The coronavirus pandemic is a preview of the types of global health threats that will emerge as the planet becomes hotter, and how it is tackled has implications for dealing with climate threats as well, health experts said on Tuesday.
“With COVID-19, we can see the urgency of it more readily than some of the impacts of the climate crisis,” said Mandeep Dhaliwal, director for HIV, health and development for the United Nations Development Programme.
But in both cases, “we will not be able to ignore anymore that we need to do something about the human activity that’s driving this,” she said during an online panel, part of this week’s Skoll Forum on Social Entrepreneurship.
The annual forum, which normally draws 1,200 people to the British city of Oxford, was being held online in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Growing destruction of forests and farming expansion are both driving climate change and bringing people into closer contact with wild animal diseases, Dhaliwal said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the coronavirus pandemic had its origin in bats, with early infections linked to a large live animal market in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Lung-damaging threats such as air pollution, driven by fossil fuel use that also drives climate change, also make people more vulnerable to respiratory illnesses like the coronavirus, Dhaliwal said.
Without addressing underlying factors making the pandemic so destructive – from lack of preparedness to underfunded and fragile health systems – the world will “keep lurching from outbreak to outbreak,” she warned.
Dr. David Nabarro, a special envoy to the World Health Organization (WHO) on the pandemic, said about a third of the world’s countries were on lockdown.
That was forcing leaders into “awful political tradeoffs” between protecting lives and keeping economies functioning – the kind of tradeoffs that could become more frequent as climate-linked disasters from wildfires to drought worsen, he said.
The crisis also showed how overcoming disasters required strong communities and how political leaders need to grasp the intricate connections of the planet’s life systems, he added.
“Once we realize health is, as you say, an apex goal for humanity – not just health now but health in coming generations – then perhaps we can weave together all we’re doing on sustainable development,” Nabarro said on the panel.
Gary Cohen, head of Healthcare Without Harm, an organization that works in 53 countries to make health care systems environmentally sustainable, said climate change, like coronavirus, was a “force multiplier” for economic and social injustices.
“Those living on the edge, without enough food, with poor or no housing, with no health care… those are the people that are going to suffer most. We’re already seeing that in the response to the COVID-19 crisis,” he said.
But Liz Diebold, who helps make investments for the California-based Skoll Foundation, which supports social change and businesses for good, said the virus offered some positive lessons for climate action.
“COVID-19 is really showing us when humanity is united in a common cause, phenomenally rapid change is possible,” she said, even on seemingly intractable problems.