Interview with Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, head of the climate change and health programme at WHO Headquarters.
In what ways are the Covid-19 and climate crises similar in how they affect people and their health?
Climate change in itself doesn’t cause COVID-19. We expect that weather, climate and seasonal variation may moderate transmission, but it is very clear that the virus can be transmitted in all parts of the world and in all climates, so in all situations it is absolutely essential to keep the strongest possible control measures in place.
Some parallels between the two are quite clear. One of them is that both COVID-19 and climate change have the greatest effects on those populations who have other underlying vulnerabilities. In the case of COVID-19, it is people with pre-existing conditions and who have poor access to health services, and it is also now very clear that the disease impacts people from black, Asian and minority-ethnic populations as well. So there is a massive equity unfairness issue.
We also see that with climate change: it is again those populations which have poor access to health systems, which have underlying conditions, that are most affected. So in each case, not only is it a massive threat to population health, it also widens health inequities. That is why it is important that we work on this at a global level and that we have to pay particular attention to those populations which are most vulnerable.
There are other connections between the two as well. The youth climate movement in the earlier stages of COVID-19 were saying treat a crisis like a crisis, respect the evidence, and protect the most vulnerable. For those reasons, they pulled their demonstrations off the streets at a very early stage. If you apply those principles, then that dictates the action and you end up with a responsible action which is addressing both issues. Some of the actions are exactly the same principles that have been used against COVID-19 and are also the same principles that will get us through the climate crisis: international solidarity, paying attention to evidence and acting early to protect the most vulnerable populations.
The pandemic has been described as a “warning shot” from nature, in regards to the crises of climate change and biodiversity loss contributing to its outbreak: do you agree with this sentiment?
The origins of this pandemic and most of the other serious pandemics that we have had in recent decades, whether that’s HIV, SARS or Ebola, they come out of the natural environment, particularly from wildlife. The natural environment is the ultimate source of all human health, and although we can manage those goods and services, and public health systems are important, without those underlying ecological systems there is no human health. If you turn off those services, that’s the end of your clean air supply, your clean water supply, your food supply. So we absolutely have to treat the natural environment with respect in order to maintain human health and the more that we disrespect it, the greater the risk of these diseases. There is evidence that the hotspots of transmission and emergence of these diseases, some of which turn into pandemics, tend to occur in places where humans have a greater impact on the natural environment.
The manifesto on a healthy green recovery that we launched (WHO Manifesto for a healthy recovery from COVID-19), the first item on that is to protect nature because it is the ultimate source of human health. There are many other things that you need to do to detect and control the disease once it has got out of the natural environment, but we are absolutely supporters of our colleagues in the environmental movement who are rightly saying that we need to protect the natural environment if we want to reduce the risks of this kind of thing happening again.
Post-pandemic, are there lessons and opportunities we can take from the coronavirus response to tackle climate change and attain the goals of the Paris Agreement?
There are absolutely lessons that we need to take from this. One of the first lessons is that society will do a massive amount to protect the health of their population. It would have been hard to believe two to three months ago before the pandemic really took hold that more than half of the world’s countries would institute strong lockdown measures and effectively put large parts of their economy on hold, because that was necessary to protect human health. The discussion about COVID-19 basically came down mainly to protecting people’s health and protecting people’s jobs and livelihoods and the extent to which those either reinforced each other or traded-off – everything else was secondary.
The good news is that these things actually align very well: many of the things we need to do to protect the natural environment will also bring very large public health gains and in many cases are economically beneficial as well. It is sometimes depicted that it could cost money to protect the environment and can we afford to institute environmental measures. In many cases the things that we need to do that are good for the environment would actually save us money, certainly in the long run, and will protect human health.
In the manifesto that we shared to lay out some of the headline items on this, one really concrete one is that we know the lockdown measures have brought an economic burden and that this is a really good time to stop throwing money at polluting fossil fuels. At the moment we are taking US$400 billion a year of taxpayer’s money and giving it to our most polluting industries to effectively subsidise them to drive climate change and air pollution. It’s a really good time to stop doing that, because those interventions are good for health, good for the economy and good for climate change.
We have seen in some of the world’s leading cities, Milan, Paris, London, they started putting into place measures to make it easier to walk and cycle to work, because that allowed social and physical distancing. In those cities there is a strong intention to make those permanent because they are good interventions not only for coronavirus but for the health, wellbeing and economic vitality and attractiveness of those cities. It is really important that we pay attention to that now because we also see that unless we make a conscious effort to do it, then it is quite easy to revert to those old polluting ways. In the early stages of quarantines, whether they were in China or in northern Italy or elsewhere, you could see that there were much lower levels of air pollution, just by accident because of the quarantine measures. Nobody wanted to put those measures in place, but the actual gains for air and water quality were very large.
Unfortunately in many places where those lockdowns have eased, those air pollution levels have come back again. That doesn’t have to happen, if we put into place the right measures now, we support the right industries, the right interventions, we can hang on to quite a lot of these benefits as we bring back economic activity in a way that actually promotes our health.
That is why we are promoting the manifesto. Our Director General (Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus) met with European development ministers and was emphasising that the WHO is of course concentrating on the emergency response and health systems, but we are also talking about how the actions that are going to stop people getting ill in the first place, some of the most important of those are environmental interventions.
With COP26 postponed, are you concerned that the pandemic might have delayed vital talks and action on climate?
The delay is unfortunate because the climate crisis is urgent, but we can make it work to our advantage. We have been in discussion increasingly with the UK climate presidency, who have always been supportive of health, but now that the COVID-19 crisis has hit, it has really brought home just how important health is as a motivating factor and how in fact the things that they have made priorities, which are around cleaner transport systems, more sustainable food systems, cleaner energy systems, getting off coal, finance and adaptation, we have been saying for quite a long time that those have an important health dimension and they are saying yes we really see now there is an important connection here.
There is a real opportunity to link the investments on COVID-19 recovery seamlessly into the commitments that are made for the renewal of the Paris Agreement and COP26. We can concentrate on getting the COVID-19 recovery packages right in a way that doesn’t compromise our future and incorporate those into the revisions of our NDCs [Nationally Determined Contribution). The world has woken up to that. The WHO will be an ally to the European Union in pushing forward agreements and investment packages which can hit those targets.
In terms of the intentions to make a recovery package which pushes us to a more sustainable future, we are aligned with that, to the extent that it protects the environment, promotes health, promotes a transition to a clean energy future and particularly promotes equity. We are absolutely on board with those intentions and it is our job to provide the evidence and the technical guidance to support that.