Can We Use COVID-19 To Transition Towards A Greener, Healthier Future? – Climate Experts Weigh In
Sky clears up in New Delhi, India.

“I am not celebrating the fact that people can see the Himalayas or that the air quality is better in Madrid coming out of this virus, but what might come out of it is an awareness of how much human beings have contributed to the ongoing damage to people’s lungs, to our ability to drink clean water, to the harmful algae blooms in the Great Lakes, to the hurricanes and intense storms in the Midwest. Maybe it’ll be a wake-up call,” – Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Counsel (NRDC) and former US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator.

As skies clear and waterways clean up due to widely adopted lockdowns and quarantines all over the world, three prominent environmental health scientists and policy experts, Maria Neira, the World Health Organization’s Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health; Gina McCarthy, administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency under Barack Obama; and Aaron Bernstein, Director of the Center for Climate Health and Global Environment at the Harvard T. Chan School of Public Health, explored how environmentally unsustainable policies have predisposed vulnerable communities to COVID-19, at a webinar hosted by Harvard University last Monday in recognition of Earth Day.

Air pollution, mainly due to fossil fuel burning, makes people more vulnerable to serious illness from respiratory infections. In the case of COVID-19, emerging evidence is also revealing far higher death rates among people infected with COVID-19 and living in highly polluted cities. 

As economies start to open up, the experts urged governments to take time to rethink their priorities and offered a roadmap to invest in more sustainable transport, energy and urban policies that would make societies healthier as well as more resilient. 

“We have to use [the pandemic] to create a healthier society better prepared for emergencies, no doubt, more investment on our epidemic preparedness and response capacities at all levels,” said Maria Neira.

Maria Neira, WHO Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health

The pandemic has also underlined how both health, climate and environmental hazards in one part of the world can affect people on the other side of the planet, said Bernstein, a paediatrician by training.  

He described how he visited a family’s home, fully suited in protective gear, to examine a child suspected of being infected in the early days of the US epidemic. 

“As I walked into the room, dressed in my alien suit, and touched that child’s hand through the barrier of a synthetic rubber glove. It occurred to me – that child’s hand could connect me to a bat living in Asia. By the way, I work in Boston.” 

In looking forward into the future, the panelists emphasized that this pandemic, despite its devastation, does present a ‘shock’ that could change our economic system. Here, the Bernstein emphasized a transition into a green economy, and considered the present inequities between not just the global South and the global North, but within countries where the poor and marginalized often share an unequal burden of disease. 

“We cannot get out of this crisis at the same level of environmental pollution that we went in. Even before the crisis we were having 7 million primitive deaths caused by air pollution and we were very much vulnerable today. Our health was very vulnerable to climate change and the responses we need to provide are more important than ever,” said WHO’s Maria Neira.

Boys play on a beach in Kiribati, an island nation threatened by rising sea levels due to climate change.

As part of a Health Policy Watch’s continued coverage on COVID-19 and climate, here are some key excepts from the Q&A:

Air Pollution Predisposes Vulnerable People to Negative COVID-19 Outcomes

Q – Is there a link between air pollution and the severity of coronavirus? Do most polluted cities experience more severe coronavirus epidemics?

Aaron Bernstein – “For every small increment in air pollution [in long-term studies], there’s a substantial increase in death from COVID-19…This kind of air pollution makes people more vulnerable to respiratory infections and makes them more likely to die. You could pick any city in the world and expect to see an effect of air pollution on people’s risk of getting sicker with coronavirus.”

Maria Neira – “The evidence we have is pretty clear. And on top of that, of course, within those cities [that are more polluted], the people who are most at risk are people who are already sick, people who are poor, and in the United States, the evidence is strongly suggesting minority communities of color.”

Gina McCarthy – “We have to look at low income [groups] and we have to look at people of color, who are in this COVID-19 exposure. Actually, we’re seeing African Americans die at much higher rates than others in part because of their exposure to air pollution…they are already predisposed [due to high air pollution levels]; this is adding another layer of burden on their bodies. And they just can’t fight equally.” 

