Safe Guarding Health in the Long-term – COVID-19 as a Catalyst for Climate Action

By CHASE Associate, Ronald Macfarlane, May 2020

On March 11, 2020 the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. This coronavirus will have huge impact on health and wellbeing in 2020 and beyond. The pandemic is a humanitarian crisis which demands a sustained effort to first contain the virus and second support people who are most impacted.

At the same time, humanity is facing another crisis of equal if not greater consequence – global warming. In its 2018 Special Report, Global Warming of 1.5 ºC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlighted the potentially disastrous effects that a 2ºC increase global average temperatures would have on ecosystems, communities and human health. In order to prevent this, we must drastically cut our greenhouse gas emissions over the next 10 years and then achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 – just 30 years away.

Can we make sure that we come out of this pandemic with a stronger, healthier, resilient and more equitable society?

COVID-19 and the health system

One of the initial worries with COVID-19 was – will our hospitals cope? Would the system collapse as more and more people came down with the disease as seen in several countries in Europe?

Canada’s health care system has been under stress for many years – long wait times, hallway medicine, over-run emergency departments. After a flurry of activity and postponement of non-life-threatening surgeries and other interventions, Canada’s hospitals have so far weathered the storm. However, this cannot be said of our long-term-care facilities and other homes for vulnerable people – as of 7 May, 2020, over 80% of reported COVID-19 deaths were in people living in long-term care. In Canada, there has been insufficient funding for long-term care for many years with a heavy reliance on underpaid part-time workers.  At the same time, a shortage of personal protective equipment has put frontline health workers at higher risk than needed.

COVID-19 and the economic impact

In addition to the increased cost of providing health care to people affected by COVID, there are the wider costs to society associated with the interventions introduced to manage the pandemic and reduce the spread of the disease. The widespread closure of non-essential businesses, restrictions on restaurants, closure of parks and recreation facilities, and the encouragement for people to stay at home, to go out only for essential tasks, and to maintain a 2-metre distance from non-family members has left a large number of people with reduced or even no income. The lockdown of non-essential workplaces has affected the employment of young people, women and those in part-time and casual jobs most

COVID, nature and climate

Nearly 75% of all new, emerging, or re-emerging infectious diseases affecting humans at the beginning of the 21st century originated in animals. The emergence of these diseases is closely related to the health of ecosystems. Logging, agricultural expansion, and mining are degrading the natural habitat which enables pathogens to spill over from wildlife into humans. In addition, climate change is putting pressure on these ecosystems; reducing their biodiversity and forcing animals to migrate.

A  climate, made hotter by climate change, could breed hardier viruses, making them more difficult for humans to combat.  At the same time a virus like the coronavirus will find it easy to spread among vulnerable populations such as those fleeing drought, famine and/or flooding, made worse by climate change. By phasing out the use of fossil fuels, we would improve air quality which would reduce the vulnerability of people to respiratory illnesses like COVID-19, while also reducing emissions that cause climate change.

Building resilience

COVID-19 has shown that the health systems around the world are not prepared to handle another pandemic or the extreme weather events that have been intensified  by climate change.  It is essential that we invest in health to increase our ability to weather these shocks. This means investing in hospitals, health centres, and public health systems so they can function effectively in times of emergency as needed. But more importantly, we must address the social inequities that put some  people at greater risk from these adverse events. This will require that all people have the food, shelter, education, income and access to services that are needed for health and well-being.

Years of neoliberal economic policies have eroded the public sector and increased disparities. These policies will have to be reversed – countries need to abandon the ideology of small government, heavy reliance on the market place, and economic growth that depends on ever increasing consumption of material goods fuelled by globalization.  

The way ahead

The coronavirus pandemic is a preview of what will emerge as the planet becomes hotter. How we respond to COVID-19 will also have implications for climate change. To prevent the emergence of diseases, we have to rethink our relationship to the earth. It is not possible to continue exploitation of our natural capital without paying attention to the biosphere, pollution, and the release of greenhouse gases.

Both climate change and coronavirus are massive global problems that require similar strategies to solve. To reduce the risk of future pandemics we must also reduce the risk of global warming. We need to find new ways of developing our economies – to create jobs, generate incomes and increase well-being without destroying nature.

To forestall the accelerating climate crisis and to reduce the chances of future pandemics, priority needs to be given to protection and restoration of the world’s forests. At the same time a rapid transition to a low-carbon society is an imperative if we are to forestall even greater devastation from climate change. Therefore, as governments around the world prepare trillions of dollars in economic stimulus to respond to the severe economic fallout of this pandemic we need to “put clean energy at the heart of stimulus plans to counter the coronavirus crisis (Dr. Fatih Birol, Executive Director, International Energy Agency).”  A healthy future depends on it.