On Earth Day’s 50th Anniversary – Next Generation Health Professionals Call For “Sustainable” COVID-19 Recovery
Melting glaciers could release millions of new bacteria to which people have never been exposed.

Will the blue skies and rainbows seen in Delhi and other heavily polluted cities of the world be a fleeting image of the COVID-19 lockdown – or can it signal a change in trends around the world about how countries treat their environments?  

Save the shot – it may not recur soon. 

“This drop of emissions of 6%, that’s unfortunately (only) short-term good news”, Petteri Taalas, World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Secretary-General told UN News 

While there has been an estimated 5.5-5.7%  fall in levels of carbon dioxide due to the pandemic, once the global economy begins to recover from the new coronavirus, WMO expects emissions to rebound. “There might even be a boost in emissions because some of the industries have been stopped”, Taalas cautioned. 

CO2 At Record Levels Last Year

The last five years have already been the hottest on record, WMO also noted in a report published Wednesday, coinciding on with the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day celebration on 22 April, 1970  – a date oft-used to mark the dawn of the modern environmental movement. 

Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rose to new records just last year, and levels were 18% higher on average between 2015- 2019 than in the previous five years, according to WMO’s Global Climate 2015-2019 report. 

Since CO2 remains in the atmosphere and oceans for centuries, “this means that the world is committed to continued climate change regardless of any temporary fall in emissions due to the Coronavirus epidemic”, the report states. 

Tackle COVID-19 and Climate Together

Even so, a growing number of both climate and health scientists and environmental advocates have called on global leaders to use the COVID-19 moment for a sharp about-face in the way societies produce carbon emissions, pollute air and water resources, encroach on biodiversity, and produce massive waste. 

“We need to tackle both, the corona pandemic at the same time we tackle the climate and environmental emergency,” said Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, in a video broadcast over Twitter

“This brief period of cleaner air should send a message to people to push for longer-term changes,” pointed out Maria Neira, director of the World Health Organization’s Department of Environment, Climate and Health.

“By lowering air pollution levels long-term we can help populations to be more resilient to the current pandemic – and any future health threat,” she said. She was referring to recent studies from the United States and Italy showing that people who  live in areas with higher air pollution levels, also had significantly higher mortality rates from COVID-19.  One already well-documented fact of the pandemic is that people living with pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory conditions have much higher risks of serious disease and death. And these diseaes, in fact, are often air-pollution linked.

“If we truly care about the health of our communities, countries and global commons, we must find ways of powering the planet without relying on fossil fuels,” said Neira. “When we eventually take off our face masks, we want to keep breathing clean air!”

Health Professionals Issue Massive Appeal

An open letter from 12 million young health professionals released on Wednesday demanded that governments “protect planetary health” as part of “sustainable recovery and relief efforts,” associated with CVID-19 lockdown.

“Why Earth Day is more important than ever”

The group urged governments to put “universal access to renewable energy” at the heart of COVID-19 stimulus plans, and redirect millions of dollars of fossil fuel subsidies into renewable energy. 

The letter also included a call for global and national leaders to better prepare for future pandemics by strengthening regulations against deforestation and illegal wildlife trading – which both increase the risk of emerging viruses spilling over into human populations and ecosystem degradation. Scientists largely believe that the novel coronavirus first jumped from bats to humans through an intermediary animal – tapped by some to be the pangolin – sold at a Wuhan wet market. 

The letter was signed by the UN Major Group for Children and Youth – which represents some 20,000 youth groups and 10 million youth – and the International Federation of Medical Students Associations – which represents some 1.3 million medical students around the world – among others.

“Failing to confront climate change will irreversibly harm future public health,” said one signatory, Julia Simons, a medical student who graduated early to join the pandemic workforce. She told Health Policy Watch, “COVID-19 clearly illustrates we are vulnerable, let us not forget our global security relies upon an Earth System that can support human life not weapons…This is a crisis but also an opportunity to build a better future together recognising our global interdependence.”

The professionals also called for governments to respond ambitiously to the current global pandemic, while preparing for the next one; embrace “people-centred politics” and follow through on making universal health coverage a reality. 

“COVID-19 is increasingly exposing the political, social, economic, and environmental fault lines in our society. As young health professionals on the frontline of this emergency, we will play an important role in saving lives and protecting our communities in the weeks and months ahead,” Lucy Fagan, global focal point for the UN Major Group for Children and Youth told Health Policy Watch. “But this is a critical inflection point. As we look to recover from this pandemic, we need to build back better – responding with a people and planet-centered approach to guarantee a healthier future for all.”

The letter was signed by the UN Major Group for Children and Youth – which represents some 20,000 youth groups and 10 million youth – and the International Federation of Medical Students Associations – which represents some 1.3 million medical students around the world – among others.

Biodiversity, Habitat Encroachment & New Diseases Like COVID-19 Are All Linked
Jungle burned for agriculture in southern Mexico

“Mother Nature has provided us with all the tools we need to protect humanity from the violent and life-threatening spread of viral pandemics, rising seas, extreme weather, spiking temperatures, degraded habitats, uncontrolled wildfires and other catastrophes built from the sheer avarice of the human race,” said the United Nations Development Programme in an Earth Day message.  

“On Earth Day, we look at how nations across the globe are harnessing the power of Mother Earth to heal herself and to protect her people from interconnected global crises that threaten to push millions into poverty, trigger mass migration, fuel ever-more powerful disease outbreaks such as the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In fact, the likely roots of the pandemic have been traced to the illegal hunting and capture of endangered wild species such as the pangolin, which are then contained in cruel conditions before being slaughtered on the spot and sold in Asian “wet markets”.  While some theories hold that the virus escaped from a Wuhan laboratory, no one disputes that it was of natural origins.

Pangolin, Manis javanica

And already in Asia and Africa, epidemics ranging from H1N1, HIV/AIDS to Ebola and lesser known Nipa virus have also been traced to human encroachment into forests and consequent habitat destruction, as well as the hunting, capture and consumption of wild animals, also known as “bushmeat”. 

So far, those deeper drivers have not featured prominently on the agendas of policymakers, who are understandably focused on the nuts and bolts of containing the current outbreak, and  treating those who become ill. 

However, without attention to the underlying drivers, epidemics and even pandemics such as COVID-19 will occur more and more frquently, in the future, health emergency experts acknowledge – even if they paid scant notice to Earth Day.   

“It is clear that the animal to human species barrier has been breached once, and it can be breached again,” warned Mike Ryan in a WHO press briefing on Wednesday.

He added that he would welcome any opportunity to explore more thoroughly with China the origins of the COVID-19 disease. 

“It is important to understand where that came from; that is good science.  We have a team working closely on those issues with the OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) and FAO (Food and Agriculture Organziation).  We would be delighted to work with international partners and at the invitation of the Chinese government in order to be able to carry out a really good investigation around the animal origins….. We very much look forward to that opportunity.” 



Image Credits: Michal Balada/Shutterstock.com, Twitter (UNSplash/ Guillaume de Germain), Jami Dwyer, Piekfrosch/wikipedia.

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