COVID-19 and climate change: What can we learn about saving lives?

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by Mona Sarfaty and Richard Carmona

The novel coronavirus has exposed the dangers of ignoring experts and data. It is also abundantly clear that public health and health care delivery are the foundations upon which our social, cultural and economic lives are built and when the foundations are threatened, everyone must act. 

This crisis also illuminates the importance of addressing another looming health emergency: climate change. The time frame is different but just as urgent.

COVID-19 and climate change are real but different health emergencies. The novel coronavirus is a public health emergency caused by a new virus — COVID-19 — which has rapidly spread through communities across the world. Conversely, climate change is a slow-motion public health emergency, exacerbated by health crises associated with sudden events such as extreme weather and wildfire.

Both of these emergencies are of environmental origin and point to something that every student of public health learns: the environment is one of the factors that affect our health. While the window of opportunity to limit harm may be the next few weeks for COVID-19 and the next few years for climate change, both will cause hundreds of thousands to millions of deathsworldwide unless urgent action is taken.  

Government must be transparent — even about the hardest truths — concerning health emergencies because science and facts matter. Science helps us understand the health challenges we face and how to respond effectively. The public needs accurate, evidence-based and scientifically sound information to understand the actions they and their communities must take to protect health — for COVID-19 and for climate change. 

When governments and industries downplay the magnitude of risk, deny scientific facts, disseminate false information and obfuscate the truth for political or financial gain, we lose precious time in mobilizing action to save lives

Strong public health systems are essential for prevention and health protection. Public health experts have warned for years that a pandemic was inevitable. Yet our government failed to maintain the public health capacity, expertise and resources required to mount a rapid and coordinated response to COVID-19. 

Local health departments face the same challenge when confronting climate-related heat events, floods, wildfires, hurricanes and emerging infectious diseases. Strengthening our public health infrastructure must be a priority to protect health in the face of multiple emerging health threats.

We are all in this together. None must be left behind in any health emergency. Pandemic and climate change are both global in nature; neither respects national borders and no one is immune from the impacts. Only cooperative action across cultures, geographies and governments will effectively control a pandemic or curtail dangerous global climate pollution. 

Both remind us the health of the world’s haves and have-nots are intertwined. Paid sick leave and health care access for testing increase the ability of low-wage workers to self-isolate if sick. Support for a just transition increases the ability of energy-poor nations and impacted communities to better prepare for an uncertain future.

An ounce of prevention is still worth a pound of cure. Our best protection against infectious disease is prevention through vaccine development and use. We will never have a vaccine to reduce climate pollution, but we certainly have the technology and know-how to rapidly reduce climate pollution now. Failure to do so rapidly will lock in ever-more severe and potentially irreversible climate changes with truly catastrophic health consequences.  

Our response to a health emergency can help create a healthier future. Access to health care and paid sick leave will reduce the spread of infectious disease now and improve the lives of millions of low-wage workers and their families. 

Reducing climate pollution will save millions of lives each year by cleaning our air and water, and reducing heart and lung disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and obesity through improved nutrition and healthier transportation. 

We all have a role to play. COVID-19 and its lethal impacts are a wake-up call to pay attention to scientists’ warnings on climate change. The climate health emergency may not yet be upon us as visibly as COVID-19, but the need for action is just as urgent. 

As soon as we have the ability to move towards long-term solutions, let’s demand that governments, business and the media take heed of what climate and health experts are telling us: We urgently need transformative energy, transportation, public health infrastructure and other policies that will protect and promote our health and safety in the era of climate change.  

Few were heeding the warnings about COVID-19 in December and January, when decisive, coordinated action could have saved many lives. On the climate health emergency timeline, our March will be 2030. We need our warning to be heeded now.

Dr. Mona Sarfaty is a family medicine physician and executive director of the Medical Society Consortium for Climate and Health, based at George Mason University. Richard Carmona was seventeenth surgeon general of the United States, appointed by President George W. Bush. He currently teaches at the University of Arizona.

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