 Q – Considering that the southern hemisphere is moving towards winter shortly, could a colder climate be expected to increase the transmission of COVID-19 and /or its lethality? And if so, what would be the recommendation to scientists and policymakers?

Aaron Bernstein – “We don’t have clarity about what temperature means for the virus. It’s been thriving and warmer temperatures and colder temperatures as it is. And so I think the best thing we need to do is to have surveillance in place and the ability to test people at a broader scale as possible. And particularly in many cases among the poor.”

Aaron Bernstein, Director of the Center for Climate Health and Global Environment at the Harvard T. Chan School of Public Health

Addressing Climate Change To Better Mitigate Public Health Crises – A Holistic Approach Is Key

Q – If the coronavirus shows how effectively we can mobilize to confront a public health crisis, what does framing climate change as a public health crisis look like? 

Gina McCarthy – “We have to figure out how we can live healthy lives. We know now that we have a problem, not just with our ability to treat, but with our ability to prevent and that needs to be invested in. We have to get people to understand that…if you invest in stopping people from getting sick, which is what all environmental protection is about, then you save enormous money in lives, from having to spend the money to treat them on the back end.”  

Maria Neira – “Climate change is creating the conditions for the population to be extremely vulnerable and we cannot leave this crisis by not joining forces between all the efforts: the law, the legislation, the enforcement, the demands by the environment community and [through community mobilization]…We need to prove to the population that this is not a completed agenda….Our lungs have been made very vulnerable by the levels of exposure to pollution that we had for many years.” 

The COVID-19 Pandemic: A Strategic Opportunity To Promote A Green Recovery

Although it is “very difficult” for humans to learn lessons from the past, Maria Neira is “very optimistic” that the “new society” can do the right thing.

Q – How should countries limit air pollution to reduce the impact of coronavirus?

Maria Neira – “We need to avoid the temptation [of going back to] intensive use of fossil fuels or again intensive use of traffic, private cars, or going back to activities that will be considered as important to recover the economy…It has to be a green recovery, it has to be an investment, this time on maintaining the commitments for tackling climate change, on moving into a green and renewables and stopping the use of fossil fuels, and working as well on healthy cities, better urban planning and in the mobility of the new society….One of the most important benefits of this type of healthy planning on this new transition will be by the reduction of air pollution. So, this will require a lot of work from the scientific community, from the climate change, air pollution, energy, and sustainable development community, a community. We need to have a common narrative. We need to be very strategic.”

Q – What steps should governments take to reduce air pollution and prevent future pandemics like COVID-19? 

Gina McCarthy – “My biggest concern has been the stimulus dollars [to address the economic effects of the pandemic in the USA]. How you spend this money is going to be usually important. We know climate change and the challenges we face on air pollution are going to cost money, but they are also going to prevent public health damages, and we have to invest in a better future, and not go backwards.”

Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Counsel (NRDC) and former US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator.

Investment in Education, Science and Prevention: An Awakening For Governments ?

Q – Clearly, climate friendly policies can provide long term improvements to public health, but what would you say to local officials and governors coming out of COVID-19, what should be the first priority of local official and governance? Where should the priorities be in the first 12 to 24 months to address both COVID-19 and climate change?

Gina McCarthy – “[Governments] need to make science-based decisions, and they need to look at what healthy air and clean water looks like. And they need to use the laws that are in the books and create more to make sure that we’re protected.”

Maria Neira – “One of the lessons of this horrible shock is that the investment on the health systems, investment on education, investment on researchers and scientists is definitely a non-regrets investment. I mean having a very strong health system, well prepared to respond to this type of public health crisis has proved to be fundamental…This crisis is once again demonstrating how much the government needs to take the right decisions to protect people’s health…[we need to] invest in primary prevention [and build] a very good health system, trying to reduce as much as possible those horrible inequalities that are bad for the population, for the health of the people, but they’re very, very bad for the economy of the country as well.”

This story was published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story, co-founded by The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review.

Image Credits: Maria Neira, WHO.