40 Million Health Professionals Call On G20 Leaders To Back ‘Green Recovery’ From COVID-19 – Ahead Of Critical G7 Summit In June
Solar panels provide electricity to Mulalika health clinic in Zambia. Reliable power supply ensures reliable function of core health programmes. Green energy also creates local jobs and can fuel economic recovery in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, proponents say.

More than 40 million health professionals from 90 countries worldwide have issued an open letter to G20 leaders and their chief medical advisors, urging them to support climate smart  development in their plans for economic recovery from COVID-19. 

The appeal to the Group of 20  of the world’s most industrialized countries, supported by some 350 professional organizations, including the World Medication Association, says green growth is medically mandated – to save lives both from climate and air-pollution related threats which would also make societies more resilient to pandemics such as COVID-19. 

The call comes just ahead of a critical moment for climate-related investments – the upcoming G7 Summit now planned for the end of June, which is to convene leaders of the world’s seven most advanced economies to discuss pandemic recovery.  In a recent Tweet, US President Donald Trump, who is hosting the Summit, said that he’d like to convene leaders in person at Camp David, outside of Washington DC, sometime around the originally planned date, which was to have been 10-12 June.

“The amount of money governments and central banks are preparing to spend on Covid-19 economic recovery is so massive that it will inevitably shape humanity’s chances of climate survival,” noted a the Covering Climate Now initiative of Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation, in a recent blog. “If those trillions of dollars are invested in shoring up the industries and infrastructure of the incumbent fossil fuel economy, it will lock in rising temperatures for decades to come, ensuring climate catastrophe. If those trillions are instead invested in transforming the world to a zero-carbon economy, they could rescue millions of people from unemployment and poverty and open vast investment opportunities for businesses, while perhaps also preserving a livable planet in the bargain.”

Conflicting Signals in Global Economies

The health professionals’ call came as French President Emmanuel Macron announced an US$ 8.8 billion bailout of the French car industry, prioritizing development of electric vehicles, for which car buyers will receive a 12,000 Euro subsidy each. The United Kingdom has also said it would stress green growth in its recovery plans. And many European cities have created “pop-up” bicycle lanes to ease crowding on public transport systems in the COVID-19 era – a move that has been celebrated by cycle activists.

Cycling has become a more popular way to get around during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, in many more countries, returning to business as usual seems to be a bigger priority, and fossil fuel power development is still occuring apace across most of the developing world.

China is expanding its coal power capacity at home and in investments in South-East Asia and Africa. Australia is developing the world’s largest open pit coal mine to supply fuel to India. Japanese environmentalists are mounting a campaign against their country’s planned investment in a coal-fired power plant in Viet Nam.

Existing and planned coal power production (carbonbrief.org)

In the Eastern Mediterranean Region, Israel has largely spurned the power of solar in favor of a heavy dependence on its new offshore natural gas reserves.  The equally sun-drenched countries of Turkey, Cyprus, Greece and Libya are bitterly vying for control of other Mediterranean gas reserves. And African countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo aim to develop untapped shale oil sources, some in sensitive rainforest areas.

Air Pollution – SARS COV-2 Virus Synergies
Pedestrians in Bangladesh cover their faces to keep from breathing in dust and smog. Air pollution takes 22 months off the average life expectancy in Bangladesh. (Photo: Rashed Shumon)

Long before COVID-19 came onto the stage, WHO data reported that air pollution causes some 7 million people to die prematurely every year, as a result of air pollution-related heart attack, stroke, respiratory illnesses and cancers.  

In the COVID-19 pandemic, people with the same heart and lung conditions, as well as cancers, have been dying from the new SARS-COV-2 virus in far greater proportions – thus the link to air pollution, including from fossil fuel sources, and ultimately climate change.  Several studies of mortality from the pandemic also have drawn an even more direct connection, including sharply higher COVID-19 mortality rates among people living in more polluted areas of Italy and the United States. 

“Before COVID-19, air pollution – primarily from traffic, inefficient residential energy use for cooking and heating, coal-fired power plants, the burning of solid waste, and agriculture practices – was already weakening our bodies,” the letter from the health professionals  states.

“It  increases the risk of developing, and the severity of: pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, heart disease and strokes, leading to seven million premature deaths each year. Air pollution also causes adverse pregnancy outcomes like low birth weight and asthma, putting further strain on our health care systems.

