development targets bears testament to the central role forests will play in social and economic recovery in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis (FAO, 2020).

Importance of Forest Ecosystem Services for human well-being during pandemic

Since centuries, forests have played a major role in maintaining the ecological balance, contributing to biodiversity conservation, food security, protection of soil and water resources, mitigation of global warming and combating desertification. More than 1,70,000 villages in India are close to forests (FSI, 2000) and these forests provide a source of income and well-being, particularly to the forest-dependent communities. These communities also receive numerous Forest Ecosystem Services (FES) which provide a safety net, especially in times of crisis. However, the communities must also play their part to protect and conserve these forests for a sustained flow of FES which will continue to secure their livelihoods. Sustainable forest management practices, restoring damaged ecosystems and other nature-based solutions are vital to build on progress made towards the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of the 2030 agenda and Global Forest Goals and targets.

The total forest cover of the country comprises of 21.67% of the total geographic area of the country (India State of Forest Report, 2019)

Traditionally, high levels of rural to urban migration is a very common coping strategy, however COVID-19 is leading to reverse migration due to loss of employment opportunities in the urban areas. If the crisis continues, there will be an increase in reliance of the communities on forest goods and services and associated FES. This poses a challenge on ensuring how forests will continue to play a vital role in the wellbeing of people, without increasing the risk of deforestation and forest degradation.

©GIZ/Aashima Negi

Risk reduction of future pandemics by healthy forests

As of now, the prime focus of the government is on strengthening the health sector and rapid measures to recover the economy. But the pandemic also presents an opportunity to shift the global development paradigm to a more resilient, greener and inclusive economy. It is crucial to understand that degradation of ecosystems, forests and their unsustainable management practices will increase the risk of future pandemics. As per the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 75% of all emerging infectious diseases are transferred to people from wildlife – that is, they are zoonotic, which is also thought to now include COVID-19 (UNEP report, 2020)

Increasing forested area and biodiversity may reduce the risk of viral outbreaks indirectly through carbon sequestration. Climate change is projected to have primarily negative implications for human health, including by potentially increasing the habitable range of disease vectors, as well as the extent and duration of climatic conditions that are favourable to disease outbreaks (IPCC, Summary for policymakers)

Measures to ensure that forests provide a safety net for future pandemics

  • Encouraging participatory forest management practices on a large-scale will ensure participation of village communities jointly with government forest departments for restoring forests and ecosystems.
  • Halting deforestation and sustainable forest management practices should be encouraged for maintaining the environmental quality and reducing risks to human health. It is of prime importance that forests stay resilient, and forest-dependent communities are protected, especially during a crisis.
  • Local businesses which provide sustainable forest-based products should be strengthened for providing better employment opportunities for the communities, by linking them to allied market chains. A gradual shift in supporting these businesses has already been observed.
  • Working towards sustainable management of forests to reduce the risk of such pandemics should be integrated into the national and global level strategic plans. For example, integrating the contribution and importance of sustainable forest management practices in reducing future pandemic risks in the vision and mission for the United Nations Strategic Plan for Forests 2030. This can help strengthen the green economy and support in better preparedness if such risks eventuate in future.
  • Finally, strategies should be formulated at the national and local level for recovering and building back better after COVID-19, which directs towards the importance and correlation of restoring ecosystems, healthy forests and reducing human health risks.


The views expressed in this post are purely those of the authors.

©GIZ/Aashima Negi


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