• Ronald Law

Climate and Health Actions in the Time of COVID-19: Now or Never

Almost a year after the then-novel coronavirus epidemic broke out in Wuhan, China to become the COVID-19 pandemic of today, we are still hunkering down for our safety and doing the best that we can to emerge out of this crisis. At least now, there’s a reason to be hopeful, as science is moving at an unparalleled speed to deliver safe and effective vaccines to the world. With this, it can be said that the end is already in sight for COVID-19.

We hope this is also the case for another global health crisis—climate change. With the recent release of the 2020 Lancet health and climate report--the most worrisome so far, and the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, the global health community is sounding the alarm bell anew for bold and swift actions against climate change in the time of COVID-19.

Understandably so, COVID-19 response was prioritized for the better part of 2020. There had actually been positive but short-lived gains in our climate parameters at the height of the lockdowns--bluer skies, cleaner air because of decreased emissions—but this contributes very little to addressing the problem. In the midst of the pandemic, climate change reared its ugly head once more with a slew of wildfires, droughts and tropical cyclones affecting vulnerable countries and communities, complicating the already dire health issue.

During this pivotal moment, one fundamental question should be asked: If we can display the same level of global solidarity and humanitarian intensity to put an end to the pandemic, why can't we do the same for climate change, a problem that preceded and will surely outlast COVID-19?

Dubbed as converging crises, COVID-19 and climate change are two issues that should not be treated separately. We cannot wait for COVID-19 to end to start and continue with our climate actions. Two crises at the same time, which are both equally important, are almost impossible to manage; to start somewhere, it will be helpful to draw parallels between the two issues.

The two issues intersect at the level of human impacts to the environment. As studies show, COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease with important transmission links between animals and humans—human encroachment into environmental ecosystems impacting on animal habitats and wildlife is believed to be the main culprit. There is already indefensible evidence that climate change is human-induced primarily due to use of fossil fuels and deforestation.

The convergence of COVID-19 and climate change is dramatically being realized now at the level of human health impacts. The global cases and deaths of COVID-19 to date are already running in the millions. This is definitely a serious matter to attend to.

Response to COVID-19 is compounded by health and disease burden from climate change--extreme temperature, sea-level rise, air pollution, extreme weather events causing meteorological disasters, nutritional, mental health and other non-communicable diseases like hypertension and chronic lung diseases, and climate-sensitive infectious diseases (dengue, malaria, typhoid fever, cholera, leptospirosis among others)—which have been happening for a longer time frame already and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.

Notwithstanding the severe repercussions of the pandemic, these long-standing and wide-ranging health impacts that are mediated through several pathways arguably make climate change a far graver threat and danger to public health than COVID-19.

Knowing the role of humans on COVID-19 transmission and climate change propagation and understanding the synergistic health impacts of both issues, the role of public health and the society must be clear. It should be to address the converging crises simultaneously. This cannot be negotiated nor postponed.

As we transition from COVID-19 response to recovery, we have to learn some good practices from successful COVID-19 responses in different parts of the world.

Active surveillance of cases to assess magnitude of health issues, strategic risk communication to communicate health risks, health promotion to influence healthy behaviors, upgrading of health human resources and infrastructure to improve service delivery, harnessing technology to improve access to healthcare, cross-sectoral collaboration to get other sectors’ buy-in in health, people engagement to elicit full support for implementation of health programs, political will to achieve universal health coverage.

These are the same solutions needed to adapt to, be prepared for and resilient to the health impacts of climate change. We must strengthen health systems guided by these.

But to really deal with the climate change issue head-on, it is imperative to substantially reduce carbon emissions and keep global temperature rise below 1.5oC; otherwise, the health of the world’s 7.8 billion citizens may be jeopardized.

We can all do our part as we incorporate healthy and green actions in our recovery from COVID-19. The World Health Organization in its manifesto for a healthy recovery from COVID-19 prescribes the following actions: 1. Protecting and preserving nature, 2. Investing in essential services, from water and sanitation to clean energy in healthcare facilities, 3. Ensuring a quick healthy energy transition, 4. Promoting healthy, sustainable food systems, 5. Building healthy, liveable cities and 6. Stopping using taxpayers money to fund pollution.

These actions if done now as we further open our economies and when sustained in the long term can help flatten the climate curve.

The same health sector, the millions of doctors, nurses and health workers around the world defining the response to this pandemic can also shape the future of our only planet by leading the charge for these climate actions now in the time of COVID-19.

With multi-sectoral approach and international cooperation, this is a glaring opportunity that should not be missed if we are to build sustainable economies and protect the health and well-being of people better in the near and far futures.

Ronald Law is a physician, public health practitioner and academic. He is a faculty at the Center for Health and the Global Environment (CHanGE) of the University of Washington which hosted him as a US-ASEAN Fulbright visiting scholar. His research on health security explores the impacts of extreme weather events, global environmental change and infectious diseases on health systems and the adaptive capacities needed to ensure resilience.

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