“A truly healthy recovery will not allow pollution to continue to cloud the air we breathe and the water we drink. It will not permit unabated climate change and deforestation, potentially unleashing new health threats upon vulnerable populations,” states the letter, referring to these as drivers that have increased the transmission of certain animal pathogens among human populations.

“We have witnessed first hand how fragile communities can be when their health, food security and freedom to work are interrupted by a common threat,” the letter also states. “”These effects could have been partially mitigated, or possibly even prevented by adequate investments in pandemic preparedness, public health and environmental stewardship. We must learn from these mistakes and come back stronger, healthier and more resilient.”

World Medical Associaiton & International Council of Nurses Among Signatories
WHO Tweet supporting the green recovery call to action by health professionals.

The signatories include the World Medical Association, the International Council of Nurses, the Commonwealth Nurses and Midwives Federation, the World Organization of Family Doctors and the World Federation of Public Health Associations, as well as individual health and medical personnel.

“Health professionals are at the frontlines of this emergency, and we are seeing the immense loss of lives because of acting too late,” Miguel Jorge, the president of the World Medical Association, was quoted as saying.

“We know now more than ever that healthy lives depend on a healthy planet. As we walk on the road to recovery, we need to build a system that will protect us from further damage. We need a healthy and green recovery.”

The appeal also was supported by the World Health Organization, which issued a Tweet stating that it, “aligns with this resounding call to action from the world’s health community.”

As Virus Threat Fades – Same Old Polluting Practices Return
The Dhauladhar mountain range of Himachal, visible from 200 km away in Punjab, India, after air pollution drops to its lowest level in 30 years

While COVID-19 related lockdowns in places such as China, India and northern Italy vividly illustrated how ‘blue skies’ can return once pollution is curbed, healthcare professionals fear that as the immediate impacts of the virus fade, the world is resuming the same old polluting practices without having learnt lessons that are critical to a “climate recovery”.

A climate-smart recovery would also reduce the likelihood of future pandemics as well as climate breakdown, they say.

The letter calls for recovery packages to prioritise investments in public health such as in clean air, clean water and low-carbon development, arguing that such investments would reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions while building greater resilience to future pandemics and creating more sustainable jobs. The signatories also warn governments to learn from the failures exposed by the pandemic to tackle vulnerabilities in the economy and safeguard frontline healthcare workers,  pointing out that when human health is compromised, the economy suffers.

Green Recovery Would Be More Profitable

A recent study from Oxford University, for instance, found that green recovery measures – such as conditional bailouts for fossil fuel-dependent industries to encourage them to shift to greener processes, and increased infrastructure to support electric vehicles and bicycles – would yield more jobs and a better return on investments than returning to business as usual.

“A healthy recovery recognises that human health, economic health and the planet’s health are closely connected; the pandemic has demonstrated that economic recovery must be achieved in ways that strengthen our global health resilience,” said  Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance“This is not the time to go back to business as usual, it is a time to take bold steps forward to create a future that protects both people and the planet,” she added.

The signatories argue that investing in greener economies would be more profitable – as well as reducing air pollution, promoting healthier diets, more walking and cycling, and protecting biodiversity. But clear economic incentives are needed to stimulate the transition:

“To achieve that healthy economy, we must use smarter incentives and disincentives in the service of a healthier, more resilient society,” the letter’s signatories state. “If governments were to make major reforms to current fossil fuel subsidies, shifting the majority towards the production of clean renewable energy, our air would be cleaner and climate emissions massively reduced, powering an economic recovery that would spur global GDP gains of almost 100 trillion US dollars between now and 2050. 

The letter has been sent to all G20 leaders, including the United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson, German’s Angela Merkel and China’s Xi Jinping, who have seen public pressure to adopt greener economic recovery measures, as well as to those leaders who have been criticised for a lax approach to the Covid-19 crisis or for using it as an excuse to weaken environmental protections, including US President Donald Trump, Russian Federation’s Vladimir Putin and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

Updated 27 May 2020

Image Credits: Shutterstock/TonyV3112, UNDP/Karin Schermbrucker for Slingshot , Rashed Shumon, Twitter: @Deewalia.