Next risk? Coronavirus pandemic underscores climate health threats
COVID-19 is showing how far health systems are from being prepared for climate risks, from wildfires to changing diseases
By Laurie Goering
LONDON, May 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United States and Britain are among the countries worst hit by the coronavirus and have faced criticism for their handling of the pandemic. But only last year, they ranked as the countries most prepared for a major health crisis.
That suggests that when it comes to preparedness, "we're not measuring what we need to measure," said Kristie Ebi, a University of Washington public health specialist - adding that also applies to emerging threats from climate change.
From healthcare facilities built in the likely path of floods or wildfires to an inability to effectively track outbreaks, vulnerability to climate-related health threats is likely greater than we think, health experts said during an online event this week.
COVID-19 is now helping "every country measure and evaluate the (preparedness) of their health system", said Niranjan Saggurti, director of the Indian office of the Population Council, a health and development research non-profit.
In Africa, where the rich regularly jet abroad for care as national health systems struggle, the virus is sparking a rethink about how sturdy systems need to be, said Chris Gordon, a University of Ghana environmental scientist.
"I think a lot of world leaders in developing countries have taken COVID-19 much more seriously than other events because of the lockdown," he said.
"Privileged classes can no longer fly to the Western world or places like Singapore to get healthcare. They're stuck with the health systems they've created, and I think this is what has made them sit up."
That has led in some countries to plans for new hospitals and additional money going to research institutions to help investigate vaccines, Gordon said.
But he noted the virus was also making clear the extreme vulnerability of Africa's rural poor, who are often far from clinics, cook over open fires that aggravate respiratory problems and face water shortages and disabling heat.
"If you're doing manual labour in the fields and temperatures are in the high 30s or low 40s it simply reduces your ability to farm," he said.
"And if that food you're generating from your labour is what you use to survive, you obviously have issues with food security," he added.
In many parts of the world, governance issues are also "the whale in the room" for health system preparedness, with political barriers and bad leadership getting in the way, Gordon said.
Elena Villalobos Prats, a climate change and public health expert with the World Health Organization, said that two-thirds of countries have considered threats to health in national climate plans created as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Only half have strategies to adapt their health systems to climate threats, however, she said, and just 0.5% of international climate finance goes to health threats.
That is a big worry because "we have a globalising world gradually ramping up the conditions under which an extreme health crisis can be triggered," said Mark New, a scientist who sits on the South African Global Change Science Committee.
The question now is whether the current crisis can be harnessed to drive more awareness of global vulnerability and better preparation for the likely next big health threat - climate change, the experts said
"How can we use this crisis to capture people's imaginations and spur action? Bad things can indeed happen suddenly," said John Roome, a World Bank sustainable development director for South Asia.
"The situation we're in would have been unimaginable a few months ago, but you can go back now and see all the warnings it could happen. And the same thing applies to climate change," he said.